My new respect for Senator John McCain

On the last page of the most recent Newsweek magazine (dated April 23, 2007 and featuring some guy named Imus or something on the cover), George F. Will has a piece titled, “John McCain, Undeterred.”  Now, before I get into it, please understand that I do not participate in politics and I do not vote.  I believe that “the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men…and setteth up over it the basest of men” (Daniel 4:17, KJV).  Indeed, sometimes it truly is the basest of men!  (Actually, it is a more robust religious belief than that one verse alone would indicate, but that’s for another post!)  But, regardless of your political orientation or preferences, I think it is an article worth reading.  You can find it online here.

By saying this, I’m not endorsing Senator John McCain’s politics or his stance on any particular subject.  But knowing that he is running for president for what is likely his last time, AND knowing that the presidency has been his goal for a long, long time and a goal for which he has sacrificed much, I appreciated some things that I heard him saying recently.  Not for his stance, in and of itself, but rather because it seemed a politically unwise stance to take given the sentiment of the times, and yet he takes it anyway.  Senator McCain continues to support not only the current “surge” of troops in Iraq, but the principle of staying in the war, even investing more heavily in it, until it is unquestionably won.  And, as best I can tell, he states his position clearly and passionately, as unpopular as it might be.  And he is willing to risk his hopes of ever being president to be so clear about his convictions.  As Mr. Will says in his column:

“Vietnam produced an antiwar movement in America; Iraq has produced an antiwar America. McCain knows this, but is undeterred. During Vietnam, McCain risked and nearly lost his life. Regarding Iraq, he is risking the great goal of his life.”

I agree with Mr. Will’s sentiment, expressed early in the column:

It is stirring and poignant to watch McCain, by acting presidential — like a leader — putting at risk his long-held and exhaustingly pursued dream of being president.

I agree.  For me, it really is stirring.  I follow politics enough to know that I do not agree with Sen. McCain on a number of things.  But I respect someone who — in this day and age, or any other — is willing to publicly stand for his principles and accept whatever consequences may result from that stand, even if it means jeopardizing the one thing he may want most in the world.  To be president, you must be popular.  And those who wish to be president these days seem willing to perform whatever verbal and moral contortions they need to perform in order to avoid saying anything unpopular — anything that a majority of Americans might disagree with — whatever their “true” beliefs.  And it is easy to begin to wonder if those running even have “true” beliefs.

I’ve certainly seen the same philosophy at work in our high schools.  As a high school teacher, I saw too many students spend their personal integrity to achieve that precious “A” on their report card (or, for some, that precious “not-an-F”).  Being the AP Calculus teacher, I had a great number of “honor” students pass through my door.  But I recall telling one class that the name of the “honor” program should be changed to the “advanced” program or the “accelerated” program — chiefly because I saw so very little “honor” present in too many of the students who were cheating their way through it.

That was not true of all of them, to be sure, and many of them genuinely earned my respect for the integrity they displayed in my classroom.  But for too many of them, their integrity was something they could cash in for the sake of whatever else they considered more important: grades, getting to go on the band trip, not getting dropped from the team, etc.  And unfortunately, I have to admit that many public schools (and, I assume, private, as well) create the perfect environment for incubating such an approach to integrity.  The end generally justifies the means, even if the means involves dishonesty and deception.

And by the time you’re in the public eye and running for office, truthfulness seems so far removed from the business that even the sheerest veneer of pretense is considered acceptable:

“Well, Mr. Reporter, we all know what my stance really is on that topic, but let me take some time to string together a collection of nouns, adjectives, and verbs into some very vague sentences that could never definitively be taken as actual evidence of that stance…”

“Yes, Mr. Reporter, that’s a good question.  As you’ll notice, I’m not commenting directly on that as of yet because my people are still licking their fingers and holding them into the wind to see what sort of answers will be least offensive to voters…”

It’s so common that we all just wink at each other and understand that we’re in on the joke — having grown insensitive to that part of us that says we should expect more from those who claim to be worthy of leading us.

How refreshing, then, to see something different.

I’m sure some might feel that Sen. McCain is playing to his “base” by being passionately supportive of continuing America’s military involvement in Iraq and potentially elsewhere.  Candidates certainly do play to their bases, and given the Supreme Court decision announced earlier today upholding the federal ban on killing newborns (also called “partial birth abortion”) I would expect to hear a number of candidates playing that up: conservatives heralding their success and liberals rallying the troops.  Still, it is hard to see McCain’s continued public support for a tremendously unpopular idea as a politically motivated move to play to his “base.”

It seems, rather, that even facing the possibility that his stance might cost him the one public office he has sacrificed so much to achieve, he is willing to accept the consequences that come from sticking to your convictions.  Whether you agree with him or not, it is the sort of thing that real leaders do.

I’m not saying that he would be a good president.  I am not even saying I agree with him.  But I am saying that I respect him for what he is doing.  May we all have the courage to stand for what we believe to be right, even at the risk of losing all we hold most dear.

[Those really interested in looking further into why I do not participate in this world’s politics may want to read one of our older Tomorrow’s World articles, “How Would Jesus Vote for President?” which is available online here.]

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