• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


What Campus Diversity Programs Can Learn From McCain’s Funeral

Watching two former presidents eulogize the man they defeated for the highest office gave me some ideas for campuses.

September 5, 2018

Like a lot of progressives, I wasn’t a big fan of John McCain’s policies, but when I had the chance to be part of a small group discussion with him in Chicago a few years back, I jumped at it. Before beginning his remarks, McCain walked around and shook everyone’s hand. I had the chance to look him in the eye and tell him that the concession speech he gave on the night Obama defeated him for president was one of the most beautiful, patriotic and deeply American orations I’d ever heard.

“It means a lot to me to hear you say that,” he told me, “because it meant a lot to me to give it.” 

Probably just a perfunctory comment from someone who was accustomed to responding quickly to compliments from strangers, but I’ve heard lots of niceties from lots of politicians and that moment felt heartfelt and real and has stayed with me. It’s a story I tell my kids.

We gathered as a family to watch McCain’s funeral on Sunday and there weren’t a lot of dry eyes in the room. The things that struck me most were the stories that Presidents Bush and Obama told about the man who had run hard against them for the highest office in the land.

At a time when various identity groups, on campuses and beyond, view it as a badge of honor to annihilate those with whom they disagree, I think it’s interesting for faculty and staff members involved in campus diversity programs to ask their students some of the questions raised by McCain’s funeral. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Both President Bush and President Obama said it was a high honor to speak at the funeral of a man who they disagreed with but still admired. Are there people who you disagree with but still admire? (Another way to put this: Is the only way to earn your admiration to agree with you?) 
  • Senator McCain somehow managed to run a lengthy campaign against both Obama and Bush with the highest office in the land at stake and still treat them such that they viewed it as a high honor to speak at his funeral. Which of the people that you disagree with would view it as an honor to speak at your funeral? What would you want them to say? Are you treating them in a way that they would likely accept the invitation and say the things you want them to? 
  • President Obama said that John McCain would sometimes come to the White House for private chats with him, where the two would simply exchange ideas and views. It’s striking that these two would take the time to simply hear each other out, even though their respective "sides" might view them as traitors for doing so. Are there people you disagree with who you could nevertheless benefit from engaging with a bit more? What would it take to make creating that space a priority? If you do this, would people in your identity/political group view you as a traitor? Are you willing to take the risk? 
  • Both Bush and Obama emphasized that John McCain would often disagree with someone on one fundamental matter, and work together with them on other fundamental matters. Obama remarked that it was because McCain always viewed his interlocutors as ultimately being on the same team. They were opponents, not enemies. Who on the socio-political landscape – on this campus or beyond – do you see as an opponent and not an enemy, someone with whom you might disagree on policy issue X, and still work together with on matter Y?

If you and your students watched and compared these eulogies, and considered the points above, what might they find that resonates with their ideals for U.S. politics? What might they find unusual compared to the changing norms in day to day political discourse? And what would their reactions say about the political environment they find themselves entering into as young citizens?

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Eboo Patel

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