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This Life with Gracie: John McCain takes his exit, yes, honorably

The applause said it all.

No matter which side of the political divide members of Antioch Baptist Church North sat on Sunday, you could tell there was considerable admiration for Sen. John McCain.

From the moment his family announced he’d decided to stop chemo treatments to news of his death last weekend, my Facebook feed was chock-full of remembrances and then condolences from people of every color and political stripe.

“Regardless of your politics, you have to feel for John McCain. He’s a class act and true hero,” one person wrote.

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And after his death, this: “Watching the news is tough this morning. Very sad listening to all the Sen. John McCain tributes … an incredible man. RIP!!”

And this: “God welcome home a good faithful servant.”

Last September, when asked in a CNN interview how he would like to be remembered, McCain said as someone who served his country.

“I hope we could add, honorably,” he said.

On Saturday, McCain, 81, died after a battle with an aggressive form of brain cancer.

By the time news of his death broke, that was exactly how many described him.

For many of us at Antioch Sunday, there was a singular moment that defined him — McCain defending his Democratic opponent Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

A woman attending a town hall meeting in Lakeville, Minn., stood to express her doubts about Obama’s American citizenship.

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“I have read about him, and he’s not, um, he’s an Arab,” the woman said.

It would’ve been easy to continue that narrative, but McCain grabbed the microphone and cut the woman off.

“No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man (and) citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not (an Arab).”

That’s certainly what I call serving honorably.

That moment is why he will forever live on in a lot of our memories. Mine included.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

It wasn’t the last time McCain chose the high road.

In 2016, when Donald Trump disparaged the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, killed in Iraq, for appearing on stage at the Democratic National Convention and said their late son, born in the United Arab Emirates, should not have been allowed in the United States let alone its military, McCain spoke up.

“I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates,” said the senator, a retired Navy captain and Silver Star recipient for his heroism as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Last year, while still battling cancer, he returned to the Senate floor to give a thumbs-down on the GOP vote to permanently repeal Obamacare. And earlier this year, he was one of the few Republicans who openly criticized Trump for calling Haiti and African nations “shithole countries.”

But even John McCain realized he was not perfect, that he wasn’t always on the right side of history. What made him stand out was that he was able to admit when he was wrong and big enough to apologize.

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He was a staunch opponent of the national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Even after President Ronald Reagan finally decided to approve the bill for MLK Day, McCain voted against it.

He regretted that vote and later supported a similar act in his home state of Arizona. He also apologized for his support in 2000 for keeping the Confederate flag flying atop the South Carolina Statehouse, even though he initially called it “a symbol of racism and slavery.”

McCain would later write that his failure to keep a consistent position on the flag was an act of cowardice.

An act of cowardice, perhaps, but never let it be said that McCain didn’t fight a good fight.

Even to the end, he was thinking of his beloved country, urging us in an emotional farewell letter to put aside our differences.

“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment, and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,” he wrote. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down; when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”

What a graceful exit. What an honor to have had him on our side.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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