John McCain, American Hero

Senator John McCain, the battle-scarred hero of the Vietnam War, returned to the Senate on Tuesday with a surgical scar over his eye from his current battle with cancer, to cast his vote and have his say on the Obamacare repeal bill.

The speech he gave on the floor of the Senate chamber after the vote to bring the vexed issue to a conclusive debate was the type of impassioned, articulate oratorical event that people have come to expect of John McCain, with all the added drama of personal suffering and a nation divided.

“Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio… and the internet,” he told the Senate. “They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood. Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order.”

“It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than winning, even when we must give a little to get a little,” he said. “Even …while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’”

Yet, much as the sentiment was applauded, the “bombastic loudmouths” he referred to did not keep silent. The speech was criticized in the liberal media for championing a health-care bill which they say embodies the very things McCain spoke so eloquently against — a take-no-prisoners partisanship that infects the legislative process at every turn.

Actually, McCain anticipated the assault of the blogosphere pundits when he said: “I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered. I will not vote for this bill as it is today.”

Indeed, only hours later, the first attempt to pass a broad repeal of Obamacare fell well short of even a tie.

Senator McCain is right for urging the process to move forward, while clearly recognizing the imperfections of the current GOP bill and the process in which it was drafted. He backed not a finished piece of work, but a draft that gives hope of revising the gross imperfections of Obamacare. That is indeed a return to “regular order,” and there is no inconsistency in it.

The very timing of the speech — in a moment of such partisan furor when it took Vice President Mike Pence to break a bitter 50-50 tie vote — only enhanced its impact. It was a statement of high purpose that every member of the house needed to hear, and right then.

True, they have heard appeals for bipartisan cooperation before; but never from a man who got out of a sickbed where he is literally fighting for his life to tell them that they must fight not only for the cause he himself has led, but to do so with reason and decency.

But the merits of the speech aside, it was without doubt a moment of historic drama. In what may be his best-known speech of 30 years in the Senate, John McCain was as much the hero as he was when he went into politics after five years of defying systematic torture in a POW camp in Hanoi. For McCain the behavior could almost said to be typical. Or typically surprising.

As Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close friend of McCain, quipped — “Is it surprising that he would get out of a hospital bed and go to work? No,” Graham said Tuesday. “It’s surprising he’s been in the hospital this long.”

Probably what Americans like about John McCain most of all is that he’s real. A real patriot and war hero; a real leader who is willing to say what he believes even when it’s unpopular; and a real person. He has never been the kind of sanitized, mass-marketed candidate that so many of his colleagues have typified. He is the McCain of the Straight Talk Express bus of the 2000 campaign, not a polished product of opinion polls and focus groups.

Even if opponents of the Republican bill do not like it any better after McCain’s appearance, they have no doubt been affected by it in other ways, no less important. The many Americans on the Nay side of the Senate vote may strongly disagree with McCain’s political positions, but every sane American could not help but feel respect and admiration for such courage and dignity. And for many brave individuals throughout America who are battling a grim medical diagnosis — and the health-care professionals seeking to treat them — Senator McCain’s fighting spirit will doubtlessly be a source of inspiration. For that alone, the American people owe a debt of gratitude to this true American hero.