Amidst the glowing remembrances of Sen. John McCain, I recall fighting him. As a young Senate Judiciary Committee attorney for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, we were locked in a tense battle over immigration policy. Working with Sen. Ted Kennedy, McCain pushed aggressively for comprehensive immigration reform legislation. On the other side, Sessions and many grassroots conservatives worked to defeat it. Even as I stood in opposition, McCain demonstrated an independence that left an indelible impact on my approach to politics.

I was fortunate to be a fly on the wall able to watch John McCain interact with my boss, other senators and staff. When it came to his legislative positions, McCain was a warrior and about as warm as a knuckle sandwich. He was professional, but he wasn’t some wilting flower in the face of stout opposition.

In retrospect, I wasn’t as critical of the arguments I advanced as I should have been. Many of us opposing McCain and Kennedy’s efforts had many valid arguments, but we also shortchanged meritorious reforms. I regrettably bought into the “us” versus “them” mentality that continues to cripple Congress. Most policy matters are complicated; immigration is especially so. McCain possessed a far greater understanding of that reality than I did at the time.

Our side of the legislative battle ultimately scuttled the effort. Branding the legislative push as “amnesty,” I watched talk radio and grassroots conservative activists blister McCain as a Republican-in-name-only (RINO), a squish and–worse still–a Democrat in disguise.

McCain wasn’t bothered…at all.

At the time, I didn’t understand it. McCain broke with conservatives in his own party to push for compromise. He absolutely knew he’d be attacked. I thought he was simply looking for a fight. After all, his “maverick” reputation preceded him.

In reality, McCain’s care and concern for our nation ran deep. His military and political career clearly demonstrates as much. In his farewell statement released after his death, he notes, “‘Fellow Americans’ – that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American.” Perhaps it was that association that led to his fierce independence. McCain took hard positions and tough votes because he thought them best for America. Even if it meant that the people of Arizona sent him packing, McCain pressed on.

Arizona elected to keep him time and again.

Most members of Congress constantly say and do whatever keeps them in office. The thin rationale is that they want to reflect the “will of the people.” The truth is that many of them would rather retain their jobs than lead the people they represent. McCain rejected that path.

More than a decade after I first encountered McCain, I’ve come to appreciate the virtue of a man whose ideas I fought against. Political independence is unbelievably difficult in an era where politics is a team sport and pragmatic dissent is tantamount to ideological treason.

In announcing his 2008 presidential campaign, McCain stated he was running to “do the hard but necessary things, not the easy and needless things.” That seems to have been his political philosophy regardless of the office he held. McCain routinely refused to play the role of a good partisan; maybe that’s why he’s remembered by so many as a great American.

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