The Meaning of Senator John McCain

David Webber
forthcoming, Columbia MISSOURIAN, September 2, 2018

The rather extensive media and political reactions to Senator John McCain’s death last week was to be expected but the immediate and deep reactions of my Facebook friends caught me my surprise. Most thought McCain to be an independent, courageous, decent man, some recounted his political and policy mistakes, a few focused solely on his military record. The principal theme that struck me is that almost all of us are hungry for someone and something to believe in.

America does not seem to have genuine heroes anymore. McCain may be as close as we will get. It is disturbing to hear McCain mentioned as perhaps the “last great senator.” Looking around, there does not seem to be many national heroes waiting in the wings—in the Senate or in real life. Sport stars, TV and movie stars, journalists, and even clergy are viewed with skepticism and can be taken down any day for personal failures—or for fun or personal gain. President Trump did not start this decline, but he certainly sped it up a good bit.

I have been blessed with many heroes, including the late Columbia Republican George Parker and the late Democrat Lieutenant Governor Harriet Woods and a few of my teachers and professors who I rank up there with Robert Kennedy and Roberto Clemente. One trait they shared was a contagious conviction that we all make a difference, that our endeavors make a difference.

The first Facebook posting I noticed about McCain’s passing was from a progressive Democrat, a former student, who wrote “He may have unleashed Sarah Palin, but he was also a co-writer of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (McCain-Feingold), one of the best pieces of compromise legislation that focused on trying to limit the influence of dark money on our elections. A true patriot, a man of integrity and a maverick. While I didn’t agree with everything he stood for, I am grateful for his voice and for his representation of what the GOP could and should be. He will be missed.”

A former student, now about 35, a moderate Republican posted “Thank you, Senator McCain, for being an incredible example for the rest of us in public service by showing how we should handle ourselves and not giving in to today’s political nastiness. I yearn to live by your example. He added five adjectives with hashtags #integrity #honor #patriot #beliefsbeforeparty #self-reflection.

Another former student expressed well a more critical sentiment by posting “McCain was not great for most Americans. I can understand how we want to see the good in McCain’s actions at a time when we are so divided, and when the politics are just straight up frightening. But McCain was instrumental in creating today’s political landscape. Please don’t put him on a pedestal because he did the right thing once or twice. That’s not good enough to erase all his poor decisions. McCain’s political legacy should be largely that of someone who frequently and loudly toyed with doing the right thing and yet decided to do the other thing almost every single time, and who was a willing and active participant in the destruction of one country and helping the racist, authoritarian right rise in his own.”

Next to my visiting the prison cell where McCain was held for 5 and a half years in Hanoi, my single clearest McCain memory, and one mentioned to me by several people, is the 2008 Republican campaign rally where a woman supporter says to McCain “I can’t trust Obama. He is an Arab.” McCain shakes his head, nicely takes the microphone, saying “No, Ma’am, no Ma’am. He is not. He is an honorable man, a family man who I just happen to have fundamental disagreements with. That’s what this campaign is about.”

McCain made some big political blunders—the Keating Five during the Savings and Loan scandal, the Iraq War vote, selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008– but he seemed to overcome them and grow from them. He earned our forgiveness because of his record of honesty, of independence, of having a sense that the United States of America is bigger than himself.

His absence may have the largest and most immediate impact on the Senate, once the most respected legislative chamber in the world that has fallen into disrepute. McCain’s last floor speech was a call for the Senate to return to “regular order” of committee hearings and floor debate rather than the 25-year old practice of last minute voting on bills few humans have read. Such a simple idea that contributes to making McCain a national hero.

McCain earned our honor. As he asks us to do in the last paragraph of his 2002 book, WORTH THE FIGHTING FOR, we should “celebrate a happy life lived in imperfect service to a country made of ideas, whose continued success is the hope of the world.” I can do that.

“BlackkKlansman” –my short reaction and list of reviews.

“BlackkKlansman” A Memoir by Ron Stallworth and a film directed by Spike Lee tells the story of the first black police officer hired in Colorado Springs in 1979 who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Two major themes have stuck with me since I saw the film two weeks ago: 1) the inner conflict experienced by Ron because of being a black cop in a white police department and 2) the activities of the KKK. The movie is rather powerful, in part because of the rough language and violent scenes. While reading the book, I was most interested in Ron’s decisions and personal development.

I’m looking forward to the Social Justice Film Group discussion at the Boone Home in Columbia on Monday, August 27, 2018 at 7 PM.

