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Saturday 17 August 2019
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Lessons from John McCain


THERE ARE lessons from the late US Senator John McCain that this country, especially its raucous political class, I think would do well to learn. And practise. The following are excerpts from his speech of July 25, 2017, to the Senate.

“(Former senators, both Republican and Democratic) knew that however sharp and heartfelt their disputes, however keen their ambitions, they had an obligation to work collaboratively to ensure the Senate discharged its constitutional responsibilities effectively. Our responsibilities are important, vitally important, to the continued success of our republic.”

“Our deliberations today… are often lively and interesting. They can be sincere and principled. But they are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember. (They) can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree that they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately... Both sides have let this happen. Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find that we all conspired in our decline – either by deliberate actions or neglect. We’ve all played some role in it…”

“Incremental progress, compromises that each side criticises but also accepts, just plain muddling through to chip away at problems… isn’t glamorous or exciting. It doesn’t feel like a political triumph. But it’s usually the most we can accept from our system of government, operating in a country as diverse and quarrelsome and free as ours.”

“Our system doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives order to our individual strivings… It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when we must give a little to get a little.”

“Let’s trust each other… We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. That’s an approach that’s been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary manoeuvres that requires… Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn’t the most inspiring work…”

“(The Senate plays) a vital role in shaping and directing the judiciary, the military and the cabinet, in planning and supporting domestic and foreign policies. Our success in meeting all these awesome constitutional obligations depends on co-operation among ourselves… This country… needs us to help it thrive. That responsibility is more important than any of our personal interests or political affiliations.”

McCain was speaking in and of the US Senate, but what lessons are there for TT in what he said?

A lesson on national responsibility, which, contrary to the recent utterances of some alarmingly misguided members of our House of Representatives, is “more important than any of our personal interests or political affiliations.”

Within the framework of that responsibility (which to my mind includes personal responsibility), a lesson on the need to collaborate in the discharge of our obligations, constitutional and other, even if mutual trust isn’t easy to achieve in a society as carping and (in Eric Williams’ description) barrel crab-like as ours.

A lesson on focused, if tedious, negotiation in the national welfare. A consequent lesson on compromise, and thus on shunning the absurd concept of “defeating” the other side, often by means that give logic and consistency a bad name, and (except among their acolytes) hardly enhance the reputation of the self-proclaimed “victors.”

A lesson on the pointlessness of, but damage caused by, mindless finger-pointing. A lesson on the imperative to discard (or at least minimise) knee-jerk political partisanship and tribalism, and the puerilities and bile that characterise them and retard our progress. A lesson on abandoning the outmoded and counter-productive “top-down” model of governance, which has afflicted us for decades, in favour of one emphasising genuine communication and consultation.

In his farewell message to America, read two days after his death, McCain reiterated his philosophy. “We weaken our greatness,” he said, “when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down…”

The references to Donald Trump are clear. But what about our walls of race and class and religion and region? Our tribal rivalries, especially political? Wait: what walls? What rivalries? Aren’t all ah we one, and doesn’t every creed and race find an equal place here? With our parliamentarians as exemplars, don’t we make a point of consulting and co-operating and compromising in the national interest? Thus we never talk down to others, or suggest that those who disagree with us are unpatriotic. Our institutional and governance structures are solid. We have realised the 1962 Williams vision of education and nation-building.

McCain? Who he?

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