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To Honor John McCain, His Wife Says, Americans Could Be Nicer To One Another

Aug 21, 2019
Originally published on August 21, 2019 9:53 am

To some, Republican Sen. John McCain embodied principles of a bygone Washington: He sought common ground; he reached across the political divide; he had close friendships with Democrats.

His wife, Cindy McCain, would like to try to get back to those days. So to mark a year since her husband died of brain cancer, she is encouraging Americans to be more civil.

"We're missing John's voice of reason right now in so many ways," McCain tells NPR's David Greene.

In politics and in life, the climate has grown especially nasty since John McCain died. And so, his wife says, to honor his legacy, "it felt to me that the right thing to do was to encourage people to perform acts of civility" during the last week of August and then post about them on social media. "Agree to disagree, but just be civil about it," she says.

John McCain was born on Aug. 29, 1936, and died on Aug. 25, 2018.

Wrapped in that legacy is also his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election, which he lost to Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The choice to pick Palin was criticized as a turning point for the Republican Party, one that set it on the path of, as New York Times columnist David Brooks put it, "anti-intellectualism and disrespect for facts." Cindy McCain disagrees.

"I know the party. Our party, like the Democratic Party, is a good party. We just disagree," she says. "There's problems on both sides."

Cindy McCain at home in Phoenix.
Caitlin O'Hara for NPR

John McCain's legacy has itself become an example of the tenor change in Washington.

The celebrated Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war came under attack in 2015 when Donald Trump — then a candidate campaigning for the presidency — said that McCain was "a war hero because he was captured" and that Trump liked "people that weren't captured."

Trump's criticisms intensified after McCain voted against a Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017. Seven months after McCain died, Trump said he "was never a fan of John McCain, and I never will be."

Cindy McCain says that her husband taught her a lot about how to respond to such attacks.

"It's much easier to be calm and work through this than it is to get angry. Anger doesn't help anything," she says. "It also doesn't help my husband's legacy either, because that's not what he stood for."

McCain tells NPR she thinks the parties can get back their more civil days.

"I think it's going to take some time. There's a lot of healing to be done. But I think we can do it," she says.

The broadcast version of this story was produced and edited by Taylor Haney and Gail Austin.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We visited Cindy McCain at her home in Phoenix, Ariz., this week. This Sunday marks the first anniversary of her husband's death. The late Senator John McCain died after battling brain cancer. I asked for a quick tour of the home, and the first thing Mrs. McCain did was flip a switch backlighting this entire wall of shelving with awards and memories.

CINDY MCCAIN: A lot of his stuff is in storage until our library's open. So that's where most of his stuff will go, but...

GREENE: You also notice two movie directors' chairs in the room side by side. One says John McCain, the other, Cindy McCain. They were from the set of the 2005 movie based on Senator McCain's memoir.

C MCCAIN: Yeah. So these are the chairs that came off the set of "Faith Of My Fathers." It's a great memory. The movie was only so-so, but who cares, right? (Laughter).

GREENE: Mrs. McCain invited us here to tell us about her new civility initiative. She says if in politics and in life Americans could just be a little nicer to one another, that would honor her husband's legacy. He died last year at the McCain ranch near Sedona, Ariz., and that is still an important gathering place for the family. But Mrs. McCain moved into this new home recently. It's in the area of North Phoenix where she grew up and where she and her husband raised their kids.

Was it important to you to come back to the old neighborhood?

C MCCAIN: Yeah. It was. In fact, John and I talked about it before he passed. This was home for me and is home for me. This is safe feeling and feels warm to me.

GREENE: How are you doing? How's the family doing?

C MCCAIN: I'm doing fine. I've kept myself very busy, which I think is helpful. But, you know, I'm not without my moments, for sure. I mean, I'm still not there yet, so (laughter). The kids are all at various stages of this. And, you know, grief's a process. But we're getting there.

GREENE: So tell me about this civility initiative that you're starting. I'd love to hear about it.

