We have just witnessed an extraordinary week. I can’t remember a longer public goodbye in such exalted national venues than was accorded John McCain. I won’t make any judgment on whether or not it was warranted, but very few presidents have received such treatment. Of course, he was a hero by any definition of that term and he was a courageous and committed patriot who suffered greatly for his country and declined special treatment offers as a POW. And I have condemned Donald Trump for his outrageous and disrespectful remarks during the 2016 presidential campaign that McCain “is not a hero” and “I prefer people who are not captured”.
In fact, as I think about American exceptionalism, a term I often use to describe the character and destiny of this country, it’s pretty clear to me that John McCain embodies that character. As Henry Kissinger so eloquently put it at the McCain memorial service, “Honor, it is an intangible quality, not obligatory. It has no code. It reflects an inward compulsion, free of self interest. It fulfills a cause, not a personal ambition. It represents what a society lives for beyond the necessities of the moment………..Honor and nobility. For John it was a way of life”. Point well taken.
But he was not without considerable faults as we all are. I have been of mixed emotions about McCain over the years and have never been a big fan. Oh, sure, I voted for him in 2008–an easy and obvious choice for me, and he ran a terrible campaign topped by the grandstanding move to unilaterally suspend it six weeks before election day to return to Washington to help save the country from the financial crisis following the fallout from the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy filing. This was supposedly a selfless and bipartisan gesture (not matched by his opponent I might add), but one that smacked of considerable sanctimony and was no doubt a factor in his loss.
The favorite media characterization of him over the years was as a “maverick”, which the left loved to use as a code for bipartisanship, or “reaching across the aisle” that usually meant frustrating a Republican majority at best or acquiescing to a Democratic position on a controversial issue at worst. And he often played his stature as a military hero as license for moral authority and shelter from criticism, leading to a certain self-righteousness. This expressed itself in many instances, none more egregious than his grandstanding “no” vote in the Senate that killed the repeal of Obamacare, which was clearly cast purely to spite Donald Trump, not exactly in tune with his noble character as described by Secretary Kissinger and certainly not in the interests of his constituency or the country, let alone the promises of his party. I could go on to other instances in which his idea of personal honor led to other consequences, such as the Keating Five case, McCain/Feingold, his handling of the Trump “dossier”, etc. But I will leave it there and choose to remember John McCain as the ultimate patriot and American original. God speed.