John McCain is the reason I give a damn about politics, and he’s the reason you should, too.
When I first heard the news that John McCain had been diagnosed with brain cancer, I thought I’d write something about his character. Something about how he really is the maverick everyone says he is, or about how he’s a warrior who faced down demons far greater than brain cancer in the jungles of Vietnam.
But you’ll read plenty of those articles over the next few days, so instead, here’s a story about how the Senior Senator from Arizona played a brief but central role in helping a teenage kid figure out what he was passionate about.
When I was young, I’d sit at the kitchen table in my snowbird grandparents’ Floridian home and listen to Dad and Pipa argue about all things political — from issues as big and scary as the War in Iraq, the instability in Iran and the nukes in North Korea down to issues as silly and partisan as the president’s IQ or the “legitimacy” of the most recent election (Hmm. The more things change…). Their discussions were my first exposure to debate, and in so many ways, they taught me that political issues are important. Important enough that two cordial grown men were willing to lose their tempers over them. Important enough that Grammy would try to distract me away from their arguments when they got heated. Important enough for me to remember, consider and try to tackle on my own, with my own ideas and opinions.
They taught me that taking on political issues isn’t a privilege we have, but a duty; that the big, difficult questions will never be answered by anyone other than the descendants of the men and women who first pose them. By that account, I’ve always felt that we have not just a right to political discussion, but an compulsion to it; that we must confront ugly issues and inconvenient truths. We must fight. Because if not us, who?
That sense of passion for the political and compulsion to debate brewed in me for years as a kid. But it wasn’t until October 16th, 2008 that I came to understand that emotion, deeply, in my core.
On that date, I managed to convince my Dad to drive an hour and a half across state lines to a McCain ’08 rally in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. I missed school and skipped football practice — a cardinal sin — to hear the man I hoped would become the 44th President of the United States speak for about fifteen minutes in a stuffy auditorium. We waited in line for over an hour in the cloudy October cold; I remember the women waiting behind us saying they wished Sarah Palin was speaking, instead.
We eventually got inside and proceeded to wait there, too. The building’s heat was cranked to combat chilly autumn air, and the addition of hundreds of people caused the auditorium itself to become uncomfortably warm as the crowd awaited the Arizona Senator.
But soon enough, McCain bounded onto the stage, awkwardly waving and thumbs-upping to raucous applause. He smiled and shook hands and slowly made his way over to the podium as music blasted — something country, if my memory and political instincts serve me.
I was in awe. I had never seen someone of his age or demeanor light up a room the way he did, and I had never before encountered, in person, someone who’d overcome such adversity to achieve so highly. He was that day, and has been to me since, a perfect picture of the patriotic American man, a role model. And at some point on his way to the podium, he made eye contact with me, winked, and gave me a thumbs up.
After that single moment, I don’t remember a thing from the rally. I don’t remember McCain’s speech, its themes or the time he left the stage. I don’t remember if he took photos or held a press gaggle. I just remember that single instance, when the man I saw campaigning for president on CNN everyday looked me in the eye, smiled, and did something as simple and small as acknowledging my existence.
If my experiences listening to my Dad and Pipa debate politics at the kitchen table were the equivalent of having my first catch, then my experience at the rally that day was my first time at the ballpark. Imagine rooting for The Yankees your whole life, and the first time you go to a game, you catch a fly-ball from Derek Jeter. If you’re anything like me, in that moment, you’d decide that you’d devote all the passion you had to baseball.
I never forgot it.
Now, in hindsight, the man I watched deliver a speech in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, must’ve been at least remotely aware he was headed for a loss on Election Night. The polls were, at that point, decidedly tipping in Barack Obama’s favor, and it was clear that the selection of Sarah Palin had done more to damage McCain’s chances than bolster them (sorry, women behind me in line).
But there he was, at his age, giving it everything he had. Stumping like his life depended on it, shaking as many hands as possible and taking the time — even just half of a second — to give a wink and a thumbs-up to a kid who was clearly too young to vote for him. McCain, in a matter of seconds, proved to me and to everyone in that crowd that he is exactly who people say he is.
So today, when people ask me how I could possibly care for politics, I typically respond with something like, “You know your friend who has a near-unhealthy love of sports? He’s got a favorite team he was raised rooting for, and he can rattle off statistics and rosters and team history in his sleep? I’m that guy, only my team is the Republican Party, and my sport is American politics.”
And for the most part, that’s an honest answer. I like politics for the same reason people like sports — competition, teamwork, leadership and passion all blend together to create this uniquely American enterprise in which the wiliest typically win. And that’s a good thing — it’s good to fight. After all, we must.
But over the course of his career — and especially on that day in mid-October, 2008 — John McCain taught me that, sometimes, there are things more important than winning. There are things worth spending time doing, even if they don’t further your interests. There are things that are worth fighting for, even if you, yourself, lose.
And while that may not be good advice for politics, it’s damn good advice for life.