The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cindy McCain wants to bring civility back to politics. Is it too late?

Cindy McCain and her husband, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in 2011.
Cindy McCain and her husband, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in 2011. (Rebecca D’Angelo/For The Washington Post)

Cindy McCain is embracing her late husband’s penchant for taking up principled battles with very difficult odds of success.

She is marking the first anniversary of John McCain’s death by galvanizing a campaign to bring civility back to politics, particularly in the Senate where the Arizona Republican had served for nearly 32 years until his death on Aug. 25, 2018. Cindy McCain wants to create a public pressure campaign, working from the outside inward, because she believes that lawmakers on Capitol Hill seem too willing to accept this bitter, hyperpartisan era as the “new normal.”

“It has to start with us,” she said in an interview this past week, touting the hashtag-ready “#ActsOfCivility” campaign. “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t see anyone else taking up the mantle.”

Opinion piece by Cindy McCain: My husband was a man of civility. Americans can still learn from him.

It’s remarkable to consider where the national tone has gone from the days after McCain’s death from brain cancer. That brought a national outpouring for the Republican senator and a celebration of his penchant for working across the aisle.

The Vietnam War hero laid in repose in the Arizona state capitol and the U.S. Capitol, as tens of thousands waited in brutal summer heat to pay tribute. The mourning culminated at Washington’s National Cathedral, a bipartisan service McCain planned himself, complete with eulogies from former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, two men who crushed his own presidential aspirations.

The events all served as a not-very-subtle rebuke of President Trump, whose public attacks on McCain’s politics and time as a prisoner of war left him persona non grata while the rest of official Washington hailed the late senator’s efforts to make politics better.

That moment lasted just a few days.

McCain was buried at the Naval Academy on a Sunday, and two days later the Senate Judiciary Committee opened brutally partisan hearings for the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. The tenor went downhill from there. Trump continues to use Twitter to viciously attack opponents, including McCain, who even in death still receives his share of Trump barbs on Twitter and at campaign rallies. Since then, the Senate has barely considered any legislative debate on the big issues of the day.

And a contingent of liberal activists are pushing the Democratic 2020 presidential contenders to fight fire with more fire — to be as tough as Trump in order to topple him.

Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the former senator and a close friend of the McCain family, recalled how he took to Twitter to denounce the cursing tone that Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) used to call for impeaching Trump on her first day in office in January. His tweet received more than 30,000 replies, many of them, he said, from liberals saying that Trump acted with that demeanor so Democrats should take the same approach.

“This Trumpism has not just infected the Republican Party,” said Flake, whose clashes with Trump made him deeply unpopular with Arizona Republicans and prompted his retirement.

But McCain’s Democratic friends point the finger squarely at Trump and his hold on GOP lawmakers for the coarseness of politics. McCain’s death was followed by the retirements of Republicans like Flake and Bob Corker (Tenn), the defeat of former Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) in the 2018 primary and the decision of Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) to leave the Republican Party, effectively hollowing out the cadre of GOP Trump critics on Capitol Hill.

“It’s going to be hard to change the course we are on because Trump and Trumpism has such a grip on the Republican Party,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is supporting Cindy McCain’s civility campaign. He said Democrats have nothing “remotely akin to Trumpism.”

In his last months in office, Flake played a key role in the investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh, ultimately voting to confirm the justice. That infuriated liberals and left him on a political island, hated by conservatives and liberals alike.

On Monday, a Chicago man was sentenced to three years’ probation for leaving a voice-mail message threatening to kill Flake during the Kavanaugh confirmation. “My wife sometimes marks the time of how long we’ve been out of office with how long we’ve gone without death threats,” Flake said grimly.

McCain was a force of nature in Washington with an unrivaled global stature

In March, Cindy McCain posted on Twitter a message sent to her on Facebook: The sender was glad the “traitorous” senator had died and wished that her daughter, Meghan, co-host of ABC’s “The View,” would choke to death. That came on the same day Trump renewed his public feud with the late senator.

“This is not acceptable,” she said in the interview.

Jack McCain, the late senator’s son who followed his father’s footsteps into the Naval Academy and then served as a naval aviator, spent most of 2018 and the first few months of this year on a tour of duty in Afghanistan, almost unaware of how toxic things had become since he left Washington after his father’s funeral a year ago.

“I didn’t even have a TV,” he said.

Now back stateside, Jack is in the Navy reserves and deciding on his next career move. He plans to follow military tradition by “staying out of partisan politics” and tries to ignore the social media attacks on his parents.

But he took a long pause when asked how he has handled social media attacks on his interracial marriage. “Anger is not the right word . . . disappointment,” he said.

An entire new generation of lawmakers have come to Congress savvy on social media and willing to regularly attack one another, sometimes in personal terms, without ever having actually met in person.

In his last book, published a couple of months before his death, McCain recalled how he planned what turned out to be his final congressional delegation trip, with a politically diverse group, to visit troops overseas. It included Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — ideological opposites.

“You become friendly, and sometimes you become friends,” said McCain, who wrote “The Restless Wave” with his former chief of staff Mark Salter.

Whitehouse, a regular travel companion of McCain’s, said those bipartisan excursions still happen, pointing to a trip this month to the Arctic Circle led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). But the Senate remains a quiet chamber with few debates on the issues of the day.

“If he were around, he would be speaking out,” Cindy McCain said of her husband.

She realizes that her civility campaign faces a tough challenge. She wants people to take simple actions — Jack McCain plans to talk to several childhood friends that he has always clashed with politically — and share the experience on social media.

The late senator became known for many trials, from getting shot down over Vietnam to losing the 2008 presidential race, but he reveled in the fight.

And that’s why Cindy McCain finds herself often citing one of her husband’s favorite quotes to sum up her challenge: “A fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed.”

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