C MCCAIN: Well, we had tried to figure out, what should we do on the occasion of the first anniversary? And we're missing John's voice of reason right now in so many ways. So it felt to me that the right thing to do was to encourage people to perform acts of civility. For instance, you have a co-worker at work, and the two of you don't get along. Go talk to that co-worker. Agree to disagree, but just be civil about it. And then post about it on social media with the hashtag #ActsOfCivility.

GREENE: I mean, it's no secret that your husband did not approve of President Trump or the way he conducts himself. To what extent do you blame him for bringing us here?

C MCCAIN: You know, I - there's no blame here. There are actions, and there are reactions to the actions. And a lot of this is there's been no accountability. We have the right to expect more from our leaders. And using language and, you know, encouraging violence in any form from anybody is wrong, is dangerous.

GREENE: I mean, this, as you said yourself, is so wrapped in your husband's legacy. I feel like I have to ask you about one aspect of his legacy. A lot of people point to 2008 and his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. She was out there whipping up crowds, saying things like, Barack Obama pals around with terrorists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH PALIN: Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.

(BOOING)

GREENE: Do you see the kind of enthusiasm and passion that she was bringing out in the Republican Party as linked to today?

C MCCAIN: Let's not confuse passion with negativity. Passion is always good. We want passion. We want people to believe in our leaders and believe in what's truly what we're about as Americans. But it rides a fine line.

GREENE: But David Brooks, The New York Times columnist, he said in a documentary about your husband - he was talking about his choice of Palin - I don't think he could have known it at the time, but he took a disease that was running through the Republican Party - anti-intellectualism, disrespect for facts - and he put it right at the center of the party.

C MCCAIN: I disagree. I disagree.

GREENE: Tell me why.

C MCCAIN: I disagree because I know the party. Our party, like the Democratic Party, is a good party. We just disagree. There's problems on both sides. So I disagree with David Brooks. I respect him as a journalist and a writer, but I disagree.

GREENE: We're talking about civility. I mean, your daughter, Meghan, has talked about the relationship that your family has with Joe Biden, for example. And now that - I mean, he was very important to your family...

C MCCAIN: He was.

GREENE: ...When your husband passed. Does that extend to politics? Would you consider supporting him as president?

C MCCAIN: Joe is a very good friend, and he helped us through a traumatic time in our family. And he was probably the one person that could help us through that. But I don't have any interest in getting into politics or into any of the presidential stuff at all right now.

GREENE: But how do you show the restraint and the civility (laughter)...

C MCCAIN: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...When you have the president of United States basically trashing your husband and his legacy, even his time as a prisoner of war?

C MCCAIN: My husband taught me a lot of things. It's much easier to be calm and work through this than it is to get angry. Anger doesn't help anything. It also doesn't help my husband's legacy 'cause that's not what he stood for. This is the man that went to Vietnam and helped perform and write the documents for normalization, you know, to the people that beat him, severely, almost killed him, and held him for so long. And yet, he wanted to normalize. He felt it was the right thing to do. That's a lesson to be learned.

GREENE: Is there a memory that stays with you you want to share with us?

C MCCAIN: There's so many. I think the proudest in my life that I've ever been of him - and there's many things to be proud about - was the night that he conceded from the 2008 race and the speech that he gave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MCCAIN: I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together.

C MCCAIN: You know, here was this hard-fought fight with great decency. And the disagreement with the issues are one thing, but I didn't feel the negativity.

GREENE: I mean, having covered that, it feels like nostalgia now. I mean, do you actually see us going back...

C MCCAIN: I do.

GREENE: ...There?

C MCCAIN: I think it's going to take some time. There's a lot of healing to be done, but I think we can do it. And I don't think I'm living in Disneyland. I really believe in this. (Laughter). As my kids have accused me on occasion. (Laughter).

GREENE: Have they said that?

C MCCAIN: They just - they - Mom, you're always so - you always think the best of everybody. I go, thank you. (Laughter). I do. I believe in this country, though. I believe in the right things. And it will happen.

GREENE: Mrs. McCain, thank you.

C MCCAIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Cindy McCain. She is launching a new civility initiative to honor her husband, John McCain, who died a year ago this Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.