Arizona Sen. John McCain died last weekend from brain cancer at the age of 81, and his memorial service took place in Washington, DC on Saturday. His legacy is perhaps a complicated one, given the span of his life: He was a former Navy pilot, Vietnam prisoner of war, Republican presidential nominee, and spent 30 years as a United States senator.
After news on Friday that McCain was choosing to discontinue treatment for his cancer, a video of his time on the campaign trail in 2008 resurfaced. In it he defended Barack Obama, his rival for the presidency, in the face of constituents spouting racist conspiracies about the then-senator from Illinois.
“I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, um, he’s an Arab,” a woman said to McCain at a town hall meeting in Lakeville, Minnesota in October 2008.
McCain grabbed the microphone from her, cutting her off. “No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”
Of course, being of Arab descent and a “decent family man” have nothing to do with one another, and are not mutually exclusive. McCain’s response could have been better — he could have pointed out that it does not matter whether someone is Muslim or Arab or anything else — but taking away the microphone from the woman and defending his opponent was a powerful moment.
At the same event, according to a Politico report from the time, he told a supporter who said he was “scared” of Obama that the senator was a “decent person” and one who “you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.”
According to the report, audience members booed his defense of his rival and called Obama a “liar” and a “terrorist.”
“I want to fight, and I will fight,” he said. “But I will be respectful. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, and I will respect him.”
Obama went on to defeat McCain in the presidential election in November 2008.
In 2013 Obama called McCain a “person of classic integrity” who’s “willing to say things regardless of the politics.” That wound up including McCain’s no vote in the summer of 2017 that sank the GOP’s efforts to repeal one of Obama’s signature pieces of legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
In a statement on Saturday, Obama reacted to McCain’s death, saying that for all of his differences with McCain, the pair shared “a fidelity to something higher — the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched and sacrificed.” He said they saw their political battles as “an opportunity to serve as stewards” of those ideals.
“Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did,” he said. “But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means. And for that, we are all in his debt.”