It was one of Sen. John McCain’s finest political moments.
At a rally for his presidential bid late in 2008 campaign, an audience member backing the Arizona Republican tells him she doesn’t trust his opponent, then-Sen. Barack Obama and insists that the Illinois Democrat is an Arab.
McCain didn’t let her finish. Instead, he shook his head, took the microphone away from her and did something that would have seemed unimaginable during the most recent presidential election: He politely defended his opponent.
“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign issue is all about,” he said, prompting applause from some other audience members at the gathering in Minnesota.
The short exchange was a shining moment for McCain that gained attention at the time. Instead of indulging in his supporter’s falsehood, he corrected her and showed grace toward his political foe. And it wasn’t an isolated moment.
At the same rally, the crowd earlier had booed McCain’s response to another supporter who said that Obama “cohorts with domestic terrorists” and that Americans would have to fear an Obama presidency. McCain said Obama was a “decent person” and that there would be no reason to be scared if he won the White House.
McCain displayed character and civility that day, as he showed similarly throughout much of his military and political career. Clips from that rally had periodically resurfaced even before his death, as he publicly feuded with President Donald Trump ― who in his short political career has become known for mocking and insulting his opponents and encouraging his supporters to do the same.
Still, context is needed about that rally and the vitriol toward Obama that surfaced at it.
McCain’s campaign and his controversial running mate, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, had disparaged Obama over his acquaintanceship with William Ayers, a domestic terrorist during the Vietnam War era, and exaggerated the link between the two. A campaign ad from a group opposing Obama also played up the link between him and Ayers, who was part of the radical, left-wing group Weather Underground responsible for a series of bombings that happened when Obama was a child.
Palin’s speeches also often inspired rage, with some in her audiences yelling “kill him,” “treason” or “terrorist” at the mention of Obama. Some speakers at McCain-Palin events used his middle name, “Hussein,” in what was clearly intended as a way to question his patriotism ― and which also fueled the birther conspiracy theory.
Writing about the campaign atmosphere at the time, then-New York Times columnist Frank Rich noted that when McCain, during his appearances, “asks the crowd ‘Who is the real Barack Obama?’ it’s no surprise that someone cries out ‘Terrorist.’”
“This sleight of hand at once synchronizes with the poisonous Obama-is-a-Muslim e-mail blasts and shifts the brand of terrorism from [Bill] Ayers’s Vietnam-era variety to the radical Islamic threats of today,” Rich wrote.
And even as McCain’s responses to the barbs directed at Obama during the Minnesota rally 10 years ago garner renewed praise, some noted that he could have made a broader point. When the woman refers to Obama as an Arab and McCain says, “No ... he’s a decent family man, citizen,” without mentioning that that Arabic-speaking people can also be decent citizens.
McCain’s campaign later condemned the offensive comments made at the Minnesota event, calling them “inappropriate rhetoric.”
Eventually, in his memoir, McCain revealed that he regretted choosing Palin as his running mate instead of then-Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who labeled himself at that point an “independent Democrat.”
Despite their contentious 2008 campaign, McCain and Obama maintained a mutual respect for each other. While conceding to Obama on the night of the election, McCain stopped his supporters from booing his opponent and said he admired how Obama “inspired the hopes of so many millions of Americans.”
McCain has reportedly asked Obama to give a eulogy at his funeral. In a statement released after McCain’s death, Obama’s regard for the senator was clear.
“Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own,” Obama wrote. “At John’s best, he showed us what that means.”
McCain, for his part, offered a typically candid assessment when asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper in 2017 how he wanted to be remembered: “He served his country and not always right. Made a lot of mistakes. Made a lot of errors, but served his country. And I hope we could add honorably.”