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Commentary: John McCain, up close, was remarkable leader

Dakota Rudesill

The first time I was on the floor of the U.S. Senate, John McCain yelled at me. Loudly.

It was 1996 and I was there with my boss, Sen. Kent Conrad, working to pass Conrad's amendment regarding B-52 bombers. McCain was managing the annual defense authorization bill, and McCain thought the amendment was micromanaging the military. The veins bulged on his neck as he let us have it.

McCain stopped for a second and Conrad shot me a look that said, "Well, this could be going better." By this time Sen. Sam Nunn and Sen. Dan Inouye, legendary senior members of the Armed Services and Defense Appropriations panels, had joined us around Conrad's Senate desk. Having helped draft the amendment, I mustered every bit of courage I had and told McCain with respect that he misunderstood the amendment, and instead should support it.

It told me a lot about McCain that he admitted he was wrong. And he did so after being challenged by a young staff member (he called me "boy"), right in front of his Senate colleagues, and indeed in front of colleagues from the other party. He didn't double down on being wrong. He just said "we can work this out." Blow-up over, McCain pumped our hands and slapped me on the back. Hard.

It takes courage to admit you are wrong, just as it does to tell other people they are wrong, too. In Congress, McCain led a bipartisan investigation and took on the conventional wisdom that there were still American POWs in Vietnam. Despite public fears of terrorism, he wrote the law reaffirming torture's illegality. He pushed back against powerful sentiment in his own party on climate change, health care, and campaign finance. In front of the cameras, he corrected voters at his rallies who questioned the patriotism and citizenship of his opponent for the presidency, Barack Obama.

The McCain I saw up close in the Senate was a leader who truly led. He shaped opinion. He would put the hard facts and American principles above political expediency. At a time when too many politicians tell folks things that they want to believe that are actually false, McCain was a true truth teller. I can't think of another political figure of our time who was better at telling people, especially in their own camp, that they are wrong.

Maybe he always had that courage, or maybe he developed it during his long years of imprisonment and torture as a POW. He was also courageously reflective: In his speeches and books, he admitted his own failings, particularly his very human tendencies toward ego and self-pity.

Of course, he wasn't perfect. There was the explosive temper. He could be an unreliable legislator. He picked Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, helping open the door to the mainstreaming of attacks on professional reporters, politics-as-reality-show, and leaders with little regard for the facts.

But as with all of us, you have to assess Sen. John McCain on balance, and on balance he was a remarkable leader and citizen. I wish we had a lot more like him.

Rudesill, now an assistant professor of law at The Ohio State University, is a Fargo native. You can reach him in Columbus, Ohio, at