Today, John McCain will be laid to rest at the US Naval Academy Cemetery. Services were held in AZ, where he had his home and who he represented in the Senate for several terms. For those who paid attention, John McCain left all of us a lesson even in death.
In the toxic political environment in which we have come to live, we can learn something from John McCain. In the services and memorials that led to his body being laid to rest John McCain left all of us a lesson.
Seven other sitting US Senators have died in office since the turn of the century, a fairly high number in the last eighteen years. Yet McCain has garnered an outpouring of tribute that the others have not. His service to our country and his life story is one that few could rival.
McCain, whose father was an Admiral, went to the US Naval Academy and was shot down in Vietnam. He was captured and sent to the infamous Hanoi Hilton and spent over five years as a POW, including two years in solitary confinement. As all other American prisoners, he was subjected to brutal torture from his Communists jailers. When he was offered early release after the Vietnamese found out his father was an Admiral, he refused until all others captured before him were also released which, of course, the Vietnamese refused to do.
After serving as the Navy’s liaison to the US Senate, McCain later decided to enter politics himself and was eventually elected Senator from Arizona and then went on to twice run for President. In one of those races he lost a hard fought and very bitter nomination fight to George Bush. The second time, McCain won the Republican nomination and ran against Barack Obama in a sometimes heated contest.
As John McCain found that he was fighting a very aggressive form of brain cancer, he knew that his chances were small to survive his final battle. As such, he made two calls: one to George Bush and one to Barack Obama. Though President Bush had gone to visit McCain in Arizona while he was receiving treatment, he had never developed a close relationship to President Obama. Those close to President Obama said that he was surprised when he was told that he had a personal call from John McCain, rather than having aids set up a call for the two to talk. McCain had called to personally ask that Obama, and also Bush, deliver a eulogy at his funeral. Both men graciously accepted and spoke earlier this week at the service.
Though both men were Republicans and agreed on many issues, McCain and Bush’s campaigns for President was a bitter one. McCain showed surprising strength and Bush’s campaign took a more negative tone when he started to trail. He obviously recovered, won the nomination and became President.
McCain ran against Obama several years later and the clash of a young liberal, inexperienced politician against an older, much more experienced and more conservative Senator-McCain had a lifetime 82% score from the American Conservative Union-was an often heated battle of ideologies. Yet, famously, when someone at a campaign event asked a question of McCain and spoke of Obama not being born in the US and not loyal to the country, McCain quickly disagreed and said that while he thought Obama was wrong on almost every issue, Obama was not unpatriotic or a bad person.
After his death, the picture of two former rivals in their own stead-former Presidents Bush and Obama-standing to speak of their admiration and respect for the deceased Senator should give us pause. McCain had asked people with whom he often passionately disagreed but respected to speak at his funeral. The two men themselves were very far apart and Obama won election in large part because of his criticism of his predecessor, President Bush. But in this simple gesture, John McCain was showing us that you could believe strongly in something yet still be civil and respect those with whom you disagree. The world of politics, he seemed to be saying, can be and is full of people who want to make our country better but just disagree on how to do that. And the picture of Bush and Obama sitting near each other embodied what McCain seemed to be trying to say to us.
The world in which we live now is far too often very bitter and even hateful. Both sides of the political spectrum have become more extreme and view compromise, on even the smallest of things, as ‘defeat’ instead of ‘we got at least half of what we wanted, which is better than nothing’. So much so that we have seen political ads attaching one politician or another for even shaking hands with an opponent. When McCain stopped medical treatment shortly before his death, Thinking Man had one person suggest that she hoped he would die quickly so that they could get a ‘real American’ who would be more friendly with the current President, to replace him in the Senate. That is a sad state of affairs.
President Reagan, probably the most conservative President in generations, famously had a great personal relationship with Tip O’Neil, the very liberal Speaker of the House at the time and his ardent political opponent. Both of Irish heritage, they bonded over that common thread and Reagan would often invite O’Neil to the White House after hours for strictly social events. If he did that today, Reagan would assuredly face a challenge in the next primary election because he was ‘being friendly with the enemy’.
John McCain, though certainly not without faults both personal and public, was ever the patriot, even in death. The funeral that he knew was coming, he planned with one last example for us to see if we were paying attention. Let us hope a number of our fellow citizens were.