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.