Monday, August 27, 2018

Senator John McCain

In all its civic solemnity, this week's state funeral will offer a wholesome contrast to the series of scandals that have increasingly enveloped our national capital (and elsewhere). I read somewhere that Senator McCain will be only the 13th U.S. Senator to receive the rare honor of lying in state at the Capitol. I don't know who the other 12 were, but there can be no doubt the honor is eminently fitting in this instance.

I never voted for McCain nor would I ever have been tempted to do so, but that only serves as a reminder that we are more than our partisan tribal allegiances, something demonstrated by McCain's congressional career which called both him and others out of their narrow tribal corners, which is one reason he is so genuinely remembered and so widely mourned, one reason too why the two men who defeated McCain for the presidency, George W. Bush and Barak Obama, will be speaking at his funeral.

As everyone knows, McCain, the son and grandson of four-star U.S. Navy admirals, lived up to the tradition of patriotic service he had inherited, flying combat missions in Vietnam and eventually being shot down and captured in 1967, and then enduring five and a half years of suffering as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam. His wartime injuries left him disabled and unable to lift his arms above his shoulders for the rest of his life. Significantly, he later worked to establish diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, and made several trips to there promoting reconciliation between the two former enemies.

McCain was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982 and the Senate in 1986, where he remained until his death as a member and eventually the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. While a relatively reliably orthodox Republican on many matters, he also practiced the now almost forgotten art of bi-partisan cooperation. He sought serious immigration reform and, most famously, campaign finance reform. His heroic final legislative legacy was to save Obamacare when his party villainously tried to destroy it. 

Maybe after all he had gone through, he understood better than many of us do that every day is a gift - to be enjoyed to be sure - but also an opportunity to do something worthwhile. That same experience may also have taught him how some things really are more important - a lot more important - than becoming president.

Speaking of presidents, the peculiar dynamics of McCain's funeral will highlight very visibly the contrast between the late Senator and the incumbent President. That contrast is real and significant for sure. Yet that is but one obvious example - a subset, so to speak - of the glaring contemporary contrast between what politics is supposed to be about and what we voters have instead allowed it to become. McCain represented a version of politics that increasingly no longer exists in America. No Platonic Guardian, McCain made mistakes along the way. But he was also able to acknowledge, admit, and correct them. He was, in short, a patriot, in the good sense of that much misused word.

McCain appreciated his country and felt honored to serve it. In that, he recalls an earlier era and earlier attitudes, which were once more widely held, attitudes about duty, honor, and integrity. His life was a reminder to a society, that seems to have forgotten, that to be given a position of public trust and honor (whether in government or elsewhere) is itself an honor and a weighty responsibility.

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