WASHINGTON: America has lost a great deal with the Death of John McCain. He was a military hero. When he was shot down and crash landed his plane in a small lake in the heart of Hanoi in 1967, the crash broke bones in his arms and shoulders. After he was captured, he underwent years of torture and solitary confinement. When the North Vietnamese learned that he was the son and grandson of admirals, they offered him his freedom.
He agreed. But only if those captured before him were also released.
McCain’s courage and toughness was recognized even by the former director of the North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp where McCain was held. Retired Col. Tran Trong Duyet recalled how much he respected him personally “for his tough and strong stance,” and grew fond of him later for his efforts to build relations between Vietnam and the United States.
John McCain the Maverick
Later, in his political life, he did what most members of Congress at the present time do not do, he thought for himself. Sometimes he voted with his fellow Republicans, At other times, if he felt that his party had adopted a position he did not think was best for the country, he voted against the majority of his party members. He believed in bipartisanship, in putting the country first.
In his memoir, “Faith of My Fathers,” he spoke frankly of his imperfections:
“I have spent much of my life choosing my own attitude, often carelessly, often for no better reason than to indulge a conceit. At other times, I chose my own way with good cause and to good effect…When I chose well I did so to keep a balance in my life–a balance between pride and regret, between liberty and honor.”
In the Senate, he worked across party lines to advance ideas he believed in, such as immigration reform. He joined with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin) to promote campaign finance reform and curb the influence of money in our political life.
Somehow, many “conservatives” criticized him for this position, forgetting that his predecessor from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, the leading conservative of his time, also sought to get money out of politics. Much of what calls itself “conservative” at the present time has little relationship to the philosophy of the Goldwater era.
The Death of John McCain
John McCain wanted America to remain true to its principles.and vigorously opposed our use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” torture. He became the leading congressional critic of torture and the prime congressional mover of making it illegal. McCain was ne of the few Americans who could speak on the subject from the personal experience of a victim.
He attacked President George W. Bush who ordered it and President Barack Obama who covered it up.
Now, notes conservative commentator Andrew Napolitano,
“…those two former presidents, firmly in Mr. McCain’s crosshairs four years ago, are each delivering a eulogy at Mr.McCain’s funeral—willfully, dutifully and at his request….In this age of few heroes, and on topics that intimately touch the human heart and soul, he was the genuine article.”
Racism: An anathema to McCain.
He understood America’s unique history as a nation of immigrants and rejected all those who would divide us on the basis of race, religion or ethnic background. During his campaign against Barack Obama, when conspiracy theorists promoted the idea that he was not born in the United States, a woman at one of McCain’s rallies told the candidate that she didn’t trust Obama because he was an “Arab.”
McCain immediately responded,
“No ma’am. No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
One need not agree with McCain’s various policy positions to recognize his unique role in our political life. He was, for example, a strong supporter of the Iraq war.
In his last book, he finally admits that the war was a mistake.
“The principal reason for invading Iraq, that Saddam had WMD, was wrong,” McCain wrote with co-author Mark Salter. “The war, with its cost in lives, in treasure and security, can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the responsibility.”
Yet, while conceding Iraq was a mistake, McCain continued to apply the same policy of military intervention and regime change in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iran. His embrace of Israel’s right-wing government, and lack of empathy for the treatment of the Palestinians during a more than 50-year occupation, contradicted his commitment to human rights.
This may be a case of ignoring some real lessons of history. Being too quick to use military force has dire consequences.
The Death of John McCain
The response to John McCain’s death has been widespread. Almost as if Americans sense our politics has taken a turn away from our democratic tradition. For democracy and the two-party system to work, it is dangerous to demonize those in the other party as “enemies of the people.”
This writer worked in the Congress when Democrats and Republicans regularly entered into coalitions on subjects where they could find agreement and challenge one another on subjects which divided them. Bills came before Congress after committee hearings, where all sides of a question were heard.
That is what John McCain was referring to when he called for a return to “regular order.” John McCain believed in “country” over “party.” Many today, it seems, do not.
W. James Antle III, the Washington Examiner’s politics editor, writes that,
“The outpouring of grief that has followed McCain’s passing owes as much to the sense that a better political climate is being buried with him as it does to his military service. Some on the right now see McCain’s virtues—civility, graciousness in defeat, policing the Republican ranks against racial intolerance—as vices. The left last year vacillated between celebrating McCain and vilifying him in the cruelest imaginable terms based on whatever vote he was casting on Obamacare at the moment. Let us emulate John McCain’s contributions to peace at home and chart a different course abroad.”
John McCain’s vaunted code of honor.
Some say that John McCain’s code of honor, his respect for those with whom he disagreed (other than President Trump), his belief in America’s uniqueness and responsibility to lead the world to respect human rights and dignity, are now outdated. That we have moved beyond them.
John McCain would, I think, agree with C.S. Lewis when he said,
“We must condemn…the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted? And if so, by whom, where, and how conclusively? Or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also a ‘period’ and certainly has, like all, periods, its own characteristic illusions.”
Who else but John McCain would receive warm praise from both The Washington Times and the Washington Post?
The Post declared,
“Mr. McCain on numerous occasions rose above party politics to pursue what he honestly saw as the national interest, and he accomplished a great deal. The country has lost an irreplaceable asset.” The Times noted that, “He will be remembered as a war hero, senator, presidential nominee and, most of all, as a good and decent man of the kind now vanishing from public life. He once said of his bitter prison years as the time and place ‘where I fell in love with my country.’ No man ever left a more eloquent epitaph…”
In his final remarks, read after his death, McCain said:
“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the world. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down when we doubt the power of our ideals rather than trust them to be the great force…they have always been.”
In his remarks at the Phoenix memorial service, former Vice President Joe Biden declared that,
“John understood that America was first and foremost an idea, audacious and risky, organized not around tribe but around ideals. He could not stand the abuse of power, wherever he saw it, in whatever form in whatever country.”
The American system can work only if we are able to respect those with whom we disagree. If we debate every issue before us on its merits. Narrow partisanship, putting party above all other values, is not consistent with that system. One could disagree with John McCain on a host of issues, as did George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and still be invited to speak at his funeral.
That’s how a functioning democracy should work.