There are several differences between the book and the movie, among them are:
1. The film is set in 1972, the book in 1979. There was quite a difference in America’s political climate between those years.
2. The KKK does use “The Birth of a Nation” as a recruitment tool and initiation ritual.
3. Patrice is not in the book, although Ron does discuss opportunities for flirtatious relationship during his undercover work. However, he writes “I was far too disciplined and dedicated to my goal to allow her flirtatious interest in a possible amorous adventure to derail my purpose. That was a line I had no intention of crossing. “p. 27). This passage in the book jumped out at me because in the movie the fictious Patrice is projected as the virtuous one.
4. The Jewish identity of Ron’s white cop partner in the undercover operation is hardly mentioned in the book.
5. While the KKK did plan some disruptive events, an attack on the Black Student center was not mentioned in the book—but made for dramatic movie action.

Ron Stallworth will speak at a Columbia College event on August 30 at the Ragtag. To get on the waiting list and more information, see

Below are links to reviews I have collected over the past few weeks.
A.O. Scott Review: Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Journeys Into White America’s Heart of Darkness

How a black cop infiltrated the KKK — the true story behind Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’

Peter Travers Rollingstone “BlacKkKlansman’ Review: Spike Lee Delivers a Hellraising Masterpiece”‘blackkklansman’-review-spike-lee-delivers-a-hellraising-masterpiece/ar-BBLzjyt?ocid=spartandhp

Hollywood Review ‘BlacKkKlansman’: Film Review | Cannes 2018

Washington POST ‘BlacKkKlansman’: How black detective Ron Stallworth infiltrated the Colorado Klan

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman draws a ham-fisted line from white supremacy’s past to its present
BlacKkKlansman Shows How Spike Lee Makes Movies That Are at Once Timely and Timeless

Ryan Vlastelica AV Club
With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee turns a dull memoir into an energetic crowd-pleaser
What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in BlacKkKlansman
Here’s how closely Spike Lee’s new movie sticks to Ron Stallworth’s memoir. By JASMINE SANDERS AUG 10, 2018

Columbia needs more and improved bus service

David Webber Columbia MISSOURIAN, August 17, 2018

We need better bus service. Cities always have more worthy projects and services than they can pay for, but Columbia really does need to improve “Go COMO,” our public transit system.

I applaud Dale Lynn, Columbia’s transportation superintendent, and Go COMO for their analysis of the local transit market (several reports are available at, for holding public hearings and engaging an outside consultant to prepare a strategic plan.

In 2014 they attempted to increase ridership by pushing bus services out into surrounding neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this did not increase ridership so they propose to pull back bus services to core areas in 2019.
Quite simply, we need to make public transportation a higher priority. City buses only operate from 6:25 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday. There is no service on Sundays and holidays. Service is not very frequent. This is inadequate for a mid-sized, growing city with an ever-increasing population.

The current system is almost guaranteed to produce low ridership. It is too infrequent with not enough coverage. At best it is every 30 minutes with the average frequency about once per hour. Students and workers, and anyone with an appointment, cannot afford to wait an hour for the next bus if they miss the desired bus by a few minutes. Employees with irregular work hours, or who work the second and third shifts, cannot be regular bus users.
Most campus and downtown entertainment lasts beyond 8 p.m. Because of the growth of downtown living, the shortage of parking combined with no bus services keeps older residents away. Downtown church attendance on Sunday and evenings has declined, in part because of parking limitations due to student housing.

To live and thrive in Columbia, residents currently require private transportation and must incur the related expense. Many international students are shocked when they arrive at Mizzou and learn they need to buy a car.
Similarly, homeless residents may find that public housing is available but limited transportation hampers their daily activities. After obtaining housing, the biggest obstacle for historically homeless people is transportation. Getting from fringe neighborhoods to medical and social service venues is a challenge.

Proposals to increase bus service in Columbia do not receive the same public reaction as does, say, calls for increasing the Columbia Fire Department. “Fire protection,” even though about two-thirds of the Columbia Fire Department’s runs are EMS runs, automatically catches most citizens’ attention, while increasing bus service is relegated to a lower priority.

Calls for building another fire house to reduce “response times” just sounds like a good idea, but few citizens feel the same way about increased bus service despite the benefits of increasing their transportation options, reducing contestation downtown and reducing the problems of driving after drinking.Family savings can be increased as well, but only significantly if bus service is enough to eliminate the need for a second family vehicle.

Public attitudes toward Go COMO need to be improved. In my informal survey of residents, I first heard, “Yes, we need to improve bus service,” and then I heard, “they need to get rid of the bigger busses.” I also heard people voicing a desire to end the use of bus stops on major streets as a driver rest stop and for the bus system to run later and on weekends. These are the same public comments that the Public Transit Advisory Commission heard in their 2016 public meetings.

