On the warm and sunny Saturday afternoon of August 25th, Arizona Senator John McCain passed away from the ravages of brain cancer. He was 81 years old. It was a predicted death; the disease was one of the most aggressive of its kind. Since then, eulogies have come from the most esteemed men and women in the country, spoken in a manner typically reserved for former presidents and filled with tremendous praise for those qualities that made him so admired.
It’s in the discussion of those qualities as described by those who knew McCain the best that we learn what it was that made him so extraordinary in the eyes of his peers, some of whom were great leaders in the world. And, in so learning the nature of his greatness as seen by others, we are perhaps given some insight into who we have become and what his death could mean for us as both a nation and a people.
When we think of greatness, the tendency is to think of accomplishments that are beyond the reach of the ordinary man. It’s almost clichéd, in a way. World peace. The cure for some horrific disease. The exploration of uncharted territory. The victor in a battle that, otherwise, would certainly have been lost.
The good storyteller knows that the more evil the villain, the more righteous the hero who defeats him.
At the same time, when asked, we want to believe that the hero is the man who is humble, who puts others before himself, who makes great sacrifices, who is courageous even to his own detriment and will look for the good in others even when those others are his opponents.
But are those behaviors that we define as heroic really the actions that we hold in great esteem? Or do we, instead, place great value on winning, above all else? Do we view life as a zero sum gain where success is synonymous with competition and competition, by its own definition, has one who loses and one who wins? Have we become so partisan—on both sides—that we view compromise as synonymous with weakness and victory as synonymous with strength? Some of the biggest box office hits out of Hollywood would tell us this is so, as do some—not all, but some—voices in the media. And, after all, it’s easier to view things that way. It’s much less confusing when it’s simply a matter of (perceived) right versus (perceived) wrong, good versus bad, us versus them, whomever the “them” might be.
In all the thoughts and reflections of Senator John McCain that have been shared over the past few days, there is one thought that has seemed to surface time and time again. In many ways, John McCain epitomized much of what we want to view as a hero. He was respected for the very nature of his character, esteemed not just for what he did for his country but for what he suffered for America--five long years that taught him, in his words, “to love his country as he was surrounded by the presence of true heroes”. He had proven his willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others and found personal honor in doing so; he was one who discovered profound meaning in being devoted to something larger than himself and forming great friendships with those viewed as opponents.
Did everyone agree with his politics? No. Did I agree with many of his politics? No. But that does not diminish the respect he is due. John McCain was irascible and frequently profane. He often made mistakes—some of enormous proportion—and was consistently the first to admit his error. He was a romantic, a great lover of literature, a master joke teller, profoundly patriotic and endlessly driven by the desire to do what he viewed as the right and honorable thing.
McCain ran for president twice and was defeated twice and showed more grace in defeat than most do in victory.
Against that noble and flawed backdrop, his colleagues seemed to have doubt—if not fear—that there is no one to take McCain’s place, and that, with his passing and the silencing of his voice, something crucial to the core of who we are as a nation is at great risk of being silenced, as well.
Is that true? Is it possible that the collective voice of those principles we hold to be true could simply vanish with time? I don’t know. No one does. But I imagine, if asked, McCain would remind us of the following.
“Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.” John McCain, excerpted from “Faith Of My Father: A Family Memoir”