By: Sid Salter
The late Arizona Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain had more than a passing connection with Mississippi despite being best known here for his 2008 presidential debate appearance with then-Illinois Democratic U.S. Sen. Barack Obama at Ole Miss and for famously sparring with former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran on Capitol Hill over the fortunes of Mississippi farm-raised catfish producers.
On Friday, Sept. 26, 2008, Obama and McCain squared off in the Gertrude C. Ford Center on the Ole Miss campus in the first of three televised debates during that campaign. The nation was mired in a financial crisis that threatened to derail the debate – at least from the McCain campaign’s perspective.
McCain wanted to actively take part in the federal financial bailout program being debated on Capitol Hill that week. He suggested that debate might halt his participation in the Mississippi debate. Obama’s camp didn’t offer that possibility.
McCain’s plane landed in Memphis at 2:15 p.m. the afternoon of the debate. As one of hundreds of national and state political reporters covering the debate, we didn’t know until less than a few hours before “show time” that McCain would attend and that the debate would indeed take place.
It did. Both candidates scored some rhetorical jabs against their opponent in the Oxford debate, but neither scored a knockout. But the reputations of Mississippi, Oxford, and Ole Miss benefitted from the media invasion the debate engendered.
Years late, in 2016, McCain used then President Obama’s visit to Vietnam and Japan as a springboard to undo Mississippi U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s 2015 victory when Cochran was finally successful in forcing federal officials to implement new rules for catfish suppliers, requiring on-site inspections of catfish farms and processing plants for both domestic and foreign producers, mostly from Vietnam, to ensure they meet the same standards that have long been required in the U.S.
Some 80 percent of all American seafood was being imported from China, Vietnam or other countries in the same region. McCain, long a defender of Vietnam and China’s seafood trade interests, angered U.S. producers when he said in 2014: “Vietnamese catfish remain popular with American consumers because it’s more affordable and cheaper to produce than domestic catfish grown in aquaculture ponds.”
But McCain finally won the catfish inspection debate in the Senate over the strident opposition of Cochran and fellow Mississippi U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker by invoking the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to overturn U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2015 catfish inspection program. Ultimately in 2017, catfish inspection ended up in the hands of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). McCain’s connection to Mississippi was far deeper than a presidential debate and the catfish battle with Cochran.
William Alexander McCain, Sen. McCain’s great-great grandfather, bought the Teoc Plantation in Carroll County, Mississippi in 1851 and owned slaves there. McCain’s great-grandfather and namesake John Sidney McCain was elected sheriff of Carroll County, Mississippi. Major Gen. Henry P. McCain, a distant uncle, was the namesake for the Mississippi National Guard’s Camp McCain Training Center in Grenada County.
Sheriff McCain’s son, named John Sidney McCain, Sr., attended Ole Miss and transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy. He would rise to the rank of four-star Admiral in the U.S. Navy after commanding a carrier group in the Pacific in World War II. Admiral McCain’s son, John Sidney McCain, Jr., would also graduate the Naval Academy and also rise to the rank of Admiral in command of U.S. forces in Vietnam, where his son John Sidney McCain, III, the future U.S. senator from Arizona was interred in Hanoi as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down.
Admiral McCain ordered bombings of Hanoi despite knowing his son was there. The Vietnamese tried to release young McCain early as a propaganda tool, but McCain refused.
I disagreed with McCain’s stance on Mississippi catfish and other issues. Still do. But utterly foolish questions of McCain’s personal courage, patriotism, and service – from anyone, no matter the office they hold – are reprehensible and without merit. McCain deserved the nation’s respect, thanks, and admiration for his courage.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at [email protected]