Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why I Like John McCain

I know. Some of you are probably wondering if my blog has been overtaken by GOP hackers.

But, following the lead of our candidates -- who are appearing together today, in a spirit of solidarity on the seventh anniversary of 9/11 -- I've decided to take this moment as an opportunity, and put partisanship aside.

Thousands of people died on that day seven years ago, and multiple thousands have died since -- Americans and Iraqis alike -- because of it, and most of us would agree that something precious -- something that has to do with our optimism and hope for a better world -- was snatched from every single one of us on 9/11. A pause is appropriate, and, frankly, welcome.

First, a story. My friend in Chicago, who I mentioned in Right Tactics, Wrong Strategy, actually reminded me of this a few months back:

I first met John McCain when I was a cub reporter, working for Congressional Quarterly's Web site, and for CQ's Congressional Monitor -- a daily recap of Hill activity -- back in the mid 90's. I was assigned to cover Senate floor votes, which meant that I had access to a small room, just off the Senate floor, that lawmakers generally walked through after voting.

One day, I was working on a story on deadline, when John McCain came off the floor and into that room. I was relatively new -- I'd never met him before -- and I wanted to get his perspective for my piece.

Excuse me, I said. Senator McCain?

I introduced myself, explaining what I was working on. He said he would be glad to help me. Only, just as we started speaking, a staffer corralled him. The Senator told me he needed to talk with this staffer, and would be right back to continue our discussion.

I stood, waiting, looking over my notes. Just as the Senator was finishing up a few feet away, two other reporters approached him -- from the New York Times and Washington Post -- seeking interviews. I have to say, my memory of them is that they were self-important and pompous, though, that may be colored by the years.

In any event, what I remember clearly, is Sen. McCain's response to them: I've promised Josh an exclusive interview, he said. I'll be with you in a moment.

He didn't really owe me an exclusive. He was just being kind. And he was saying that rank -- pecking order -- meant less to him than what was right. Even if it meant he wouldn't get his name in the papers of record the next day. And I have to say, it meant more to me than a hundred Senator interviews.

I really liked Senator McCain -- and for a long time, I imagined that he might be the first Republican I could vote for.

I like that he bucked his party and reached across party lines to work with Ted Kennedy, a hated figure to many on the Right, on immigration reform, advancing the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. (It was never acted on, and Republicans ultimately prevented a compromise bill from coming to a vote.)

I like that he again scorned his party -- and went against his own political interests -- reaching across party lines to work with Russ Feingold, another progressive lion of the Senate, to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which attempted to curtail soft money in campaigns and thwart issue ads.

I love that he led the Gang of 14 -- the bipartisan group of Senators that stopped Republican Bill Frist from using the so called "nuclear option," which would have let Republicans cut off Democratic filibusters by a majority vote -- preventing the Democratic minority from exercising its constitutional prerogative to block Bush court appointees. (Effectively, the nuclear option would have meant that Republicans could ignore years of accepted Senate procedure and, for the first time in history, run roughshod over the Democrats -- by taking away their right to filibuster. It was a reprehensible stone cold political play that Democrats had never threatened to use on their stonewalling Republican peers, when the GOP was in the minority.)

I like that McCain did eventually criticize the conduct of the Iraq war, when Bush was still stoically pretending nothing was wrong. (Though I disagree strongly with McCain's judgments that got us into the fight in the first place. See again: Right Tactics, Wrong Strategy.) I'm also very thankful that against a strong political tide, McCain pushed for the surge in Iraq, which has vastly improved the situation on the ground, and made Obama's exit strategy much more actionable.

Having said all this, I should add that I sincerely hope this convinces none of you to vote for John McCain.

The truth is, the John McCain that I felt I knew, even up to a few years ago, is not the John McCain I see running for president today. I don't recognize the Senator who showed me that kindness all those years ago in the Senator who angrily attacks Obama as an un-American opportunist, who puts political ambition over country; the Senator who let his running mate's acceptance speech be used as a crude cudgel against community organizers; the Senator who ignored a Wall St. Journal reporter's question because he didn't like the article she'd written the day before. I don't recognize that John McCain in the Senator who, when it was time to make his first big decision, reached out not to the middle -- not toward me -- but to a running mate who is further to the right on most social issues than even our current Administration.

