Separating The Individual From The Group: Learning From John McCain


These are polarizing times we live in. Times of extreme reds and blinding blues with little melding. It seems as if we are living in an us-versus-them society. Logic has taken the backseat to emotion, and we see this more and more each day with our own president making passionate declarations over Twitter.

The death of Senator John McCain is a simulacrum for these dying times of civility and bipartisanship. McCain was widely known throughout most of his political career as a bipartisan republican because of his unapologetic tendencies to reach over the aisle and work with democrats. Despite what ticket he ran on, McCain tried his best to hoist himself out of the muck and sludge of Washington and go about his career as a public servant above all else. He is a golden example on what it means to be an individualistic man in a world categorized into groups.

Most of the nation got their first look at McCain when he ran against Barack Obama back in 2008; yet,  McCain’s political career goes back to the early 1980's when he was elected to U.S. House of Representatives for Arizona's 1st congressional district. He had only recently returned from Vietnam as a POW in Hanoi and figured that he could do more for America as a congressman than as a solider.

From The House, McCain went on to be voted into the U.S. Senate in 1987. Many attribute John McCain’s character to his time in Vietnam, yet the crucible that formed the John McCain we know today was the first few years that he served as Senator for Arizona.

The phrase 'trial by fire' has never been more relevant as when McCain took his Senate seat in January 1987. During his years as a Representative, McCain had received financial aid for his campaigns and travel from Charles Keating Jr., a banker and real estate tycoon in Arizona. The money that Keating was giving McCain was to be paid back over time, yet – not three months into McCain’s elected position as Senator- Keating called on McCain to persuade federal regulators to stop auditing his subsidiary, The Lincoln Saving and Loan Association, as a favor for the money.

Throughout a man’s life there are defining actions that will go on to sculpt and change him. The chisel will be raised and ready to strike, but only the man can bring it forcefully down. He chooses his own future and shapes his form. Whether that metallic strike on stone creates a David or a crushed chunk of rubble depends upon his decision to bring down the chisel.

Here the chisel loomed over John McCain: to push the federal government to stop investigating a friend or to stay honest to his rank as a public servant and decline Keating’s request for help. 

McCain at first told Keating he wouldn’t help. He knew that there was something wrong with trying to persuade the government for the benefit of a friend. Yet, after extreme pressure from Keating and his colleague Dennis DeConcini, who held the other Arizona Senator chair, McCain decided to help.

Throughout the meetings – which included federal regulators and five 'Keating Senators'- McCain acted uneasy and flat out declared that he '…wouldn't want any special favors for [Lincoln Saving and Loan]' and that he didn’t wish for anything improper to be done during the meetings.

Despite his reservations, the public found out that five Senators were meeting with regulators to aid a private company. McCain, with the others, were crucified. McCain would go on to say that it was one of the worst mistakes he ever made.

The Keating Five Scandal, as it is called- referencing the five Senators, was the catalyst that John McCain needed to become the maverick in DC that we all know today. He was disgraced for his involvement in such shady dealing and he set out to prevent it from happening again.  

I’m not going to tell you that everyone has a blemish as big as McCain’s Keating scandal. But I’m also not going to tell you that you won’t ever regret a decision. The point being that we can take a lesson from McCain. When confronted with regret, you can do what many in the political sphere do: apologize and move forward (requiring little effort and, sometimes, little sincerity), or you can do as McCain did: recognize the mistake and use it to shape yourself into a better person and to transform your environment into a better place.

In the 1990s McCain sought to end the ominous use of money in politics. He worked closely with Russ Feingold, a democrat, to draft an act that would end the use of soft money in campaigns. Soft money is money that is donated through political parties and not given directly to candidates, thus bypassing the federal limit of donating money to political candidates.

It was a problem for both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Because of this, and the partnership between a republican and democrat, McCain and Feingold’s act was named the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

With McCain’s death we lose an important figure that stood for the betterment of the political system and not just for the betterment of a specific party.

Most recently, we are reminded of McCain’s integrity when he sided with Democrats on not repealing Obamacare. He did so because he believed that the Republican party did not have a suitable replacement. McCain was not going to play sides, he was going to do what was right even if that meant going against his party.

McCain respected the political game. He was a man who understood how easy it was to trade loyalty for bribes or swindle the uneducated voter into casting a favorable ballot (I’m sure many of our readers are familiar with the incident in 2008 where McCain defended Obama by destroying hateful rhetoric).

Whether you agree with his politics or not, it is hard to not to respect the way in which McCain handled his political career. It’s the way in which a man goes about doing what he believes is right that demonstrates his true character. McCain wasn’t a manipulator or a shill. He was a politician acting with political civility and nobility.

Today, we are constantly confronted with political debates. We’ve fallen into a rut of demonizing our opposing political parties and refusing to compromise. It doesn’t matter if you are red or blue, if votes are cast blindly for party over legislation then the integrity of our democracy begins to fall apart. John McCain knew this and often acted against his republican base for the greater good of democracy and voters.

Whatever your field or however you get your work done, remember that you are not a group, you are a person, an individual with thoughts and opinions that can’t be completely labeled and categorized. We can take example of McCain and rise above the drama in our everyday life. We should do what we, as individuals, believe, and not what a group or organization expects you to believe.

Because of this, John McCain died an individual and not a pawn or piece to an organization. We should all aspire to at least achieve this.