More than a decade ago, Senator John McCain sought to stop the Bush administration’s attempt to weaken the protections offered by the Geneva Conventions. The provision at issue was obscure, the matter legally complicated, and the White House was ready to fight. But McCain was determined.
At the time, I served as the senator’s foreign-policy adviser. Talking in his office, we went over the issue one more time. It’s important, I said, but few understand it. You may well lose if you choose to fight this. Even if you win, you’ll get no credit for the victory, and the matter will soon be forgotten. But, I added, I think it’s the right thing to do.
“They are threatening to weaken the Geneva Conventions,” McCain responded. “I can’t let them do that. I’ll fight them to the end—even if it costs me everything.”
Everything, in late 2006, included the Republican presidential nomination, for which the senator was preparing to announce his candidacy in a matter of months. Everything would also be his last and best shot at the White House, a position to which much of his career and life seemed to lead. Everything might mean his standing with Republicans, many of whom already looked at the senator from Arizona with curiosity or dismay when, a year before, he had led the fight to bar torture of terrorist detainees. Some of the senator’s political advisers warned that a fight over this issue, and with this president at this time, would result in votes he’d never get and dollars he’d never raise.
But fight McCain did. And he won—ultimately a quiet, legalistic success that left intact the Geneva Conventions, the formal protections that establish basic standards of treatment for those, including Americans, captured in combat. That expression of political courage—risking his power and ambition in a cause greater than himself—was quintessential John McCain. I was never prouder to work for him than on that day some 12 years ago. And this commitment to principle, despite its costs, is what America has lost with the senator’s passing.
In the remembrances that accompanied his death on Saturday, many emphasized McCain’s moral courage, stretching from North Vietnamese prison cells to his famous “thumbs down” vote on last year’s Republican health-care bill. Whether they agreed with any of his particular views or decisions, most admired his service to America and penchant for brave stands that cast aside the political consequences. McCain bucked his party by working with Russ Feingold on campaign-finance reform and with Ted Kennedy on immigration. He pushed for the surge in Iraq when the crumbling war effort led many to seek withdrawal instead of victory. He was a champion of human rights who supported the use of American power for moral ends. McCain believed deeply in American exceptionalism; his celebrated line that treating terrorist detainees humanely is “not about them, it’s about us” summed up much of his worldview.
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