Are you familiar with a John McCain moment? I want to remind you of a John McCain moment and invite you, if you haven’t already, to adopt it.
Remember in October 2008 when Sen. John McCain was campaigning against Sen. Barack Obama? There were rumors floating that Obama was an Arab. During a televised town hall, this happened: A woman holding the microphone said to McCain about Obama, “He is an Arab.” Sen. McCain reached for the microphone, removed it from her hand and respectfully said, “No, no, ma’am. He is a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is about. Thank you.” To this response from Sen. McCain, the audience applauded.
There are moments that invite us to exercise moral courage. These are moments where we have a choice to make. We can choose good over bad, right over wrong, courage over cowardliness, strength over weakness, thoughtfulness over impulsiveness and leadership over inefficacy. These are what I call “John McCain moments.” This is where undaunted and unapologetic decency and truth are on full display. They are discernable, credible and laudable.
There are moments that invite us to exercise moral courage. These are moments where we have a choice to make.
Making a comment or asking a question, particularly in a political arena, can be akin to lobbing an annoying message to an opponent, trying to get their goat or setting bait in a trap. Opponents know their contender’s tenuous, thin-skinned and tender points of weakness and sensitivity. Sometimes provocateurs are disguised as questioners. Sometimes, the questioners are people who simply have been misinformed and they need the correct information.
How leaders respond to these questions is important, especially in the public square. Some of us have to muster the moxie, piece together the prowess and gather the guts to address adversarial agendas and targeted traps. In doing so, leaders can either rise in respect or descend in disgrace.
Such an incident happened a few days ago when a male Iowa voter said to Mr. Biden, “You’re selling access to the president, just like he is” (comparing Biden’s son Hunter to President Trump’s actions in the Ukraine). Joe Biden replied, “You’re a damn liar, man.” I like Mr. Biden and have great respect for him, but with all due respect, in this situation, he missed his John McCain moment. He later recovered, but missed the initial moment.
As the Iowa voter was finishing his question, Joe Biden lowered his mic, walked toward the podium, turned around facing the voter and then responded. There was the pre-John McCain moment — those few seconds when Biden walked toward the podium — where he should have carefully contemplated his reply. Perhaps he did, but in his reply, he missed the moment to elevate the conversation, educate the antagonist on civility and model presidential behavior.
When a bold, awkward or obvious question is asked, it immediately draws attention to the person asking the question. Initially, the audience wonders who this person is with the unmitigated gall to ask such a question. Then, the audience wants to see how the responder is going to react to the question. Finally, the audience wants to hear how the responder is going to answer the question.
When intentional or unintentional discord is sown, lobbed or promoted publicly, leaders or responders have a momentous opportunity to demonstrate character. This John McCain moment is when fortitude, integrity and mettle can prevail over fork-tongued insolence and meanness. These moments arrive to teach us two lessons: 1) Who we are, and 2) Who we are not.
In Colin Powell’s book, “It Worked For Me — In Life and Leadership,” he said there are five audiences: 1) The reporter asking the question, 2) The American people who are watching and listening, 3) Political and military leaders in more than 190 foreign capitals, 4) The enemy, who is watching and listening carefully and, 5) The troops. Powell’s leadership advice in responding to these audiences is, “Be sure you are always talking through the questioner or the interviewer to the audiences who really matter.”
Some people believe that when there is a change in the White House, civility will return to America. This may be true to some degree; however, waiting for change is not the answer. Individually, one encounter at a time, we can usher in and restore civility by reacting to John McCain moments — not with hostility, sarcasm or insults, but rather just like John McCain did — with truth, respect, decency and honor.
Theresa A. Dear is a strategist at The Human Capital Strategy Group. Visit her website at theresaadear.com.