He often sought to meet with political dissidents, just so he could give us courage and ask how he could help. And also because he had a soft spot for the underdogs fighting against tyrants. When Russia invaded Georgia while he was running for president, McCain declared, “Today, we’re all Georgians!” This wasn’t a campaign stunt either, even though he was in the middle of a campaign. He would have stood with the Georgians no matter what he’d been doing at the time.
Following the breakout of the Syrian Civil War, while Republicans were scoring partisan points against Obama administration’s idleness, McCain sneaked into Syria to talk to the rebels and ask how he could help. A true believer in the cause of liberty, he was one of the last Republicans in the tradition of Reagan, or really the tradition of Diodotus, who still believed that justice and interest were compatible.
He also was a champion for respect. I remember seeing him at a defense conference once, before I’d gotten to meet him. He was on a panel with a dovish Democratic congressman as his foil. I was an idiot college kid and during the Q&A session, I asked a question and took a cheap shot at the Democrat, thinking it might please my hero, John McCain. The crowd cheered me. But McCain scolded me and defended his colleague. To this day, that remains one of the most humbling—and important—experiences of my life. I will forever be indebted to him for it. In that one moment, he made me a better man and taught me how to be a better American.