Gehrke: In a tumultuous time, the Senate will miss Sen. John McCain’s voice of conscience

FILE - In this Oct. 11, 2008, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks at a rally in Davenport, Iowa. Arizona Sen. McCain, the war hero who became the GOP's standard-bearer in the 2008 election, has died. He was 81. His office says McCain died Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018. He had battled brain cancer. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

In mid-2003, I’d just sat through a marathon hearing about the latest scandal at the U.S. Olympic Committee — this one over lavish spending — where the chairman, Sen. John McCain, had unloaded on Olympic execs with both barrels.

It was trademark McCain.

After the hearing, a gaggle of reporters trailed the senator — there were always reporters trailing the senator — with the usual follow-ups. I was in mid-question when his staff tried to end the interview. McCain scowled and shut them down. Then he invited me into the committee offices where he graciously and patiently answered the rest of my questions while antsy staff checked their watches.

Yes, McCain knew how to play the press, but it was a humbling act of decency by one of the most prominent senators, not to mention a former presidential candidate and war hero.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

I’m not saying I ever knew the real McCain, although I interviewed him dozens of times during my years in Washington. We talked immigration and defense policy; we talked about whether he would ever change political parties; we talked about the experience of taking his then-teenage children to see the prison camp in Vietnam where he spent 5 1/2 years; we chatted about the Arizona Diamondbacks.

He could be gruff, pushing back against questions he didn’t like or swatting it down with his wry, biting sense of humor and a cackling chuckle.

But I liked him for that and, at his best, McCain embodied what the Senate should be, where people fought for principles and not out of petty partisanship.

Think of the time when a supporter at a campaign rally said she didn’t trust Barack Obama because “he’s an Arab,” and McCain did the right thing. “No, ma’am,” he said to her. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

Consider his steadfast opposition to the use of torture, a subject he could speak with absolute authority and clarity on, given his years of mistreatment in Vietnam.

Or, how he railed against congressional pork and earmarks and how he spent years crusading with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold to try to get the corrosive influence of big money out of politics — a fight he unfortunately lost.

Or when he dramatically cast the deciding thumbs-down vote on the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, later calling on his fellow senators to “stop the political gamesmanship and put the health care needs of the American people first.”

I say that was McCain “at his best,” because he was, after all, a politician, and like any politician his record is complicated and there were times when he disappointed.

Perhaps because of his Navy background, he too often saw the military solution first, as he did in agitating for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he later regretted.

In a tough re-election bid in Arizona, he sold out his long-held advocacy for a sensible solution to illegal immigration in favor of hard-line support for a border wall.

Good grief, he basically drove the Straight Talk Express into a ditch when he plucked Sarah Palin from the obscurity of the Alaska governor’s mansion and made her a national political figure and helped foster the celebration of incompetence that gave us Donald Trump.

Still, whether you agreed with him or not, in most instances you had a sense that what motivated McCain was a deeply ingrained sense of patriotism and a belief in the shared ideals that animated America.

He was willing to work across the aisle to find solutions and occasionally would break with his own party leaders on key issues.

“We are 350 million opinionated, vociferous individuals,” McCain said in a farewell statement released after his death Sunday. “We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”

In a political landscape as divided as any time in recent history, with partisan fury burning white hot, McCain brought that sense of perspective, of country before party, the belief that more unites us than divides us. We could use more John McCains right now, but unfortunately they are in short supply.