Cindy McCain is chair of the board of trustees of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.
My late husband, John McCain, loved a good fight for a good cause, and he had more than a few spirited encounters with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He believed it was right and necessary to argue about differences on issues and in governing philosophies. And, as he often remarked, a fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed.
But John never sacrificed civility. He liked and respected most of his colleagues, however heated their debates could be. He was known for his bipartisan friendships. He made friends easily, and he was good company. But that isn’t the only reason many of his colleagues and many Americans miss him. I think he’s missed most because he understood that a country like ours, a government system like ours — with its checks and balances and its protections for the rights of the minority — doesn’t permit one side to have everything its way on the great questions of the day.
Most important, he had devoted his entire adult life to the service of the country he loved. He recognized that Americans, for all of our disagreements and rancorous political debates, faced common problems and that elected officials shared common responsibilities to help solve them.
Our system has many merits. No other government so well protects the freedom and well-being of the people, who are its masters. It is based on the consent of the governed and committed to the belief that all people are created equal and entitled to equal justice. Most Americans share that common conviction, which is so much more important than all our policy differences. But ours is probably not the most efficient form of government. We have no kings or dictators to snap their fingers and demand action. We have to debate and bargain to get anything done. That can be frustrating to partisans, who believe passionately in the policies they advocate.
John was a passionate partisan. But he was a statesman, too, and statesmen accept the necessity of cooperation and compromise to make some progress on the challenges our country faces. Sometimes all government can manage is very modest progress on the toughest problems, muddling through rather than enacting sweeping change. But muddling through is better than nothing, which is what partisan gridlock produces. Indeed, muddling through seems quite an achievement in these difficult times.
Sunday will be the first anniversary of John’s passing, a time of reflection and remembrance for his family and friends. I know he wouldn’t want us to dwell on his absence but on happier times when he was with us. He would want the country to commemorate his passing by appreciating the values of service to this country and the statesmanship he tried to practice. He would urge Congress and the administration to work together to help solve the United States’ problems. So today, I am asking all Americans to take a pledge of civility by committing to causes larger than ourselves and joining together across the aisle or whatever divides us to make the world a better place.
The anger some Americans feel for people with opposing views seems to have become more vitriolic and intense. At times, given the amplifying power of social media, our differences, which are fewer and less important than the shared values that are supposed to unite us, appear to be all-consuming.
However sharp our differences, however vigorous and even intemperate our debates have been, they shouldn’t prevent us from respecting each other, from valuing each other’s dignity. That’s so contrary to our founding convictions and to genuine greatness — an individual’s greatness and the country’s. Civility is something John knew instinctively. And he knew, too, that our debates should try to persuade and not just defeat our opponents and that they shouldn’t paralyze either side from acting together when necessary to defend our country’s common interests and values.
When Congress returns from its August recess, I hope its veteran members, many of whom my husband was proud to call his friends, and its newest ones will energetically contest the issues of the day. I hope they will fight for their beliefs and enjoy the contest. But I hope, too, as John would, that they do it with minds open to the possibility of compromise for the country’s sake, and hearts open to the possibility and joys of unexpected friendships. I believe most Americans would find great value in that approach to politics and governing, and to well-lived lives. It is time to inspire a renewal of civil engagement that is so critical to meet the challenges of the future.