His casket, his family, and several of his friends flew back to Washington, a city under siege, crossing the land he loved and carried in his heart forever. In his death, some hoped America would find a slow path toward healing itself. Perhaps it would be in the words and tears of Joe Biden as he addressed the crowd of mourners gathered in Phoenix.
“I love John McCain,” Biden had said.
As the nation says farewell to John McCain, it is not illogical to fear that one more critical piece of our American story and the unique character and history of our country might disappear with him—lost in the fog of a culture so damaged by impatience and a politics dominated by lies and fear.
John McCain woke every day ready, eager even, to hurl himself toward adventure. For over five and half years his daily adventure was to try to make sure he lived to breathe for one more day. For all the rest of his time on earth he took to the morning with the same items: character, honesty, integrity and, yes, anger toward those he felt dishonored the country by deceit, cheating, or damaging those who could least afford to be damaged.
He had the one true experience that allows any of us, especially people in politics, to truly understand life and the world around us. He understood and knew what it was like to suffer damage, to live with loss.
So we go back to the second week of January 2000.
McCain is in Dublin, New Hampshire, running against George W. Bush in that state’s presidential primary. He is standing on a stage in the gym of the Dublin School speaking to roughly 200 people about a range of topics in the day's news: Kosovo, abortion, campaign finance laws. As he speaks, many of the older people in the crowd nod and the younger people lean forward with every answer. Two people stand quietly by the wall at the back of the gym. Their names are Gordon and Elizabeth Billipp and they have come that morning from their home in nearby Jaffrey, New Hampshire, specifically to see McCain.
McCain finishes answering questions from the crowd and makes his way toward the bus outside and one more stop ahead in the marathon that is a presidential campaign. He stops to be introduced to the Billipps who stand by a coat closet next to the exit. As he smiles and shakes hands with the couple, Gordon Billipp says, “I have always wanted to meet you Senator.” Tears well in his eyes.
“Well, thank you,” McCain replies and then with that impish twinkle he often had, says, “But I hope you’ve had higher aspirations than meeting me.”
Mr. Billipp holds McCain’s hand firmly as he says, “Our son Norman flew A-4’s just like you. Both our boys flew A-4’s and I’m so proud to meet another A-4 pilot.”
Gordon Billipp, his wife Elizabeth by his side, dabs tears in her eyes with a tissue, then tells this story to John McCain: that his son Norman was a 25-year-old Captain in the Marine Corps when he was shot down over Laos on May 6, 1969; that his remains were finally identified and returned to the United States for burial on March 29, 1996.
On the day that Norman Billipp fell out of the sky, John McCain had already spent 20 months at the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, North Vietnam, where he told me he once went without seeing the sun for about four months and was deprived of seeing the moon for three years. On the day that Captain Billipp’s remains were repatriated, McCain and John Kerry were in the process of helping to normalize relations between the United States and Vietnam.
McCain then does something extraordinary for a presidential candidate, let alone any politician of that stature. He takes the Billipps into the coat room and shuts the door. The three spend about fifteen minutes together. When the door opens, it is clear all three had been crying.
A young campaign press aide approaches McCain after hearing the reason the three were together and quietly suggests that a photo op would be a good boost for his underfunded New Hampshire primary effort. McCain looks at the aide, shakes his head, and says quietly: “Absolutely not.”
So now the nation mourns and public men like Joe Biden cry, for what we had and what we fear has been lost. And yet, as so much of John McCain’s life and legacy was spent learning how to deal with loss, he also symbolized hope, strength and the beauty of the second chance. He stood determined that this splendid country called America will forever stand in the sunlight. And the lesson of his well-lived life remains, still strong, still there, still ready to roll even in the rubble and noise of the daily disgrace around us.