The first time I interviewed Sen. John McCain, he spoke lovingly about Tom Udall and his family. Then he told me he hoped Udall lost his bid that year for the U.S. Senate.
It was 2008. McCain was campaigning for president in Albuquerque. Udall and Steve Pearce were battling to replace the retiring Pete Domenici.
“It’s just a matter of philosophy,” McCain told me about his support for Pearce, a fellow Republican. Udall is a Democrat.
Make no mistake, McCain was a staunch conservative. The right-wing Club for Growth gives him a lifetime score of 81 percent. That compares to 24 percent for Maine’s Susan Collins and 34 percent for Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, both Republicans.
But it was McCain’s belief in what we have in common, not what divides us, that drove him. He reached across the aisle in search of solutions to critical issues like campaign finance, immigration and health care.
Looking back on my interview with McCain following his death on Saturday, I felt the loss not only of a rare leader, but also a culture of respect and love that once characterized Washington.
McCain brought up the Udalls because I asked him about public lands. He had worked with former Rep. Morris “Mo” Udall, Tom’s uncle, to protect millions of acres in Arizona.
“I love and revere the Udall family,” McCain said.
A few weeks later, then-Sen. Chris Dodd, a Democrat, visited Las Cruces to honor Domenici, a Republican, during the first annual Domenici Public Policy Conference. Domenici reached out to Dodd when he first joined the Senate, inviting him over for a barbecue and sparking a lifelong friendship, Dodd shared.
“I love this man,” Dodd said. He lamented the mean-spirited culture overtaking the U.S. Senate—and America.
These men were all partisans. I once listened to a frustrated Domenici rail on his cell phone against “the damn Democrats” while I waited to ask him a question. In a 2008 speech, now-Sen. Udall attacked Pearce and McCain by linking them to George W. Bush.
And these men made mistakes, as the Sarah Palin debacle illustrates. I look back on a Palin campaign stop in Roswell—still the whitest crowd I’ve been in, and the first place I saw homemade signs degrading Barack Obama for his ethnicity—as a prelude to the Trump era.
But a true leader like McCain is willing to admit mistakes and apologize, to prioritize civility and respect, and to zealously guard a belief that we can accomplish anything if we work together.
McCain expressed that optimism to the end. Though we sometimes fight, his parting statement to America read, if we remember what we have in common and “give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country,” we’ll survive “these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”
These days, that’s hard for me to believe. Our president, in many ways the antitheses of McCain, spends his days trolling and bullying others. Bottomless pits of dark money fund ads that program us to hate each other. The U.S. Senate is no longer a bastion of civility and respect. “The lions of the Senate are gone,” Sen. Collins told The New York Times after McCain died. “It is very sad.”
But McCain’s final words make me want to believe.
“Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president,” he said. “I want to end my farewell to you with the heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening. I feel it powerfully still.”