The late US Senator John McCain reinforced his best self against the worst instincts of his own supporters

Country First was the inspiring slogan that headlined Senator John McCain’s doomed 2008 campaign for the US presidency. I was resident in Washington DC during the last stretch of that historic election, which the Republican lost handily to the change-and-hope insurgency of Barack Obama.

Some aspects of McCain’s quest were comparable to the ill-fated voyage of the legendary ship Santa Maria. As it battled through extreme storms to the new world, one chronicler noted “the people on the shore blamed the storms on the ship rather than on the weather”. His forlorn quest for the presidency is a reminder of a universal political truth: luck has a lot to do with it.

McCain was unlucky to be the nominee for the party whose incumbent president — George W Bush — had willed an unpopular war in Iraq and presided over the subprime property crash and the financial crisis of 2008. And for all his well-earned status as a maverick lawmaker, he paled, literally and symbolically, by comparison with his rhetorically gifted African American opponent.

But there was one shining moment in that 2008 election that stood out to exemplify the core decency and dignity of McCain, and at a key moment to reinforce his best self against the worst instincts of his own supporters.

Confronted by a woman in a red McCain-Palin T-shirt at a campaign rally in Minnesota, who said “I can’t trust Obama. He’s not … um, he’s an Arab”, McCain cut her off and grabbed the microphone. “No ma’am,” he said, “he’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is about.”

At the same rally another supporter said that she was “scared of Obama” and that he was a “terrorist”. The Arizona senator responded: “I want to fight and I will fight, but I will be respectful. I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments and I will respect him.”

Of course, McCain privately thought the single-term senator Obama was callow and hardly in his league as both war hero and senior legislator. But he would not allow the public discourse to be disfigured by racism and label-sticking. One sad Republican noted on McCain’s recent death that “the problem for our party is that the woman in the red T-shirt, and not McCain, now embodies it”.

There are distinct parallels in SA in our own degraded public discourse. Significant members of some established parties today find little to recognise in their movements compared to their perceptions of the founding values and figures who once led them. They wonder if it is possible to return to them or whether compromises to achieve or retain power make that unlikely.

McCain’s splendid funeral service on Saturday at the Washington National Cathedral saw two rivals who beat him to the presidency — former presidents Bush and Obama – attest to his remarkable core of decency and his public service and personal sacrifice as prisoner of war. His articulate daughter Meghan spat the deep defiance and distaste she and her late father held for the man who would ultimately carry the Republican Party back to the White House, Donald Trump.

That funeral service, attended by the good and the great of the Washington establishment, exemplified McCain’s core distinctiveness: when essential values and principles are in the balance, country indeed must be placed before party. It was an elegant rebuttal and act of decorous resistance to the unnamed current president who was, conspicuously, not invited to attend.

There are two less-than-reassuring SA parallels that point in the opposite direction of the McCain virtues. In 2013, in the run-up to the last general election, Cyril Ramaphosa warned disaffected voters in Seshego, Limpopo, who were considering abstaining, “if you don’t vote, the Boers will come back to control us”. You did not need a degree in semiotics to decode both the warning and its intended target. Far from dousing the flames, he helped light the fires that rage on today.

“Party First”, in fact, is a fair description of his presidency thus far, where on crucial issues he covets the unity of his fractious organisation ahead of the country’s interest. So no McCain moments expected from him in the run-up to the even more contested 2019 election.

But if the McCain brand of politics lifted the sights of his own country on occasion and saw him, on crucial issues such as health care, torture and multilateralism, lead the internal resistance to his own presidents, he was no liberal.

An Arizona conservative, he hewed to the low-tax, less-government, strong-military trinity of that orthodoxy. But this gave his opposition more heft when exercised and also left little doubt on the core of his convictions. These were widely known and well advertised.

The DA faces all sorts of current headwinds, some like the Santa Maria forced by the change in political weather for which it is often blamed by supporters; and others because it appears hesitant in advancing core principles and taking on all-comers who offend them.

Having lost one metro to the perfidiousness of Bantu Holomisa and the naked and ugly racism of the EFF, it did well to characterise its ousting there as a consequence of the rebirth of the “coalition for corruption”. But when a key member of that ramshackle movement, the same EFF, half-heartedly tried to remove a DA mayor in Tshwane and boasts of its choke-hold over the DA mayor in Johannesburg, the party is silently quiescent.

If old order versus surge of history was the frame for that election and outside McCain’s control, other errors were self-created. The stand-out example, and one he much regretted later, was his selection of populist governor Sarah Palin for vice-president. She wore her worldly ignorance as a badge of honour, and her nativism and nationalism unleashed demons in her party, and a wave across the country, which eight years later a far savvier populist surfed to presidential victory.

But on the key issue of the day for all DA supporters of all races — the threat to property rights — the party could develop real traction and rediscover its mojo. It should place billboards across the country stating “over my dead body will you take my property without compensation”. Or “constitution allows both property and land reform”. If a liberal democratic party is not prepared to stand on the ramparts on this issue, the average voter could conclude that its commitment to core values is tepid. Temporising in politics tends not to be rewarded at the ballot box, and nor does it deserve to be. If its temporary prop in municipal power, the EFF, objects, it should be shown to the municipal exits.

But while the DA initially spoke resolutely on the issue in parliament in February, little has been heard since from its impressive spokesperson on the issue, Thandeka Mbabama, whose own stint at the Land Bank lends her extra credibility. Perhaps party poll watchers believe the issue might offend one or other new constituency it is in search of.

My own experience suggests no points are lost speaking with passion and clarity on a matter of core conviction. And no other issue in the current debate cuts as sharply across the political divides and requires champions in its corner against those playing jiggery pokery with hard-won constitutional rights.

McCain’s literary hero was Robert Jordan, the principal in Ernest Hemingway’s novel on the Spanish civil war, For Whom the Bell Tolls. He famously described the world as “a fine place and worth the fighting for”. That’s as impressive a call to political arms as “Country First”.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA.

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