The major ingredient missing is money — as in increased revenue. The July 2017 consultant report reconfigured bus routes with present resources suggesting three alternative funding levels — the low, medium and high. Currently we spend about $6 million a year — that would be near the lowest level.

The whole system needs to be redesigned — and realistically little improvement can be achieved without additional funds from the city budget. Much of the MU resident student demand for transportation is filled through apartment shuttles, so what may have been a viable source of revenue at one point is not forthcoming.

Bus purchases have been funded by state and federal governments. These funds have dried up, or as in the case of the Federal Transit Authority that funded eight new electric buses, are often bureaucratically rigid, so we end up with busses that are too big for our local need.

An ambitious, forward looking public transit proposal would call on Columbia’s largest employers (primarily insurance, education and health) to provide employees incentives to leave their vehicles at home, but bus service will need to be expanded first to attract new riders.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.

Homesick for Hometowns?

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN August 5, 2018

Rod Kelly’s life (1950-2018) caused me to think about the personal and political impact of our own hometown experiences and to wonder what I, and other migrants, miss about the hometowns we’ve left behind. Kelly died July 19 at the age of 67. He was born in Columbia, graduated from Hickman High School and MU, worked for the Columbia Public Schools system for 27 years, and was the voice of MU men’s basketball from 1978-1989.

Kelly and his brother John are the “Douglass baseball brothers” who started a kids’ baseball program for whom the Douglass Park baseball fields were renamed this past May.

I met Rod through his brother John and sister-in-law Jacqueline about two years ago.I was familiar with Rod’s career as a Mizzou sports broadcaster, but I was not aware that so many people spoke of his kindness and helpfulness. I was also unaware that Bob Costas would be an honorary pallbearer, that former Hickman principal Wanda Brown would come from out-of-state for Kelly’s funeral, or that Norm Stewart would give a eulogy. Otherwise, I might have been intimidated by Kelly’s celebrity. Instead I got to know Rod by talking with him, John and their mother, Mrs. Beatrice Helen Kelly, about their lives in Columbia.

Rod graduated from Hickman in 1968, a year before I graduated from a Western Pennsylvania steel town high school, but he spent almost all his life in his hometown. Before moving to Columbia in 1986, I lived in four different states. None of my seven siblings returned to live in our hometown, due in large part to the decline of the region in the 1980s, but we were primed to seek bigger ponds regardless.

About 10 percent of Americans move each year. The Census Bureau estimates that the average person moves 11.4 times in their lifetime, and about one in three Americans remain in the place they were born. More than 75 percent of college graduates have moved. There is a thread in American culture that moving is good, that it is in the pursuit of progress, and independence, and freedom. This sentiment is captured in popular music of my generation such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” or “My Hometown.”

Until recently, it was a sign of success for kids to graduate from high school, go away to college, graduate and take a job in a big city where they find opportunity and independence, and to see that the world consists of other places and people different from themselves.

I certainly appreciate the academic and personal growth of pursing economic opportunities at different universities in different cities, but the Kellys have a deeper, richer community life in Columbia that I can appreciate but cannot replicate despite living here for 32 years.

The Kelly brothers and Mrs. Kelly talked about their housing and education experiences as if it were yesterday.They vividly shared with me the changes in the Douglass School area, the impact of specific teachers and neighbors on them, the location of the Douglass football stadium and recounted what happened to so-and-so’s brother or parents.

Compare this to the superficiality of my knowledge of my high school classmates from nearly 50 years ago that I see for a few hours at a class reunion or follow on Facebook. The Kellys see at least a three-generation history as well as a much broader swath of their hometown than I hear from the more extroverted, successful folks who attend high school reunions.

While I have read many academic books and articles about “economic redevelopment,” I sat up and listened when Mrs. Kelly asked me to reach in the coffee table and hand her a brochure she kept there. It was about the Columbia downtown redevelopment program in the the late-1950s (near the present post office and Blind Boone Community Center) that took the Kellys home. It may now have been more than 60 years ago, but Mrs. Kelly’s passion was clear — not anger, but a compassion that demonstrated that people really are affected by government decisions — and for a lifetime.

The Kellys have seen Columbia change up close and personal. They invested a great deal of themselves in our community. I estimate that the Kelly brothers each have lived in at least five different residencies in Columbia — some on the old side of town, and some on the south side.

Most of us local immigrants have a narrower view of the town because we located in one neighborhood and stayed there. The Kelly brothers’ service to the Columbia Public Schools and their establishing the Douglass Park baseball program may have been inspired by their past, but it changed Columbia’s present for the future kids of their hometown.