I can’t quite put my finger on why I’ll miss Senator John McCain so much. I seem to have this feeling that I knew the man, which of course I didn’t. What made him seem so familiar and special? I suppose it has something to do with the personal attachment to presidential candidates that we feel here in New Hampshire during primary season.
I always made a point to see McCain when he was in my hometown of Peterborough. The first time was at an ice cream social in the summer of 1999, early in the run up to the 2000 primary. A small crowd of about 30 people partially filled a meeting room in the 100-year-old brick Town House. My husband and I brought our nine-year-old daughter to see grass-roots politics in action, basically bribing her with ice cream.
McCain, along with his Straight Talk Express bus, was about to become the darling of that New Hampshire primary, which he won by 17 points defeating George W. Bush. But on that day, you wouldn’t know it. He gave a short, no-frills stump speech in the basement of the Town House and then opened the floor to discussion.
When he asked for questions, my nine-year-old’s hand shot up as if she were vying to be chosen for an elite kickball team. I pressed lightly on her outstretched arm to push it back down. I figured that talking to Senator McCain was serious business for the adults in the room. Besides, I had no idea what was about to come out of my kid’s mouth. McCain took notice (it was hard not to), nodded his head in my daughter’s direction, grinned, and said, “Yes, young lady, what is your question?”
She framed it succinctly without hesitation, “There are too many kids smoking at my school. What are you going to do about it?”
McCain seemed to take great pleasure in that moment. I’m guessing it had something to do with our daughter’s spunk. But no doubt he was also delighted to answer a question that led directly to some talking points about anti-tobacco legislation that he was currently sponsoring. Our daughter had unwittingly thrown him a softball.
After a 15-minute question-and-answer session, McCain went around the room and shook everyone’s hand. Each and every one of us. He chatted up my daughter with special attention.
After that, we were hooked. We saw him multiple times at the Town House. I even ran into him on the street in front of the bookstore once as he was walking downtown with a small swarm of reporters around him. I later discovered that McCain was often in town because he’d developed a particular fondness for Peterborough, holding the last Town Hall meetings of both his 2000 and 2008 primaries there.
Regardless of the setting, McCain was a perfect fit for the Granite State. He always came across as an affable, charming rascal. A maverick and a middle man, the senator had no airs. He just spoke his mind. He deeply appreciated bipartisanship and his ideas often resonated with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. His record backed his words. His bipartisan initiatives in Congress included major legislation on campaign finance reform and the pursuit of significant immigration reform as a member of the Gang of Eight. He pursued these aisle-crossing alliances for one simple reason: he thought it was good for the country.
Beloved by many in our state, McCain was sometimes referred to as New Hampshire’s senator from Arizona. This is high praise in a place where participation in the presidential primary is considered an intramural sport. We talk politics along with Red Sox scores as a matter of course. Our state representatives comprise the third largest legislature in the English-speaking world (after the British Parliament and the United States Congress). In a state of 1.3 million people, this means that virtually everyone in New Hampshire knows someone who has held state office and we freely share our opinions with them.
We feel it is our duty to talk straight. And we live by our words in small cities and towns in which we need to get along with our neighbors. We speak our minds respectfully (mostly) and move on. We don’t like bullies. And we loved McCain for playing the game in much the same way.
McCain’s appeal also had to do with his willingness to buck his own party when he felt it was warranted—most recently when he voted against repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Of course, this doesn’t mean he wasn’t a conservative Republican most of the time. He was. He just didn’t let his pack dictate his every move.
He made mistakes. The selection of Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate in 2008 was a major error. Refreshingly, he was able to publicly admit this and other mistakes too. This characteristic elevated him to the kind of citizen our founders imagined: imperfect, yet principled and dedicated to the flourishing of the republic. No one needed to tell McCain the difference between right and wrong. He had an innate moral meter. This didn’t mean he used it all the time. Who does? But he knew when he’d overstepped his bounds and accepted the consequences.
Mercurial at times, McCain could be a hothead, a statesman, a taskmaster, and a truth teller. He was quick with a quip. It made him all the more relatable; he was human like us. He took chances and, yes, failed at times. When he did speak forcefully it was often to defend not just policies, but the truth. As in a frequently quoted video clip in which he corrected an attendee at one of his 2008 campaign rallies who called President Obama an Arab: “No, ma’am. No ma’am. He’s a decent family man and citizen…”
Even as he entered his eighties, McCain never felt like an old-school relic. He was a walking, talking Golden Rule who was unafraid to take down jerks and tyrants in defense of his country. His virtues—the ones that columnist David Brooks talks about as eulogy virtues—were on display each day. We didn’t need McCain to die to recognize his character traits of courage, honor, duty, and honesty.
My 28-year-old daughter texted me several times in the 24-hour period that began with McCain’s decision to stop treatment for brain cancer. She was deeply saddened by the news. She now works in D.C., in politics herself. I have no doubt that her career was influenced in some small part by her brief encounter with McCain when she was nine.
When his death was announced, I heard it first from her. Neither of us are Republicans and, still, the loss was searing. She and I agreed that his death represented more than the passing of an elder statesman. It felt like the death of the country’s integrity, a loss of someone who knew how to defend our institutions in essential and necessary ways. Then she said something you rarely hear about any politician these days.
“He was wonderful,” she said.
Just that. He was.