I had the opportunity to meet Senator John McCain when he came to Chicago during the 2008 presidential campaign. When it was my turn to shake his hand, I said, “Senator McCain, it is an honor to meet you.” His immediate response as he looked at my name tag: “Harry, it is a pleasure to meet you.”
I had read about his military background and knew his Navy plane had crashed during the Vietnam War. Both of his arms were broken, and his leg was shattered. He was a POW for five and a half years, two of those years in solitary confinement. Since his father was an admiral in the Pacific, he was offered early release. However, Senator McCain refused the offer unless all other prisoners were released as well.
When he returned to the U.S. after the war, he moved to Arizona and went on to become a two-term U.S. Congressman and a six-term U.S. Senator, serving the country in Washington for almost forty years.
When I think of a real values-based leader, I believe John McCain is an excellent example. In a world where politics has become completely polarized, he was a maverick who was willing to be bipartisan and find ways to compromise. He would side with Democrats if he believed that was the right thing to do. A memorable example of this was when, as one of his last actions in the Senate, he cast the deciding vote to prevent the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
He clearly had strong disagreements with President Trump and was one of the few Republicans who was willing to state his views openly and directly. Here’s one of my favorites from a talk he gave in 2017:
“To refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
Senator John McCain
(Like I said, the man did not mince words!!!)
Like all leaders, he clearly made mistakes. Choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 election clearly hurt his chances of becoming president. It is interesting to note that his personal first choice of a running mate was Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat. Many believe that not choosing Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate cost him that election.
The best way to get a feel for John McCain and his values is to read some notes he prepared right before he died. Despite some of our current short-term political issues, I think it is important that as Americans we never forget these concepts:
“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…
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.”
Senator John McCain
I think it is interesting to see who delivered eulogies last week and what they said. President George W. Bush defeated McCain in a hard-fought battle for the Republican nomination in the 2000 election and had this to say at the funeral service in Washington:
“[John McCain] was honorable. Always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings. He loved freedom with a passion of a man who knew its absence. He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators. Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots; there was something deep inside of him that made him stand up for the little guy, to speak for forgotten people, in forgotten places. John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder — we are better than this, America is better than this.”
President George W. Bush
President Barack Obama (a Democrat who defeated Senator McCain in the 2008 election) had this to say:
“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave, but in fact is born of fear. John called us to be bigger than that. He called us to be better than that.”
President Barack Obama
Here’s an excerpt from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments:
“Half a world away, wearing our nation’s uniform, John McCain stood up for every value that this Capitol Building represents. Then he brought that same patriotism inside its walls—to advocate for our service members, our veterans, and our moral leadership in the world.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
I will end with my favorite quote this week, from former Vice President Joe Biden’s eulogy. Biden stated that as a Democrat he had many serious fights, disagreements, and arguments with “Republican McCain.” However, he stated:
“My name’s Joe Biden. I’m a Democrat, and I loved John McCain. It wasn’t about politics with John. You could disagree on substance. It was about the underlying values that animated everything John did. John believed so deeply and so passionately in the soul of America. John understood that America was first and foremost an idea, audacious and risky, organized around not tribe but ideals.”
Vice President Joe Biden
I believe everything happens for a reason. While I am saddened by Senator McCain’s passing, I believe and hope that his values and beliefs, restated many times this week, could be a spark to start to bring the country back together. I will end with my own quote this evening: “Senator McCain, it was an honor to meet you sir. May God be with you.”
Harry, I reacted in many of the same ways that you did during the process of laying Senator John McCain to rest. In his thoughtfulness about using his passing as a chance to re-engage our polarized country he showed us his bravest moment yet. We can restart our conversations and behave in the ways that will move us forward; embracing diversity of thought and coalescing around the higher priorities and goals we all share. He gave me hope.