While I admire his working with Kennedy on immigration, I truly wish he hadn't retreated, in the face of right wing pressures within his own party, to his current position, which is, essentially: First, build a wall along the Tex-Mex border. And while I sincerely appreciate his work with the Gang of 14 and campaign finance reform, those aren't the issues that get me up in the morning these days: I want a president who understood from the start that the Iraq War was a mistake, and understands the pressing imperative of restoring America as a respected global leader; a president who believes that in this time of great economic hardship, environmental degradation, over-reliance on fossil fuels, and educational decline vis-a-vis the rest of the world, that government can play an important, sensible -- fiscally responsible -- role in lifting people up. And, yes -- a president who can inspire us to take personal responsibility and lift ourselves and our communities up, as well.

So I remain a committed, unwavering, passionate supporter of Barack Obama.

But I also think that it's crucial, as this campaign's last 54 days wind down, that we -- not just our candidates -- find ways to reach out to people who disagree with us and talk to them. Really hear them. Try to understand why it is they hold the views they do; what motivates them to support their candidate. I've done this a bit more in the last week, and heard interesting takes from people I disagree with, but respect and admire. Just last night, on a conference call with some friends, a Republican friend of mine who served in the military in Saudi Arabia told me that while America must never torture, he feels frustrated by people who don't recognize that we can be at a disadvantage, in the battlefield, because we hold ourselves to a much higher standard than the terrorists we are fighting. And he reiterated that at the end of the day, the world and the Middle East are much better off without Saddam Hussein.

My friend and I did not agree on everything. Hearing him out, though, reminded me again that there are serious, well-intentioned, critical-thinkers on both sides of the political divide. You forget this sometimes when your insides are boiling, watching the latest attack ad, or watching pundits shout at each other on CNN.

If I truly want our leadership to get beyond the hyperpartisanship of the last eight years, I need to be able to do the same thing with that family across the street that just put the "John McCain" sign up on their lawn.

I remember, after 9-11, when the planes first started flying again. The security lines at BWI airport were farcical -- they stretched the entire length of the terminal. I was nervous as hell. We all were. But I had fallen in love with an amazing woman who lived in Boston -- I lived in Washington, DC -- and I was not going to be kept away. I remember, distinctly, sitting on a Southwest flight, wondering what I would do if a terrorist stood up, at 30,000 feet, with a boxcutter in hand. I was heartened by the big dude in front of me, who didn't have the look of a terrorist. Nice to know he'd be on my side.

And then the pilot came on the PA. And he asked us to look to our left, and look to our right, and introduce ourselves to our row mates. Shake hands. Tell them something about us. You might be surprised at what you learn, he said, and we laughed -- and then we did exactly as he said. The tension was relieved. We got to know one another a bit. We took off on time.

So, take this day. If you're on Obama supporter and there is something you admire in McCain, post it on this blog. And if you are a McCain supporter but find something compelling in Obama, share it with us. Think about those weeks, just after 9-11, when instead of focusing instantly, reflexively on our differences, no matter how small, we looked deeper and found that really -- who knew? -- we all have so very much in common.

MY OBAMA MINUTE: Was more like 3 and a half hours yesterday. I had lunch with a friend, who is helping me organize the Jewish community here for Obama. Then my mother-in-law and I went to Obama headquarters, and from there to Akron University, where we spent 90 minutes registering voters. We didn't ask whether they were Obama or McCain -- though our hope, of course, is that the university is Obama's natural demographic. had been registering folks on campus all day -- many of the folks we asked had been asked a number of times already -- but we were still able to register five people to vote. You might say: Only five people. Or, you might just as well point out, as Judaism teaches, that each one is the whole world.


Molly said...

