This story was originally posted in 2017 and has been updated.
The late Senator John McCain would have been the first person to admit that his decades-long record was not perfect. But over the course of his long career, McCain earned a reputation as a tough politician with a strong moral compass.
Several examples have circulated on social media since his passing, none more than a fateful 2008 rally in Minnesota where McCain firmly shut down a questioner who brought up a conspiracy theory about then-candidate Barack Obama. But there were many others. Below, we’ve rounded up some of his most memorable and courageous political moments. They show that McCain often was not afraid to speak out against bigotry and injustice when he saw it — even if it might not have been politically expedient to do so.
A powerful concession to Barack Obama
McCain was gracious in defeat after losing the 2008 presidential election to then-Sen. Barack Obama.
But his concession speech went beyond acknowledging his opponent’s hard-won victory and wishing him the best. McCain remarked on the historic nature of Obama’s election, particularly for African Americans, and the new chapter that he hoped it would usher in for the country:
“This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight. I’ve always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too. But we both recognize that though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.”
“A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit — to dine at the White House — was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.”
“Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country.”
Supporting the release of the CIA torture report
In December 2014, the Senate released a report on the interrogation and detention tactics used by the CIA in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era. The report contained several major revelations, including that the agency’s methods were more brutal than had previously been known.
The release of the report was controversial. But McCain, who had endured torture during his lengthy imprisonment in Vietnam, did not equivocate on the necessity of the report. In a lengthy speech on the Senate floor, he defended its release:
“It is a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose — to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies — but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.”
“I believe the American people have a right — indeed, a responsibility — to know what was done in their name; how these practices did or did not serve our interests; and how they comported with our most important values. . . . The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless.”
In defense of Obama
Despite the eloquent concession, the 2008 presidential race between McCain and Obama was not all warm and fuzzy. The two had testy moments during debates, and there was that time a McCain campaign ad compared Obama with Paris Hilton.
But at a town hall in Lakeville, Minn., McCain didn’t hesitate to correct supporters who leveled racist accusations at Obama.
“I have to tell you: He is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States,” he told one supporter who said he was “scared” of Obama. The crowd initially booed McCain for his candor, but he didn’t back off his stance.
After another woman said she’d read that Obama was “an Arab,” McCain took the microphone from her. “No, ma’am,” the senator said. “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
McCain was often very engaged with his audience during campaign stops. (If you want a vivid recounting of these events, we recommend David Foster Wallace’s dispatch from McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.) The Lakeville rally showed that he was not afraid to correct his supporters if the need arose.
“It was both the most memorable moment from John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and a glimpse into the future of the Republican Party and America’s angry and divisive modern-day politics,” Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe wrote this week.
In defense of Huma Abedin
In 2012, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann and four of her fellow Republicans accused Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to harm the United States. McCain considered these allegations ludicrous and was so furious that he took to the Senate floor to defend Abedin.
“These attacks on Huma have no logic, no basis and no merit. And they need to stop now,” he said. “Ultimately, what is at stake in this matter is larger even than the reputation of one person. This is about who we are as a nation and who we still aspire to be.”
In defense of the Khan family
Khizr and Ghazala Khan provided one of the most dramatic and defining moments of the 2016 campaign. At the Democratic National Convention, Khizr spoke of their son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed during the Iraq War.
Khizr memorably waved a copy of the Constitution during the speech, demanding of Trump, “Have you even read the United States Constitution?”
The next day, Trump attacked the couple. “His wife, if you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” Trump said.
His remarks drew widespread outrage, but McCain’s condemnation — in a lengthy statement — was especially sharp:
“It is time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party. While our Party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us. . . . I’d like to say to Mr. and Mrs. Khan: Thank you for immigrating to America. We’re a better country because of you. And you are certainly right; your son was the best of America, and the memory of his sacrifice will make us a better nation — and he will never be forgotten.”
This story was originally posted in 2017 and has been updated.