Earlier this year, when John McCain crafted a memoir that was understood to be his final testament, he began a sentence with an ominous transition phrase: ‘’Before I leave …’’
Mr. McCain died Saturday at age 81 after battling glioblastoma brain tumours in his tucked-away Arizona mountain hideaway, his last wishes unrequited but his final testament a road map to American spiritual and political rebirth.
“Before I leave,’’ he wrote, ‘’I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations.’’
Mr. McCain – son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals, Vietnam War aviator shot down over Hanoi and imprisoned in solitary confinement, Capitol Hill lawmaker for more than a third of a century, GOP presidential nominee – had purposes and practices that distinguished him from all his colleagues: the teenage troublemakers, Navy flyboys, Vietnam prisoners of war, and House and Senate members who were his boon companions.
Rowdy, rambunctious, rebellious, Republican and – what separated Mr. McCain from the rogues and ruffians whose style he sometimes luxuriated in appropriating – reflective, Mr. McCain thought deeply about the United States' purpose and the purpose of life. Perhaps it was the product of his years rotting in a dusty Vietnamese jail cell (three limbs broken, his spirit nearly so); perhaps it was the searing experience of being criticized in the mid-1980s savings-and-loan crisis for his ties to the discredited owner of a distressed thrift institution (a blow to his pride and his profile); perhaps it was in losing two presidential campaigns (the ultimate prize in American politics just beyond his long reach), but he was at once an insurgent and a deeply introspective man.
“We are citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to preface the tribal enmities that tormented the old one,’’ he wrote in his final memoir, adding: “[W]e share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it. Whether we think each other right or wrong in our views on the issues of the day, we owe each other our respect …”
This is not the sentiment of the age, and the Trump era that Mr. McCain seethed about in private and deplored in public has produced little sentimentality.
In challenging Barack Obama for the presidency in 2008, Mr. McCain expressed amazing grace to his rival during and after the campaign, which was tinged with concerns about Mr. Obama’s race and religion. When, at a campaign event, a McCain supporter told the candidate she was worried Mr. Obama was an “Arab,” Mr. McCain grabbed the microphone from her and said, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with," steadfast in his defence of Mr. Obama despite drawing boos from the crowd. And in his concession speech, Mr. McCain, citing the death of Mr. Obama’s grandmother only 48 hours earlier, said, ‘’Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it and offer him my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day.’’
Those sorts of expressions of respect were not a characteristic of the U.S. election eight years later, nor of the current period of caustic political rhetoric.
Mr. McCain remained a maverick – the term still clung to him after its burst of popularity in the 2008 presidential campaign – to the end. He cast the decisive Senate vote to block Donald Trump’s effort to repeal the Obamacare health-care program. And he remained critical of Mr. Trump. He said the President, who once ridiculed Mr. McCain’s wartime confinement in a withering comment that startled the political establishment and that the senator never forgave, ‘’has declined to distinguish the actions of our government from the crimes of despotic ones,’’ adding, “Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity.’’
That was not the McCain way, although he was not completely immune to criticism, nor to the egotism that is rampant on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol. He was praised by the political establishment for his pathfinding work to overhaul the campaign system, but criticized for the sloppiness of his preparation in selecting Sarah Palin, then-governor of Alaska, as his running mate.
But there was an authenticity to Mr. McCain’s talk of selflessness – of service, of country – and it was evident in his campaign appearances.
There was, the late writer David Foster Wallace wrote in a Rolling Stone magazine elegy 18 years ago, ‘’something about him [that] made a lot of us feel the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or money, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it …’’
Mr. McCain had one strain of intolerance: of Americans’ current tendency to read and heed messages solely from those who agreed with them, and to construct a wall – metaphorical, not like Mr. Trump’s dream – to prevent them from encountering opposing views. “We are secluding ourselves in ideological ghettos,’’ he said. ‘’We don’t have to debate rationally or even be exposed to ideas that contradict ours.’’
Throughout his presidential campaigns, Mr. McCain ended his rallies with the same remark, along these lines: ‘’I may have said some things here today that maybe you don’t agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always tell you the truth.’’
That was Mr. McCain’s sign-off, in vibrant life and now in still death. It was one politician’s promise well-kept, and that was never a well-kept secret.