Dan Weeks: This is what the straight-talking senator from Arizona meant to me

For the Monitor
Published: 9/2/2018 12:09:49 AM

I’ll never forget that stage in the Downtown Manchester Hotel on a blustery January afternoon in 2000. We were days away from New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, and my high school friends and I were determined not to let the moment pass us by.

For nearly two years, we had been building Democracy in Practice, an audacious youth venture through which we sought to make our voices heard on the issues of the day. We had organized civic forums with fellow students around the state and even printed bumper stickers with the slogan “Democracy is a verb” to declare our allegiance not to one party or another but to democracy itself.

Now we were ready for our main event: the first-ever College and High School Convention 2000. It would be a gathering “of, by, and for the youth,” where our voices would finally be heard, unfiltered, by the person who mattered most for our collective future – the next president of the United States. But none of the big-name candidates seemed to care. Days before the convention was set to begin, only a handful of unknown candidates had confirmed. It appeared as if all our efforts would be in vain.

Then word arrived that Sen. John McCain, whose meteoric rise in the polls had started turning heads, would be our honored guest on the Friday afternoon. And speaking of honors, it was my good fortune, as the convention’s emcee, to introduce the Arizona senator and moderate his Q&A with the more than 1,000 New Hampshire students in attendance, as the national media looked on.

It was a thrill. For an hour or so following my feeble introduction, the stocky senator paced the stage, mic in hand, talking to us not as kids to be patted on the head but as “my friends.” To the man who had faced death head-on in the name of American ideals (however compromised) in Vietnam, we were real live citizens living out those same ideals. It did not matter that most of us (myself included) were too young to vote for him; McCain made clear that we had every right to stake our claim to that great American experiment called democracy.

As he moved from opening statement to Q&A, I quickly realized my efforts as time-keeping moderator were beside the point. The straight-talking senator went straight to the audience in that same free-wheeling town hall format he had taken to every corner of New Hampshire – a tactic he would repeat in 2008 when he again mounted a stunning come-from-behind victory in New Hampshire.

As far as McCain was concerned, everyone had a right to speak and ask their question. If he could answer, he would. If he thought you were wrong, he would say so plainly and ask you to reconsider. If you insulted his opponents, he would defend their honor as fellow Americans who loved their country, too. I do not think he missed a single question from the assembled students in Manchester.

As for the substance of his remarks that afternoon, and throughout the 2000 campaign, two themes come immediately to mind. The first was service. At a rally in Nashua launching his N.H. campaign the previous summer, McCain had declared in no uncertain terms that “it is because I owe America more than she has ever owed me that I am a candidate for president to the United States.” He repeated the sentiment wherever he went and convinced many of my fellow students and me that we were also called to serve. When I noticed on stage that his hands would never rise above his shoulders because of injuries he had suffered decades earlier as a prized prisoner of war who refused to break under torture in Vietnam, my sense of awe only deepened.

The second theme was systemic reform. In words I would later commit to memory as I took up his cause of campaign finance reform, McCain declared that all who served in Congress, himself included, were “defenders of an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.” In no uncertain terms, McCain cast his campaign as “a fight to take our government back from the power brokers and special interests and return it to the people and the noble cause of freedom it was created to serve.”

Although his words may sound poll-tested today, they placed the maverick senator far outside the mainstream of his party and cost him dearly when it came to needed support. What’s more, he walked the talk. More than any other member of Congress at the time, McCain backed his fighting words with action, devoting a decade of his storied senate career to campaign finance reform and winning passage of the landmark McCain-Feingold law banning soft money in 2002.

Needless to say, it was a day to remember for this impressionable 16-year-old as I was starting to contemplate the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. His presence on that stage, days before his landslide win over George W Bush in the N.H. primary, did more than make our convention and excite the heck out of me. Together with another legend of democracy, New Hampshire’s late, great Granny D, McCain helped steer our humble organization and me toward democratic reform and taught me what it meant to be a public servant.

In an age of bitter partisanship and false facts from the commander in chief, our country would do well to follow the “McCain way” of decency, integrity, sacrifice and respect. Our future as a great and good nation is at stake.

(Dan Weeks co-founded Democracy in Practice at ConVal High School in 1998 and later became the first executive director of Open Democracy, a nonpartisan reform organization in Concord. He currently chairs the Open Democracy Advisory Board and lives in Nashua with his wife and kids.)

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