Sen. John McCain lost a bitter campaign against Barack Obama in 2008 and has been at loggerheads with him for much of Obama's first two years in office. But the Arizona Republican this weekend called Obama a "patriot" intent on using his presidency to "advance our country's cause" and rejected accusations -- many coming from members of his own party and the tea party movement -- "that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America."
McCain made his comments in an article he wrote
for The Washington Post opinion page, posted on Saturday, in which he praised Obama for giving a "terrific speech" in Tucson at a tribute for victims of the shooting rampage that took place there a week ago.
McCain said that Obama had "comforted and inspired the country" and performed an important service by encouraging "every American who participates in our political debates -- whether we are on the left or right or in the media -- to aspire to a more generous appreciation of one another and a more modest one of ourselves."
"Our political discourse should be more civil than it currently is, and we all, myself included, bear some responsibility for it not being so," McCain said.
The shootings in Arizona have prompted much introspection about the tone and tenor of American politics even though the reasons why the suspected gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, carried out the massacre remain obscured by his history of bizarre behavior
But the fact that his victims included a congresswoman holding a community meeting and the constituents who came to speak with her was likely a factor in connecting the violent incident to the political debate, along with suggestions and accusations that the rhetoric of political partisans had contributed to what had happened.
Obama has been one target of harsh political rhetoric since running for and becoming president. Some of it has questioned whether he really shares the values of most Americans; accused him of pushing the country in a socialist direction; and, suggested that he does not have an appreciation
for the United States as an "exceptional" nation.
On the other side of the spectrum, some critics have implied or outrightly suggested
that the rhetoric of McCain's former running mate, Sarah Palin, and some in the tea party movement, was responsible for what occurred in Arizona by using inflammatory imagery, including Palin's now-famous map putting gunsights over congressional districts she was targeting and the 2009 quote from Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota in which she said she wanted people "armed and dangerous" on the issue of the Democrats' energy proposal.
McCain wrote that Obama had "appropriately disputed the injurious suggestion that some participants in our political debates were responsible for a depraved man's inhumanity."
While not specifically mentioning Palin, McCain appeared to be referring to her, in saying, "Imagine how it must feel to have watched one week ago the incomprehensible massacre of innocents committed by someone who had lost some essential part of his humanity, to have shared in the heartache for its victims and in the admiration for those who acted heroically to save the lives of others -- and to have heard in the coverage of that tragedy voices accusing you of complicity in it."
But as the former GOP standard-bearer, McCain also spoke out against those who have sought to paint Obama's views as inimical to American ideals.
"I disagree with many of the president's policies, but I believe he is a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country's cause," McCain said. "I reject accusations that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America or opposed to its founding ideals. And I reject accusations that Americans who vigorously oppose his policies are less intelligent, compassionate or just than those who support them."
During the 2008 campaign, Palin had said of Obama
: "This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America. ... Our opponent though, is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country?" (She was referring to onetime left wing radical William Ayers, who participated in some Chicago educational projects with which Obama had been involved).
"His worldview is dramatically different than any president, Republican or Democrat, we've had," Mike Huckabee told Politico
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a possible GOP presidential contender in 2012, said to the National Review
in September, "What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior."
While there is no way to tell whether those particular statements had an impact, a USA Today/Gallup poll
in December found that while 80 percent of Americans thought that America "has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world," more than a third said Obama does not share that belief.
McCain said in his article: "It probably asks too much of human nature to expect any of us to be restrained at all times by persistent modesty and empathy from committing rhetorical excesses that exaggerate our differences and ignore our similarities. But I do not think it is beyond our ability and virtue to refrain from substituting character assassination for spirited and respectful debate."
McCain's sentiments were echoed on CBS' "Face the Nation" by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York: "In the first moments after this, there was a rush to judgment on both sides, you know, left-wingers trying to blame it on right-wing tea party, Sarah Palin; right-wingers trying to fight back and defend themselves against what was really an outrageous charge. ... And I thought the president's speech put it on a different tone. And I think we have a chance, even though a couple of days later; I think we have a chance to do the same thing that we did after September 11."