The photos that flow Monday following the meeting of President-elect Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain will be uplifting, full of smiles, and good for the image of America as united democracy. But they will pale next to those from last January of the two men, which hopefully will prove to be more telling and important about the future relationship between the two opponents.
Last January, after the only presidential debate where all candidates from both parties crossed on stage at the same time, remarkable photos emerged and appeared on the front pages of many newspapers of Obama and McCain together, smiling and genuinely brotherly, sharing thoughts and passion and, dare I say, a father-to-son hug.
Two generations, united for our good, I dreamed when I saw that. At the time, I mused about the possible bipartisan dream ticket — McCain-Obama, 2008 and then Obama-McCain in 2012. A true “change” ticket.
Of course, that was a political fantasy. However, there is a chance yet to make a version of it a reality. And it would be good for both men and our nation.
My ears perked up during McCain’s gracious concession speech when he mentioned the words “My good friend, Joe Biden,” who will of course be the next vice president. McCain and Biden are like-minded when it comes to honoring the Senate and respecting friendships; they also share a well-regarded dedication to that body and to this nation. Through Biden, both men have a pipeline to each other that they may find very beneficial.
In his concession speech, McCain promised an “earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences, and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”
Obama would be wise to take McCain up on that offer to work together. As one who covered McCain in 2000 and afterwards, it is clear he means that.
McCain should now do what he did after his 2000 presidential run — return to the Senate and become a key member and senior statesman. He is a unique voice, and an alliance between Obama in the White House and McCain in the Senate could help both sides — Obama by having a Republican ally on some issues, and McCain to help rebuild his own power.
No matter what the final number of Democrats will be in the Senate, Obama will need Republican votes to ensure, and perhaps improve, passage of his legislative agenda. McCain has been a key bipartisan on issues of immigration reform, judicial selection and of course campaign finance reform — so much that it put his quest for his own party’s presidential nomination in jeopardy.
There are other issues ready for this partnership. McCain is a strong voice opposing the use of torture. He is wise about climate change. There is also the question of Iraq. Obama and McCain working together on that, with Biden as the liaison, would most likely produce the best result for the United States and Iraq.
Both men can learn from each other. Obama would help give McCain the tact and public appeal that the Arizona senator sometimes lacks.
McCain has crossed party lines to buck his party, sponsored important legislation on controversial issues, and taken unpopular public stands — things Obama has never done.
After his 2000 run at the Republican presidential nomination, McCain went back to the U.S. Senate stronger than ever before. He had achieved something rare for one defeated in the quest for a party presidential nomination, creating a fervent, national base of supporters. (An accomplishment matched notably only by Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1980.) That newfound support permitted McCain to unleash the maverick that was then, and still is, inside of him, to forge the bipartisan teams on crucial issues and to stand up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s misguided policies of paucity in regards to troop deployments.
The resulting surge, upon which McCain campaigned this year, was something he had pushed for from the onset — enough troops to do the job properly. One can argue whether going to war with Iraq was right or wrong, but once there, few would argue the job should not be done properly and as expedient as possible.
In unpublished chats and interviews with McCain in 2001 and 2002, he said to me how he felt more connected to the country and its citizens after his 2000 experience. “It has been surprising that most who run for president and lose are diminished by the experience. I believe my influence and my ability to influence the process has been enhanced,” McCain said then. “Perhaps because the issues I was running on were larger than my personal candidacy.”
As he joined with others to forge bipartisan agreements, McCain pondered what issues he would support and provide his good brand name. His strength was augmented by being one of the most frequent guests on television news shows.
That all can come back to him now in service to the new president and to the nation.
McCain got trounced at the polls, and it has to hurt. Yet from what I have seen and know of him, he knows how to come back.
If a President Obama is serious about working across party lines, a reach out to McCain for a true partnership would be wise for many reasons.
Then that marvelous photo run by so many newspapers in January will come true and be the one that matters.
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