Reaching out in the spirit of John McCain

Sen. John McCain was a model for today’s politicians, refusing to turn politics into a blood sport and maintaining relationships across party divisions.
Sen. John McCain was a model for today’s politicians, refusing to turn politics into a blood sport and maintaining relationships across party divisions. NYT

To the winners of the Nov. 6 election, I offer congratulations and a modest proposal. Reach out to the losers. And reach out to other elected leaders who do not share all your viewpoints.

Let the spirit of John McCain live within you.

I have an abiding respect for Sen. McCain. I didn’t always agree with his positions, but I deeply admired his courage, integrity, independence and especially his ability to work with others.

If all public leaders would follow McCain’s example, our country and state would be saner and stronger.

My admiration for McCain increased the longer he lived, especially during the last few months of his life. To the end, he voted his conscience. I grieved his passing so much that I flew the Los Banos Veterans flag in my front yard for a week, from the day he died until the day he was buried.

Perhaps his finest moment came when he was running for president and a woman in the audience insisted that Barack Obama was an Arab – implying he was somehow anti-American. “No ma’am,” said McCain, taking the microphone from the woman. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about.”

If only more politicians could say something like that in defense of their opponents. But most would rather belittle the other person. McCain knew better. He knew that in the long run he would be judged by others and by his Creator, not on whether he was a winner but whether he was a good person.

McCain knew he could get things done in the Senate by reaching across the aisle to others with whom he could find common ground. Why can’t this happen today? Both Republicans and Democrats are more interested in appealing to an angry or fearful “base” than in solving problems.

The same principle of reaching out to others applies to local government.

I hope the winners of the city and school board elections in Los Banos work hard to go beyond whatever differences they have to achieve common goals.

It only takes a little humility to follow this approach.

I was worked for a community college for four decades, seeing the challenges of education from differing perspectives. I worked for many years as an instructor and was part of the teachers’ union. Later, I served as an administrator and was a member of the district’s negotiating team.

When I began as an administrative negotiator, my district approached negotiations in an “adversarial” manner, in which both sides take rigid stands and gradually, often through attorneys, reach an agreement.

This always resulted in hard feelings. But even after negotiations had ended, I could look my “adversaries” in the eye, and (sometimes after some deep breaths) say, “I respect you and your position, even though my position is different.”

Later the district moved to something called “interest-based” negotiations, less formal and less adversarial. Discussions began with agreements about what we had in common, where our “interests” aligned. Then we proceeded to areas where we differed.

An underlying premise is a willingness to understand the other person’s perspective. Both sides could sometimes be far apart, but persons on both sides realized they were representing something bigger than themselves.

Even when the sides disagreed the most vigorously, they knew they were fulfilling vital roles. And when negotiations were completed, and both sides knew the settlement was fair though neither side got exactly what it wanted, all of the persons involved were able to shake hands and go out to share beverages.

Such camaraderie is only possible when both sides treat each other with civility and respect, two qualities absent from today’s in public forums.

It may be too much to expect civil and respectful interactions today from public figures at the national and state levels. But it’s something we can expect from local leaders. Many Los Banos city council and school board members exemplify this collaborative spirit.

If this spirit flourishes in the years ahead, local leaders can show by their example that even when we come from different perspectives we can reach out to each other in mutual respect and civility. And in the spirit of John McCain.

John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email john.spevak@gmail.com.