Heroes are an endangered species in American politics. Profiles in courage are in short supply. And honor seems like a word found only in the dictionary.
But John McCain was an American hero who exemplified courage and honor in countless ways across decades of public service as a Navy pilot, prisoner of war, congressman, senator, and presidential nominee.
He wasn’t perfect and never pretended to be. He was principled but unpretentious—acerbic, honest, and often very funny. He cracked jokes when the going got tough, because John McCain was always tougher than the times. He detested bullshit and the grifters who so often surround our politics, encouraging the current epidemic of situational ethics. But he loved his country without preconditions, even as he recognized his duty to speak truth to power as a citizen, as well as a senator. And that’s why he earned entry into the pantheon of America’s greatest senators, possessing a moral authority that exceeded many presidents, including the current occupant of the Oval Office. His example will inspire when more powerful men fade from memory.
The rebellious son of an admiral, McCain often joked about graduating near the bottom of his class at Annapolis. But after being shot down in Vietnam, his five-and-a-half years of captivity and torture spoke to eternal truths that seem out of step with much of our contemporary conversation. He refused to bow down to his captors and he repeatedly refused the offer of early release presented to him while deathly ill—after years of beatings and deprivation—on the grounds that early release would have been a sign of favoritism that would have been devastating to the morale of his brothers behind the bars of the Hanoi Hilton. That's a level of discipline under duress that exceeds Hemingway’s definition of courage as “grace under pressure.” He overcame self-interest in pursuit of something greater: honor and brotherhood.
He came home in some ways broken—he could never again raise his arms above his head—but he willed himself on a path toward public service, accepting his failings and foibles rather than hiding behind the war-time accolades that could have allowed him to project a false aura of perfection. He had learned early in his life that our heroes do not need to be perfect, and that makes them all the more compelling.
He ran for Congress in Arizona after meeting and marrying his second wife, Cindy. He ultimately won the Senate seat vacated by his political hero, Barry Goldwater. He was a western conservative whom some liberals would never forgive for positions that did not line up with their respective litmus tests. But he was not afraid to work across the aisle and always kept in mind the common good. Many conservatives never forgave the defiant “champion of compromise” for working with Democrat Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform. And that had a devastating effect on his 2000 presidential campaign.
The quixotic “Straight Talk Express” campaign was heroic for its unapologetic honesty and embrace of an almost forgotten Reform Republican tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, railing against “Washington’s Iron Triangle of big money, lobbyists and legislation that for too long has put special interests ahead of the national interests.” He scored a massive win over front-runner George W. Bush in New Hampshire as polls showed him beating Al Gore in the general by 20 points.
Then came South Carolina. It was perhaps the dirtiest primary in our recent history, with the religious right rallying around Bush and against McCain. While Bush rallied the faithful at evangelical Bob Jones University, which had only recently reversed its ban on interracial dating, a flood of negative ads polluted the airwaves, while robo-calls and loosely coordinated radio call-ins accused McCain of every imaginable (and imaginary) sin, including collaborating with the North Vietnamese and fathering an illegitimate black baby (a slur directed at the McCain’s adopted Bangladesh-born daughter). During one debate, George W. Bush held out a hand and said apologetically, “John, it’s politics.” To which McCain tersely replied, “George, everything isn’t politics.”
After losing South Carolina, McCain gave a powerful speech in Virginia Beach saying, "The tactics of division of slander are not our values. They are corrupting influences on religion and politics, and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party, and our country. Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right...We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones."
It’s worth reflecting on how different the trajectory of modern America would have been if McCain had prevailed in 2000. Polls showed that the general election would not have been close, with McCain’s deep appeal to independent voters likely sparing the nation from a Supreme Court decision resolving a popular and electoral vote split. Despite positioning himself as the anti-Slick Willie, McCain would have continued the centrism that Bill Clinton ushered into office while corralling the far right. After 9/11, he would have been a pitch-perfect national father figure because of his personal sacrifice and military service. Given his understanding of the follies that led us into Vietnam, it’s possible that he would not have been persuaded by the ideologues encouraging the unwise invasion of Iraq. And given his opposition to the war-time Bush tax-cuts, it’s likely that our hard-won Clinton-era budget surpluses would have remained intact, instead of the deeper drift into debt. He’s the man who should have been president.
