Today, August 29, 2018, is/would have been Sen. John McCain’s 82nd birthday. It is also the start of a series of events where the American people pay their respects to a man whose public service stretched from the skies over Vietnam to the hallowed halls of Congress.
Sen. McCain, who passed away on Saturday after a hard-fought battle with an aggressive form of brain cancer, will lie in state in the Arizona Capital today, and in the U.S. Capital Rotunda on Friday. He will be laid to rest in a private ceremony on Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Md.
Since he announced last week that he was discontinuing treatment for cancer, tributes have been pouring in. The tributes accelerated when the former pilot “slipped the surly bonds of earth” for one final time on Saturday.
He’s being remembered as a war hero, a POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton who refused to use his privilege as the son of an admiral to gain an early release.
He’s being remembered as a fierce competitor who battled hard for the presidency twice, yet remained gracious and generous even in defeat.
He’s being remembered as a fiery lawmaker who stood on principle, and invited colleagues from across the aisle to stand with him.
He’s being remembered as a man of moxie. Here’s how I will remember him:
Having moxie means working for something larger than yourself.
In his memoir Faith of My Fathers, McCain wrote: “In prison, I fell in love with my country. I had loved her before then, but like most young people, my affection was little more than a simple appreciation for the comforts and privileges most Americans enjoyed and took for granted. It wasn’t until I had lost America for a time that I realized how much I loved her.”
McCain loved the United States above all else, including his political party, his own power, and himself. He earned the ire of his own party most recently for his dramatic “thumbs down” vote against the “skinny repeal” of Obamacare. His objection was based largely on the lack of transparency, deliberation and thoughtfulness behind the process. He implored his fellow Senators, and especially Republicans, to focus less on scoring political victories and more on working together to solve real problems for the American people.
“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us,” he said. “Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.”
Sadly, I see little evidence thus far that his fellow lawmakers have the moxie to heed his call.
People with moxie make mistakes.
McCain was far from a saint, and he was the first to admit it by many accounts.
In the heat of the 2000 presidential primaries, McCain punted on the hotly-debated question of whether the Confederate flag should be removed from its place of honor over the South Carolina statehouse. It should be up to the state to decide, he said.
It wasn’t what he believed, however, and months later – after losing the S.C. primary to rival George Bush – he returned to apologize for his lapse.
“I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary, so I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth,” he said.
McCain readily admitted to this and other errors, including what he considered his biggest failing of all, the demise of his first marriage. It takes moxie to take ownership for one’s mistakes, especially when they are deeply personal and profoundly public.
“He taught me that honor and imperfection are always in competition,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said this week from the Senate floor in a tearful tribute to his dear friend and colleague. “I do not cry for a perfect man. I cry for a man who had honor and always was willing to admit to his imperfection.”
Moxie doesn’t always make you friends.
The feud between McCain and President Donald Trump has been long, loud and public, and it did not take a break for McCain’s illness, nor his death.
I could detail the particulars here, but frankly, it’s too exhausting and too sad and at points too salacious.
The acrimony between McCain and Trump may have even fueled acrimony against McCain within his own party. Polls reveal that in 2008, 91 percent of Republicans had a positive view of McCain, but by late 2017 just 35 percent of Republicans had a positive view.
McCain’s policy positions didn’t shift all that much in the last decade, but the Republican party has changed dramatically in the last several years. That shift left McCain increasingly isolated from his own party. But McCain had the moxie to hold to his principles, even when it earned him the ire of the President and his party.
But moxie can make you be a great friend.
In these final months of his remarkable life, a steady stream of visitors made their way to McCain’s Arizona ranch to encourage him, ostensibly, but more honestly, to say goodbye. The parade was a who’s who across the political spectrum. Former Senator Joe Lieberman. Former Vice President Joe Biden. Senator Lindsey Graham. But at the ranch, they became just Joe or George or Lindsey or Kelly or whomever, and none of them left without hearing McCain say, “I love you.”
Moxie has the ability to find common ground, and love beyond disagreement.
Of all that we are losing when we say goodbye to John McCain, perhaps that is what I mourn the most. A part of me fears that American has descended into such contentiousness and such vitriol that we’ve perhaps gone beyond the brink, and we won’t be able to find our way back from it.
If I had the chance, I’d ask John McCain if there’s hope. Will we ever find common ground again? Will we ever love beyond disagreement? Can America truly become great again?
As if anticipating just such a question, McCain left a final statement for the American people. A passage from the letter says this:
“We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before, we always do.”
If, having seen all he saw in his nearly 82 years on this earth, John McCain could say that, how could I not be reassured?
God bless America, and God bless John McCain. He will be sorely missed.