Senator John McCain died yesterday, at age 81, after a long battle with brain cancer. He was an American hero for his fierce resistance to his North Vietnamese captors after he became a prisoner during the Vietnam War, and after he was released from captivity he forged a long and equally independent record in Congress. He was a proponent of campaign finance reform, a steadfast supporter of veterans, and a strong advocate for the military. McCain was one of those members of Congress who was willing to buck party leadership and reach across the aisle if he felt it was the right thing to do — a reputation that was confirmed when he voted against a repeal of Obamacare — and if I didn’t always agree with his positions, I always felt that he was largely motivated by a sincere belief in what would be best for the country.
It’s an impressive legacy — but for many people, McCain will be remembered primarily as the man who was beaten by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.
McCain’s death got me to thinking about the people who have run for President on a major party ticket in a general election and lost, and how many of them are still living. Two of the oldest members of that group, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, actually won the presidency before losing their bids for re-election. The other living members of the club of people who were unsuccessful in their run for the presidency include Mike Dukakis, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton. All of them have had successful careers in politics and have made different contributions to the country — and all of them will be remembered, at least in part, for the time they lost.
America is a tough place for a politician. The higher they rise, the higher the stakes, and when a person raises the money and makes the speeches and personal appearances and survives the primary system and becomes the nominee of a major political party, the stakes are the highest of all. We routinely honor the winners — at least, most of them, if only for a short period of time — and second-guess and chastise the losers, dissecting their campaigns and pointing out every flaw and flub.
John McCain shows how unfair that perception is. Sure, he never became POTUS, but that fact doesn’t detract from who he was or what he accomplished. He was a lot more than an also-ran.