Senator John McCain rises

Published 10:46 am Wednesday, August 2, 2017

by John Railey

When U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona rose to speak on the floor last week, part of his face stitched up from the surgery that revealed he has a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer, I was hoping the Republican known for his contrarian stances would shock the country by standing up for Obamacare.

Kris Kristofferson sings in “Me and Bobby McGee” that “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” The freedom-loving McCain had nothing left to lose in reversing his earlier stance and coming out for an Obamacare overhaul.

It didn’t quite work out that way. But a vote McCain made late last week made clear to me that there is still room for dreamers like me to dream and heroic leaders like McCain to act.

Cancer, usually considered the province of nightmares, also leaves room for dreams and changes, both in those it hits and those who surround them.

I think of a phone call from a cancer patient I received in February 2014. Ann Marie Ingram was upset about political cartoons and columns we’d run critical of Obamacare. She and I quickly figured out she was part of a family that contains three members I count as good and longtime friends. She calmed down. I encouraged her to write a letter to our Readers’ Forum. She did so, including these lines:

“It makes me feel bad to see those cartoons and articles saying people with Obamacare are less likely to work. You see, I am one of those people, and I work.

“I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year. I started back to work as a physical therapist a month after finishing chemo. My medical bills totaled $130,400 last year.

“My share was $11,000; Blue Cross/Blue Shield paid the rest. Now my pre-existing condition is still covered, my deductible went down, and the subsidies are helping me pay the premiums while I get back on my feet … There are a lot of people like … me, and we have names and faces. Here’s mine.”

We ran her photo with her letter. She was bald from chemotherapy. She was beautiful. And so was her letter. She’d worked hard as a physical therapist, a book editor and as a rescuer of countless abused and neglected dogs and cats.

Her words caused me to be more careful about the cartoons and columns we choose to run on Obamacare and its severely awkward rollout. I’m not saying it was a road to Damascus moment for me. Personally, I liked Obamacare. Then and now. I believe the best plan for all the uninsured would be for Republicans and Democrats to finally join and majorly tweak it.

Thinking back on Anne Marie’s call and McCain’s current situation, I realize that, as with so many social justice fights, talking to people who stand to lose the most can change hearts the most.

McCain has the same type of cancer that killed his friend Sen. Ted Kennedy and the son of his friend, former senator and Vice President Joe Biden, all Democrats.

Early last week, the 80-year-old McCain, that iconic hero of the Vietnam War and fine candidate for president in 2008, made a dramatic entrance to the Senate floor to the adoration of Republican and Democratic colleagues. He gave a rousing speech, lashing out at the bitter partisanship that divides our land as well as the autocratic antics of his fellow Republican, President Trump. He included himself in the blame for the divide. He blasted the process under which Obamacare was conceived, as well as the process by which the Senate’s bill has proceeded.

The Associated Press reported that “Arizona is one of 31 states that expanded Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s health-care law, and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is worried about tens of thousands losing their health insurance. That has to be addressed, said McCain. McCain himself campaigned heavily on the ‘Obamacare’ repeal issue last year as he won re-election to a sixth and almost certainly final Senate term.”

McCain joined his GOP in voting for a motion to proceed, allowing a process that could ultimately take down Obamacare.

But late last week, McCain cast the decisive vote that defeated the “skinny repeal” of Obamacare. His is a profile in courage.

He’ll likely catch heck from The Right. Earlier in the week, haters had sprung out from The Left, calling McCain’s vote to proceed a sellout, especially considering that he, just as all members of Congress, will continue to have great health care, no matter the outcome of this fight.

Anne Marie Ingram died on May 28 from cancer. Her sister Sarah Sue Ingram, one of my first and favorite editors, who was also on Obamacare, had died of cancer on March 14, 2016. Their surviving sister, Kay Walker, told me that Obamacare eased the last times of their lives. I think about Anne Marie and Sarah Sue and all those still living with cancer and other illnesses on Obamacare, as well as those just being protected from future illnesses.

And I think about McCain’s cancer and his courage.

Regardless of his political positions, nobody should ever hate that hero.

America, which McCain rightly called Tuesday “this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good and magnificent country,” should be bigger than hate and petty politics.

Sen. John McCain showed last week that it can be.

JOHN RAILEY,  who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor of The Winston-Salem Journal, which published this column.