John McCain on Obama's speech: Can he return to his old bipartisan self?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 14 2011 5:56 PM

McCain Reaches Out

Can John McCain return to his old bipartisan self?

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
John McCain

John McCain has extended a hand to his old rival. Writing in the pages of the Washington Post, McCain praises President Obama for his remarks at the Tucson memorial on Wednesday and makes his own commitment to not let his passion get the best of him. He also bears witness. Referring to the president, McCain writes: "He is a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country's cause. I reject accusations that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America or opposed to its founding ideals."

McCain also defends Sarah Palin, though he never mentions her name. Using the same call to empathy and the golden rule that Obama invoked in his speech in Tucson, McCain asks that those who criticized Palin and other conservatives put themselves in her shoes:

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. It does not ask too much of human nature to have the empathy to understand how wrong an injury that is or appreciate how strong a need someone would feel to defend him or herself against such a slur.

It is a more artful defense of Palin than the former Alaska governor mounted for herself. But McCain was also speaking from experience. During the presidential campaign, when McCain supporters were questioning Obama's values and commitment to the country, Rep. John Lewis, a leader and hero of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, leveled a similar charge at McCain. Asserting that "there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse," Lewis charged McCain with "sowing the seeds of hatred and division" and compared McCain to the segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace. "George Wallace never threw a bomb," Lewis said in a statement. "He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama."

McCain has signed on to the idea of mixing up the seating at the State of the Union address as a way to improve relations between the parties and send a message of civility. Instead of following tradition and sitting with their party, members of Congress will sit with members of the opposition. They won't just cross the aisle—they're planning to remove it. You can imagine the White House taking advantage of McCain's op-ed and using a handshake between the two bitter presidential rivals to reinforce the theme of the night. Perhaps McCain can add one more important symbolic gesture and sit next to John Lewis.

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John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.