I suppose you’ll regard me a sentimental old fluff, but I’ve always had a soft spot for politicians who say nice things about their opponents. Partisanship in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere has grown so absolute in recent years, mutating into more and more of a zero-sum blood sport, that it feels outright quaint when some senator or other puts in a good word for a colleague of the other party—especially when he or she has no particular reason to do so.
As the nation commemorates the death of John McCain—war hero, senator and two-time presidential candidate—a great deal has been said and written about the moment in 2008 when McCain defended the honor of Barack Obama against the racist ranting of some idiot at a town hall. (The audience member called Obama “an Arab.” McCain responded, “He’s a decent family man.”) While one can argue McCain’s retort was itself racist—who knew Islam and decency were mutually exclusive?—it was plainly, if clumsily, meant in a spirit of generosity towards a man who, at that moment, posed an existential threat to McCain’s greatest ambition in life: the presidency.
While that flourish of sportsmanship had acquired near-mythical status even before McCain’s death, what has been largely forgotten is how careful then-Senator Obama was about showing due deference to McCain every time his name came up. Watch any stump speech from that period, and you’ll find Obama preceding virtually any criticism of his electoral adversary with some iteration of, “John McCain is an American hero and we honor his service.”
For Obama, there were both moral and strategic reasons to maintain an effusive respect for McCain’s personal history and character, and they reflected well on both men. Having not served in the armed forces himself—much less withstood five-and-half years of torture as a prisoner of war—Obama understood he could not attempt to out-patriot McCain without making himself look ridiculous, so instead he simply conceded the point and moved on.
In so doing, Obama demonstrated both a humility and self-confidence about his lack of military service that few other non-veteran politicos (including a certain sitting president) possess. It was as if to say, “I don’t need to be the braver man in order to be the better president.” In the end, the American people agreed.
Because presidential (and other) elections have grown exponentially nastier over the past decade, with candidates loath to cede the slightest advantage to their challengers—reticent, indeed, to view them as human beings—it has largely fallen to the press to coax a touch of class out of these otherwise soulless contests. More often than not, televised debates will feature some version of the question, “What is one thing you admire about your opponent?” It’s an entirely worthy query to include in a public forum, precisely because so few politicians are willing (or able) to provide an honest answer. As such, their responses often provide a useful insight into their psyches.
Historically, the most typical response is an approximation of Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, when she offered that the most (read: only) admirable thing about Donald Trump was the apparent love of his family—a weak, lazy, evasive answer that recalls Bill Maher’s quip, “Hitler’s dog liked him.” Oddly, Trump’s (forced) compliment for Clinton—“She doesn’t quit; she doesn’t give up; I respect that”—registered as the far more genuine and heartfelt of the two. Who’d a thunk?
More impressive still—not least for its specificity—was Elizabeth Warren in her first Senate race, in 2012, against Republican incumbent Scott Brown, whom she complimented in a debate for his Senate vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that had prevented LGBT soldiers from serving openly. As a liberal Democrat in Massachusetts, Warren would’ve had good reason not to mention what was arguably Brown’s most progressive act in the Senate—i.e., the decision most likely to win him a decisive number of Democratic votes on Election Day—yet, instead, she gave him credit for doing the right thing at a critical moment, unafraid that it would backfire at the polls. In the end, it didn’t.
And why should it have? For all the junk energy the public derives from WWE-style political gamesmanship, Americans equally appreciate—and are presently starved for—such old-time virtues as generosity, modesty and temperance from their representatives on Capitol Hill. We may no longer expect that sort of upstanding behavior from these disreputable people, but seeing as we continue to pay their salaries and bear the consequences of all their official acts, we should jolly well demand nothing less.
Speaking well of one’s counterparts, however disagreeable, constitutes a form of charity in an otherwise bankrupt world—a means of acknowledging someone else’s humanity even while engaged in a political duel to the death—and it is my fondest wish that more public figures would the run the risk of making other people look good every now and again, understanding that, in a roundabout way, it will make themselves look pretty good, too.