In Memoriam: Senator John McCain

Thoughts about the fighter pilot, war hero, and statesman

Upon the death of my father, a Navy fighter pilot, his old friend Charles Cammack told me why he’d had such affection for Dad. “He understood duty, that the mission was more important than he was. He accepted that he might not make it back. Whatever you think of a man, you have to admire that.” I do. That my father was such a man sometimes moves me to tears. As does the death of another Navy fighter pilot who understood the notion of a higher good, John McCain.

As he neared death, McCain’s only doubt seemed to be whether he’d done his best in service to the ideals of the United States. He was, incidentally, one of those men who view duty not as a burden but as an honor, a privilege. “Our identities and sense of worth,” he wrote, “are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.” Duty to him, was also a hell of a lot of fun.

On the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain wasn’t impressed by generals and admirals. When criticism was justified, he was blunt. Officers accustomed to deferential treatment frequently wilted under his questioning, divulging facts they hadn’t meant to. His bluntness was driven by the knowledge that lives were on the line and that getting our troops everything they needed to get the job done was paramount. So he mastered the minutiae of legislation and procurement that other senators left to their staffs. He learned to wield the levers of power.

He insisted on visiting the front lines in war zones everywhere he went. He wanted to know everything from every soldier he met—how they felt about the way things were going, what, if anything they needed. Few other politicians along for the ride could match his pace. He preferred the company of grunts to the brass. He had a soft spot for wounded soldiers and former POWs. A recent public radio segment recounted his visit to Walter Reed, where he visited a helicopter pilot shortly after she’d been shot down and lost both legs. He was interested in her, not her awe. “We’re just two pilots who flew into missiles,” he told her. “That doesn’t take much talent. The only advice I can give you is to take it one day at a time.”

If there was a fight going on, he could usually be found in its midst. He threw and received a lot of sharp elbows in Washington, always believing that at the end of the day, no one was his enemy. All were brothers in a common cause—love of country. He had his grudges, but usually they didn’t last long.

He was flawed. Unlike most men, he frequently led with them. Ask about his 5½ years in the Hanoi Hilton and he’d tell you about the time he stole a washcloth from a fellow prisoner. Ask about his divorce and he’d lead with his infidelity. That kind of humility seems outdated now.

Firsthand knowledge conferred a certain authority regarding torture. Every prisoner has his breaking point, he’d say. Four days of physical and emotional agony and a man will sign anything to make it stop. That’s why torture doesn’t work. But there’s a more important reason to oppose it. It has to do with the torturer and the nation that gives his acts its blessing. “Your last resistance,” he wrote, “…the one that makes the victim superior to the torturer, is the belief that were the positions reversed you wouldn’t treat them as they have treated you.”

Torture, to McCain, was never justifiable. Instead, it was a  betrayal that reduces you to the level of your enemy. It corrupts and betrays us as Americans. It undoes in an instant the moral authority that takes decades, even centuries, to earn.

McCain had lots of friends and enemies. Often—certainly not always—because he did what he thought was right and worried about the political consequences after. I admire the hell out of that. I’d like to be that brave.

Of the fact that he didn’t like Trump and the President didn’t like him, you get the feeling that McCain would say, “So what? Let’s talk about something important.” In his last letter to us, he did appear to criticize the president. But much of it seemed less about Trump and more about a mindset Trump reflects. After all, we elected him. In that sense, President Trump, like any president, is who we are.

Here’s the passage I’m referring to: “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries…. 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.”

Of the deep polarization he saw and opposed in Washington and elsewhere, he wrote: “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.”

Godspeed, senator. I hope that we shall see your like again.