I attended late Senator John McCain’s memorial service as he lay in state at the Arizona State Capitol on August 29 (which would have been his 82nd birthday). Thousands of Arizonans lined up throughout the day in the desert heat to honor him. Although I disagreed with most of McCain’s policy views, I went to pay my respects because McCain was much more than a policymaker. He was—as has been often repeated since his passing—an American hero and a patriot to the very end. More personally, he was an integral part of my own introduction to American politics. I watched him campaign against Obama in 2008 across the country as an eleven-year-old living abroad, only beginning to digest the American political process.
One of the most famous moments of McCain’s political career occurred during that 2008 campaign, when he pushed back emphatically against a woman at one of his rallies who said she could not trust Obama because he was, she claimed, an “Arab.” That moment has reappeared in the media extensively since McCain’s passing and has been hailed as an example of what made McCain a special American leader. In that moment, he demonstrated the qualities that he is well-known for: courage, integrity, and a commitment to consistently doing what he thought was right. Yet McCain’s exchange with that woman also hinted at underlying beliefs about America that have since been exploited for partisan gain at the expense of any semblance of decency and integrity in our politics.
The woman spoke incoherently, but her word choice made her implication clear: essentially, that because Obama was an “Arab,” he could not also be an “American,” or a “citizen,” or a “patriot.” To her, being an Arab excluded an individual from being part of America. McCain immediately denied this racist and nativist notion, taking the microphone from her hand and emphasizing that Obama was a good man and that McCain’s campaign for the presidency was about “fundamental issues” facing the country. Despite the praise he received, McCain undoubtedly sacrificed political support from white Americans like that woman, who wanted to vote for him more so because of their fear of an African American president than their own support for his candidacy.
McCain’s response has been criticized as Islamophobic for suggesting that an Arab cannot be a “decent family man and citizen.” There is validity in that interpretation, but it does not uncover the core problem in his exchange with the woman. McCain was able to deny the woman’s false reality, but he could not broaden her narrow assumptions about what it means to be an American. The fact that McCain shut her down so quickly shows that he understood implicit racism: the nativist idea that only a white American can be a true American was familiar to McCain, even though he never would consider that to be true.
McCain said that Obama was not, in fact, an Arab (or whatever vile thing she was trying to label him as), but in that moment he could not expose her premeditated expectations about what being an American should entail. He invalidated her opinion, but her assumptions remained intact. The identification—and ensuing rampant exploitation—of those assumptions by figures like Trump is a huge part of how American politics has become increasingly toxic. Racists, nativists, and white supremacists have found political leaders to magnify and normalize their views in our national dialogue.
My analysis is not intended to criticize McCain for failing to press the woman further. He was certainly at least a little flabbergasted by her comments and did an admirable job of rebutting her extemporaneously. He did the best anyone could expect from an American leader faced with a potentially inflammatory situation involving a political supporter. Indeed, the eleven-year-old me who admired McCain for his steadfast devotion to what he believed and saw as righteous would never be able to understand the racist undertones of that moment the way I can now.
Sadly, America’s current political dialogue—and much of McCain’s Republican Party—have abandoned the virtue he displayed in favor of the political expediency he rejected on principle. The confrontation that took place at his rally foretold of the backlash to the Obama presidency and the rise of Trump’s Republican Party, which has been motivated in part by the same abhorrent thought processes displayed by that woman. It feels tragic and deeply ironic for McCain to have passed on in a time when not only his lifetime of service is denigrated by the president, but also the forces of bigotry he stood resolute against are given a license to roam free by his complicit party.
After I walked around McCain’s flag-draped casket on his birthday, I pondered his defense of Obama and overall legacy. I believe we can learn from McCain’s actions without being confined to the political limitations he experienced in that moment. Perhaps the best way for Americans to honor the political maverick’s memory is to follow the example he set and strive to surpass it. Fighting against prejudice on its own terms is insufficient. We have to go beyond just resisting the un-American narratives that have poisoned our political dialogue. The assumptions that allow those narratives to persist and grow stronger need to be de-legitimized and cast aside, even when they are politically expedient.
McCain understood this better than anyone when he wrote in his farewell statement that “our identities and senses of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.” To restore decency and integrity in our politics, we all have to embrace the right causes—and actively work to defeat misinformed ones.
Aman Tiku is an Opinion Editor for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Gate.
The image featured with this article exists in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original was taken by Levan Ramishvili and can be found here.