A man like John McCain comes along only once in a very long time. As a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, he was offered release by his captors because his father was an Admiral, he refused, insisting that men captured before him be released first. In the 2008 campaign, as our politics grew coarser, he demanded that respect for his opponent, Barack Obama.
When a supporter at a 2008 town hall denounced President Obama as an “arab” who could not be trusted, Senator McCain took back the microphone before she could finish, shaking his head. “No ma’am,” McCain said emphatically. “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about. He’s not.”
John McCain was the fearless conscience of the Republican Party. He was the unique politician who refused to bend what was right to what was politically expedient. “He understood the world as it is with all its corruption and cruelty. But he thought it a moral failure to accept injustice as the inescapable tragedy of our fallen nature,” wrote Mark Salter, a friend and long-time aide who knew Senator McCain better than anyone.
At a time when vindictiveness and partisan invective are the currency of politics, Senator McCain called on our better angels. In his last major speech on the Senate floor, he implored his colleagues to kindle the sense of public service that had so animated his career.
“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood,” McCain said.
John McCain ran for President twice. Twice he was defeated. Yet, as far as anyone can tell, he never held a grudge. It is fitting that he requested that the two men who defeated him, President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, to be the ones to give his eulogy. And that respect was returned by his old political rivals, who issued poignant statements in the wake of his passing.
“Some lives are so vivid, it is difficult to imagine them ended. Some voices are so vibrant, it is hard to think of them stilled,” Former President George W. Bush wrote in his statement.
“Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did,” former President Obama said of his former rival. “But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means.”
In his book, The Restless Wave, Senator McCain reflected on his own life. “It’s been quite a ride,” he wrote. “I’ve known great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war, and helped make a peace. I’ve lived very well and I’ve been deprived of all comforts. I’ve been as lonely as a person can be and I‘ve enjoyed the company of heroes. I’ve suffered the deepest despair and experienced the highest exultation. I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.”
John McCain lived a life of honor, courage and integrity few can match. Now he’s gone, at a time when we need men like him the most. But he leaves with the ultimate satisfaction, that of a life well lived.
Taylor Griffin worked on Senator McCain’s 2008 Presidential campaign.