By the time the 2008 race came around, McCain seemed out of step with an increasingly rightward drifting party that was already calling George W. Bush a Republican In Name Only. He initially sank in the polls despite that and blew through campaign coffers, but he soldiered on and rallied to become his party's nominee on a slogan of “Country First.”
There will always be those who deeply fault his decision to name Sarah Palin to the ticket, opening the door to the kind of know-nothing conservative populism that McCain had decried most of his political life. But he chose her after floating the possibility of a bipartisan national unity ticket with his good friend Joe Lieberman, the Democratic Senator from Connecticut who served as Al Gore's running mate in 2000. Conservatives threatened to walk out of the convention if he took that bold step.
But he stood up to the extremists in his own party and even at his own campaign rallies. When one woman stood up during a Q&A and explained that she didn’t trust then-Senator Obama because he was “an Arab,” McCain instinctively replied, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about. He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president…I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments, I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are. Because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.”
That is the way American politics should be conducted, but rarely is. McCain was a fighter and he never entirely warmed to the presence of President Obama. The decades-long gap in their record of public service irritated him. But he found ways to work together on occasion, and ultimately proved to be a decisive vote under the Trump era in refusing to support the gutting of Obamacare while he was fighting his terminal cancer.
In his final months, confronting a deadly diagnosis surrounded by the love of his family, colleagues, and countrymen, he continued to show true grit and appreciation for a life well lived, praising “the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America.”
In the summer of 2017, after receiving the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution society in Philadelphia, McCain offered a clear rebuke to Trumpism: “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of Earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history. We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad.”
For his continued commitment to straight talk, polls in the fall of 2017 found that the pro-life, fiscal conservative, military hawk was more popular with Democrats than Republicans. But independent voters were always his core constituency and that reflected his principled independence.
In his final book, The Restless Wave, McCain reflected one last time on a fighting life well-lived, with unsparing warnings to his fellow citizens about the perils of hyper-partisanship and polarization. “We are citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one,” McCain wrote. “We share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it.”
This is the moral and almost spiritual case for the vital center seen with perspective and rooted in the pure practicality of life in a democracy. “You’re damn right, I’m a champion of compromise in the governance of a country of 325 million opinionated, quarrelsome, vociferous souls. There is no other way to govern an open society, or more precisely, to govern it effectively,” he thunders. “If you want politics to be more civil, if you want Congress to argue less and get more done, then show up. Represent. Play as big a role in the mundane activities of politics as the zealots do.” There is no substitute for We The People.
Now John McCain is gone, but his example will live on. He set a higher standard than most of us can ever hope to achieve with personal sacrifice that few of us can imagine. Throughout his life, John McCain kept the faith. He extended our country's best traditions against strong headwinds, reaching across the aisle to solve common problems without sacrificing true convictions.
When news hit that McCain decided to discontinue treatment in late August, it was greeted with tributes across the political aisle, with the pathetically predictable exception of President Trump. By far the best tribute would be for the few remaining Republicans with a sense of principle higher than knee-jerk partisanship to stand up and speak out against the dishonorable words and actions from The Don. What is clear is that Republicans will ultimately regret descending down the path of Trump, just as they will fully lionize John McCain's strength of character only when it is too late. The contrast speaks for itself: independence, honor, and sacrifice versus fact-free group-think, grift, and greed.
God speed, John McCain. Heroes never really die. But to keep faith, we need more people like you in public service—aiming for honesty, humor, and courage while always putting country over party. Because of your example, we may still find a few more in a country always worth the fighting for.