Never have we needed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., more. He died Saturday after a heroic battle with brain cancer, which he bore without self-pity.
He embodied time-honored virtues: courage, loyalty, patriotism, honor. His unimaginable resolve and bravery as a POW in North Vietnam freed him in a sense to fear nothing in the realm of politics – not losing, not unpopularity, not venom from his critics.
As a result, he made every other politician look small and craven. Voting out of expediency or to gain partisan advantage? What a waste, what a foolish thing to do after you’ve endured unremitting agony for your refusal to capitulate to captors.
Not hobbled by partisan toadyism, he was able to stake out important and lonely ground on human rights, on climate change, on campaign finance, on immigration reform, on establishing relations with Vietnam, on rejecting unqualified nominees and on the miserable president we must now endure. One could differ strongly with him on the merits of these and other issues but never cease to marvel at his defiance of petty political hacks.
He hated the right people – bullies, tyrants, party hacks – and loved the right people – U.S. servicemen, dissidents and our stalwart democratic allies (because they are democratic).
He made plenty of mistakes – doozies. There was the savings and loan fiasco, the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 and his conviction there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When he erred, however, no one was more dogged in course correction. The S&L scandal begat finance reform; the WMD debacle begat heroic support for the surge which turned the tide in a war that was losing political support (thereby allowing Iraq to muddle through to the present).
He was a patriot but not a nationalist. His devotion was to the ideals of America, to the greatest of America that was possible from time to time. He passionately believed America was a land of immigrants who could be as American as the native born and without whom American greatness would be impossible.
Along with his family, or rather because they were family, military men, veterans and their families were his primary concern and the recipients of his unyielding love. Whether reform of Veterans Affairs or strengthening the armed forces, he remained their truest friend and defender.
There was not in my lifetime a character in politics whom I admired more than McCain. His self-effacing humor, his intolerance of partisan nonsense, his courage and his puckish delight in infuriating hacks made him a unique figure in the Senate and in the country as a whole. If people wanted to know why I was a Republican (before I left the party), I told them, “I’m a John McCain Republican.” There is no such thing anymore with the passing of McCain and the descent of the GOP into right-wing populism.
To say the Senate will be diminished without his presence is like saying a car is diminished by lack of an engine.
We live in a time of moral dolts and intellectual frauds but also in the America that McCain so loved and strived to improve. We can grieve his absence and bemoan our loss of leadership but ultimately to honor him we must defend our magnificent democracy, insist on its goodness and guarantee it remains the planet’s last, best hope.
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