Lessons from the life of Senator McCain

In 2008, Arizona Senator John McCain became widely known in Kenya as the White House contender who was pulling out all the stops to prevent Kenya’s ‘son’, his then-Illinois colleague Barack Obama, from becoming the first American President of African descent.

Not many in Kenya, however, knew what a dignified human being Mr McCain, who was making a second stab at the White House race having lost to George W. Bush in 2000, was.

Here was a man who had fought many wars, literally and figuratively, and won and lost in equal measure.

The death of Senator McCain on Saturday was the last of such wars. He had battled an aggressive form of brain cancer bravely, knowing when to exit wit victory in the hearts of his family and millions worldwide who cherished his ideals.

For three decades in politics, since 1980, and many before as a navy serviceman, MCain served the United States in distinguished places, earning his votes each election cycle because the State of Arizona believed in his representation.


An incident during a campaign rally in Lakeville, Minnesota, as Republican presidential nominee on Friday, October 10, 2008, stands out.

Weeks before the decisive election, at a venue packed with Republicans, an elderly voter voiced deeply biased untruths, alluding to the effect that Democratic Party nominee Obama was of Arabic origin and, hence, in her view, “lacked in fundamental Christian family values” for the job.

This was a political narrative immensely strategic in political capital, a promotion of ‘othering’ and belonging meant to cast Obama as an outsider, and very popular with the extremist conservative fringes of the Republican voting base.


Calm, graceful and with abundance of caution, when he got back to speaking, McCain went straight to clarifying that his opponent was not an Arab but an American citizen by birth and a great family man with whom their only disagreement stemmed from economic, social and political issues surrounding the campaign.

To the chagrin of the audience, he passed a golden chance to pander to socio-ethnic and cultural biases of his voting base.

At the peak of political campaigns in Kenya, politicians use such platforms to plant and entrench discord, carry out character assassination on their opponents and spew expletives that allude to the anatomy.

Their intention is to paint their opponents so negatively that the issues of national concern disappear.


That drives a wedge between supporters and plants ethnic discord, leading to deadly post-election violence and long-lasting bitterness among Kenyans.

McCain lived what he believed in and preached: Country first. He first lay down his life for Country in the Vietnam War, where he was tortured while a prisoner of war for half a decade.

Towards his death, McCain openly differed with the rank and file of his party, including President Donald Trump, over issues fundamental to Americans — particularly the repeal of ‘Obamacare’.

Kenya’s political class can learn a lot from the US senator.

Mr Ogutu is a post-graduate student at the University of Nairobi’s School of Journalism.. dickg211@gmail.com.

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