You're learning what I'm learning! How great it is to talk to real people, instead of pundits. I spent another two hours phone banking last night, and I continue to be surprised by how much I appreciate the rare opportunity to talk to people in my community about the issues that are important to them. Even when we disagree. I feel very lucky.

Last night I spoke to a woman who was very glad I called, because she had something she wanted to get off her chest. She likes Senator Obama. She likes the energy of his campaign, the excitement he has inspired in young people, and she believes that most of his policies will be better for this country.

But. She cannot vote for someone who supports a woman's right to choose. Abortion is a moral issue for her, and it is on that moral issue alone that she votes. And so she is desperately torn. Anguished even. She's thinking about staying home on election day, and it's killing her. She likes Obama, but she can't in good conscience vote for him.

I told her that she and Senator Obama have something in common: they both want to reduce the number of abortions in this country. With appropriate education and improved access to family planning, Senator Obama aims to prevent the unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortion. She listened while I spoke, and seemed to see the truth in what I said. Will she vote for Obama? Probably not. But it was the first semi-sensible conversation I've ever had with a person so opposed to choice that she'd stake her whole vote on it. For me, that makes it a win.

drdad said...

You should send this as an op-ed piece to the Times or the Washington Post. It's beautifully written and it undercuts the pettiness and bickering that too much of cable commentary has degraded to. It's a message I think would benefit the country.

NeuroticDem said...

Mol --
I totally hear you -- and that conversation with the anti-abortion person seems amazing. Something changes when you are talking to a PERSON about this, and not just listening to a pundit. I'm impressed by your sensitivity to her, and also by your thoughtful response about Obama's stance. In Audacity of Hope, Obama talks a lot about this -- he is indeed very sensitive to those folks who are morally opposed to abortion, like the woman you met. His policy moves toward them in important ways, without undercutting choice.
DrDad --
Thanks for the compliment. I'm not sure if I'll recast it for an oped -- but I'd appreciate all the help you can give me in forwarding this one on, and getting it out there. Especially to the folks we disagree with.

16:25 A Film Festival for Change said...

I think your insights are profound. I actually liked John McCain once too - note that he was going to get my vote, but he had my respect, which is, to me, more important. I saw in him the maverick his pundits push so hard, and actually a pretty human human. He seemed to consider his choices and care genuinely for this country. What I find profoundly sad about McCain is just how much he has given in to the forces he once objected to so strongly.

By picking Palin as his running mate, he sent an unequivocal message to the nation - I am going to swing right whenever and were ever I can. And, for that matter, far to the right. I am going to welcome the politics of division and mudslinging and disrespect my oponent and, for that matter, the office of the presidency. I am going to run a convention that would claim to be the only party of patriotism, and alienate everyone who loves this country but does not stand with me. He said that he is done with partisanship, but as his followers stood in his convention hall chanting "USA" minute after minute, it became clear that he was willing to stand down while his supporters angrily and offensively stood up.

I remember with a bizarre fondness the oneness we felt after 9/11. I, more prone to flag burning than flag flying, purchased the stars and stripes and hung it with pride. We were a wounded nation and, as happens in moments of profound tragedy, we realized what matters most. And though I hope to the deepest of my heart that we never, that no one ever, lives through a 9/11 again, I do long for a time when we are at one again. When we have what's important in sharp focus. When, like you said, we introduce ourselves to our neighbors and realize, even with a McCain sign on their lawn, that there is something in them we would surely find in ourselves.

Loyal said...

This si a wonderful post and I remember you telling ,e the story.

If my car were not dead and my need for a replacement urgent, I would have found and linked someinteresting stuff. Former AZ Senator Deconcini talking aobut McCain's LaCKof a moral compass, and others that reveal his hair trigger temper and the fear that it has placed in poeple.

I remember one comment said long ago that someone who had witnessed the temper over some mild diagreement called McCain the Senator most likely to launch a nuclear attack.

We are tha sum of what we do. And in sum, this is an ugly, petty, inconstant, and dangerous man. Even though he is capable of kindness to puppies, pit bulls, and cub reporters.