McCain didn’t fit anyone’s mold

J ohn McCain didn’t give himself the label “maverick,” but it was one that stuck with him for decades because it fit so well.

The longtime Republican senator from Arizona and former presidential nominee, who died Saturday just short of his 82nd birthday, bedeviled his own party many times during his 35 years in Congress.

A statesman and war hero with Carroll County roots, McCain was a principal author of campaign finance legislation that temporarily restricted the influence of big-moneyed interests in federal elections, until a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision undid the restraints.

He opposed the use of torture authorized by then-President George W. Bush, a fellow Republican, to interrogate suspected terrorists following the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

He cast the deciding vote that thwarted a GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the signature domestic achievement of former President Barack Obama, the Democrat who beat McCain in the 2008 presidential election.

He was a constant critic of Donald Trump. McCain refused to vote for the Republican nominee in 2016 and called him out regularly over foreign policy and Trump’s crackdown on immigration.

Yet, while most of McCain’s legislative achievements were a result of reaching across party lines, he also bucked Democratic orthodoxy. He was a hawk on defense and on spending. He claimed Obama mishandled the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by pulling out troops too soon. In perhaps his biggest disappointment for moderates, when he had to make a major executive-style decision and pick a running mate in 2008, he settled on an ultraconservative governor from Alaska, Sarah Palin, who was clearly unqualified to be next in line for the White House.

Regardless of what anyone felt about McCain’s positions and fierce independence, though, he was admired for his military service, especially for the five years he spent as a POW during the Vietnam War, and for his refusal to lower himself to character assassination against those who were on the opposite side. During a 2008 political rally, when a supporter tried to disparage Obama personally, McCain famously cut the supporter short and spoke up for his Democratic opponent, saying their differences were on the issues, not on their fitness to serve.

In that same vein, McCain, in a farewell message released on Monday, urged his fellow Americans to focus more on what unites them than what divides them. It was a deathbed call to back away from the politics of today that denigrates compromise, rewards the extremes and encourages uncivil discourse.

The greatest tribute those who admire McCain could pay him would be to heed those parting words.