John McCain, Last Lion of the U.S. Senate:
1936-2018

John McCain has succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 81. One of the most powerful voices in the U.S. Senate, with a big personality and an enormous commitment to his country, his shoes will be very hard to fill.

McCain’s life was very much defined by his military career and experience. He graduated in 1958 from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, both his father and grandfather having been academy graduates and four-star admirals.

Among the most defining events of his life was his October 1967 capture and subsequent 5 ½ year imprisonment after being shot down over North Vietnam. He was held in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” kept in solitary confinement for two years, and regularly beaten and tortured until his release in March of 1973. Despite his severe injuries, however, he would not accept the early release offered him by his North Vietnamese captors, refusing repatriation before POWs captured before him were released. He retired from the navy in April 1981 as a captain, having received a bevy of military distinctions: the Silver Star, 2 Legion of Merits, the Distinguished Flying Cross, 3 Bronze Star Medals, 2 Purple Hearts, 2 Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and the Prisoner of War Medal.  

After leaving the navy, Senator McCain’s courage continued to express itself in his work within the U.S. Senate. As U.S. senator from Arizona from 1987 until his death on August 25, 2018, he fought hard for campaign finance reform within the U.S. political system, co-sponsoring legislation with Democratic Senator Russell Feingold that eventually yielded the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. McCain opposed all money influences he saw as corrupting the integrity of American democracy, which included so-called pork barrel spending (allocating government funding to local projects in return for the political support of a local politician).

While McCain was Republican in affiliation and generally voted along conservative lines, he broke with his party on issues he considered critical to the country. Most notably, he was the deciding “no” vote in Donald Trump’s July 2017 effort to bring down President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act (which had begun the enormous political effort to deliver healthcare to all Americans).

When hearing of McCain’s diagnosis, President Barack Obama quipped admiringly: “John McCain is an American hero and one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against.”

And when one year later, McCain decided to stop cancer treatment just shortly before his death, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker expressed what many feel:  “Senator McCain is a quintessential American — his lifetime of service is filled with acts of bravery, kindness, perseverance, and self-reflection. Like so may others, I admire him greatly and am deeply saddened by this news.”

Indeed, Senator McCain inspired that kind of admiration and gratitude on both sides of the American political aisle.

What does the loss of McCain mean to America and to the world?  

McCain was one of very few Congressional Republicans willing to push back on policies of the Trump administration that even many Republicans consider damaging to the U.S. and to U.S. standing in the world (though most expressed that sentiment only in private). While John McCain often gave others courage, he often simply provided the issue and policy advocacy that others could not or would not. And as his health waned, the political voice of Republican friends such as Lindsey Graham grew much weaker.

McCain also served a critically important function in foreign policy, as tweeted out on September 1st by Josh Holmes (former chief of staff for Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell):  “A practical reality of the loss of McCain is that we basically lost a permanent Secretary of State. It’s impossible to emphasize how significant a role McCain played (right to the end) in America’s foreign policy.”

During McCain’s 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, I had the opportunity to hear him in conversation at First Parish Church in Harvard Square, Cambridge. On that occasion, I asked him why — given his particular commitments and maverick-like reputation — he was not running as an independent. His very sober reply was: No, it is my intention to reform the Republican Party from the inside out.”

As his time grew short, Senator McCain expressed more and more clearly how he felt that was working out.

Last year, on July 24, 2017, soon after his diagnosis for the aggressive brain cancer glioblastoma, McCain returned to the Senate for the debate on Obamacare. From the Senate floor, he spoke to his Republican colleagues about what he felt was a broken Senate:

“We’re getting nothing done, my friends. We’re getting nothing done… Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.”

He went on:  ““We’re not getting much done apart. I don’t think any of us feels very proud of our incapacity. Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn’t the most inspiring work. There’s greater satisfaction in respecting our differences but not letting them prevent agreements.”

On September 1st, at the memorial service held for McCain at Washington National Cathedral, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger summed it up:

Our country has had the good fortune, that, at times of national trial, a few great personalities have emerged to remind us of our essential unity… John McCain was one of those gifts of destiny…The world will be lonelier without John McCain.” 

But however eloquent and admiring may be the various eulogies for John McCain, no one expresses more clearly and more convincingly than John McCain what was at the core of his life and purpose. The late senator’s longtime aide, Rick Davis, released McCain’s farewell statement on Monday: 

“My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for sixty years, and especially my fellow Arizonans,
 
Thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.
 
I have often observed that I am the luckiest person on earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I have loved my life, all of it. I have had experiences, adventures and friendships enough for ten satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anyone else’s.
 
I owe that satisfaction to the love of my family. No man ever had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine. And I owe it to America. To be connected to America’s causes — liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people — brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.
 
‘Fellow Americans’ — that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the process.
 
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 globe. 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 for change they have always been.
 
We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five 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.
 
Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with the heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening.
I feel it powerfully still.
 
Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.
 
Farewell, fellow Americans. God bless you, and God bless America.”

 

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