In light of the news of John McCain’s death on Saturday, Aug. 25, people on both sides of the political aisle are taking a moment to remember the senator who made a name for himself by being unafraid to cross party lines. While you might not have agreed with all of his political opinions, you couldn't help but look up to him for treating political opponents like President Obama with esteem and respect while keeping the focus on the issues at hand. So it's fitting that the video of John McCain defending Barack Obama back in October 2008 against a racist voter is recirculating.
In the 10-year-old video, which shows McCain interacting with potential voters during a town hall meeting in Lakeville, Minnesota while campaigning for the presidency, the Arizona senator could be seen putting his foot down when a woman tried making racist and totally unfounded birther theory statements about President Obama.
The YouTube clip shows a woman coming up to McCain and confiding, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, um, he’s an Arab." Rather than let the erroneous and totally offensive statement fly, McCain took back the microphone to set the record straight.
"No, ma’m," he told the woman. "[Obama is] 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], thank you."
While the responses to his statement from the crowd in 2008 were mixed — Buzzfeed reports that the crowd heckled and booed his words, while a few people clapped for the show of sportsmanship — McCain didn't back down from the bigotry.
Later, he told a voter who claimed that he was "scared" of an Obama presidency, "I have to tell you, Senator Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States."
Watching the video now, it's hard not to make comparisons to the campaign style of the 2016 election that included many unfounded and race-based fear-mongering statements from then-candidate Donald Trump, such as in June 2016 when he referred to Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and "bringing drugs" and "crime" to the United States, per Time. It's unsurprising that this 2008 video of McCain demonstrating respect for a political opponent in the face of racist supporters is trending once again, as people are in search of hope in the very confusing and dark political time that is 2018.
Despite several claims from Twitter users that McCain was basically implying that being of Arabic descent is incompatible with being a "decent family man," I think it's pretty clear from the clip that he was trying to calm down a crowd of angry Republicans that were using the totally unfounded birther theories to discredit the fact that Obama should even be running for the presidency. McCain was replying to the racist implications of the woman's question — he was not agreeing with them.
He was not saying that there was anything wrong with being of Arab descent or being a practicing Muslim, because that wasn't the issue at hand. The real issue was that figures on the right were circulating false rumors about the Democratic presidential candidate (in this case, that he was an Arab or a practicer of Islam), which were totally unfounded statements, and McCain was confirming (without naming it) that Obama is a Christian and also a "decent family man." Per a Pew report, former Secretary of State Colin Powell may have more eloquently put the matter to bed in 2008 when he endorsed Obama for president on NBC's Meet The Press. Powell said at the time,
Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim. He’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no. That’s not America. Is something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?
McCain's more pithy defense of Obama in 2008 is just another example of how he got his nickname of the "maverick" by standing up to party members for what he believed was right, a trademark that was echoed in President Obama's posthumous tribute to his one-time opponent.
"John McCain and I were members of different generations, came from completely different backgrounds, and competed at the highest level of politics. But we shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher – the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched, and sacrificed," President Obama shared in a heartfelt message on Facebook.
He concluded, "We saw our political battles, even, as a privilege, something noble, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those high ideals at home, and to advance them around the world. We saw this country as a place where anything is possible – and citizenship as our patriotic obligation to ensure it forever remains that way."
McCain is being remembered for upholding "those high ideals" in the days following his death.