Opinion | Morgan Liddick: McCain a very human hero (column)
John McCain was very much one of a kind and in that, signally an American.
Despite the recent argument and bombast, McCain was a hero. When his nation called he stepped forward, and he paid a steep price for it. A naval aviator, he was shot down in 1967 and spent the next five years as a guest at the “Hanoi Hilton,” North Vietnam’s notorious prisoner of war camp. He suffered wounds that never completely healed; he was subject to occasional torture and to the psychotic mind games the North Vietnamese occasionally played with prisoners of war.
McCain returned to the United States when war ended but continued to serve in the Navy, retiring as a Captain in 1981. He then moved to Arizona and at the age of 46 became one of the state’s congressional delegation in 1982. Four years later he was elected to the Senate seat formerly occupied by Barry Goldwater; he served for 31 years until his death.
Sen. McCain was not the usual sort of senator. He was not a gray man, invisible in a crowd. He was not quiet. He did not, as a general rule, go along to get along. He had by all accounts a towering temper, which he was not afraid to use — although his fellow senator Joseph Lieberman described him as “very controlled.” He did not regard public service as the Royal Road to a fat wallet. And he was not afraid to do what he thought was right for the country.
These characteristics mark McCain as an anachronism. They are far more appropriate to the America of the nineteen-fifties, when big personalities, big challenges, service and optimism were the norm, and as senator Arthur Vandenberg said, politics ended at the water’s edge. In today’s hyper-partisan world, Senator McCain stood out like a pair of steel-toe workboots at a ballet class.
By his final days, John McCain had alienated most of his political colleagues. Before 2013, he had a habit of “reaching across the aisle” – such as in 2002 when he lent his name, prestige and effort to the “McCain-Feingold” campaign finance reform act. Early on, he voted with the Obama administration more than half the time. He was roundly praised by Democrats and the media for doing so in the name of the vaunted “bipartisanship” on which our Republic is based — or so we are told. But such reaching and compromising are nowadays expected — nay, demanded — almost exclusively of Republicans. Democrats did it when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House, but apparently they had their fingers crossed for most of the hand-shaking, since we are now revisiting many of the issues present before President Clinton “ended welfare as we know it…”
Senator McCain finally tumbled to this and began to be more judicious about which Democrat initiatives he would support; accolades faded quickly. If he cared, he didn’t show it.
Senator McCain did not have a Democrat counterpart. Perhaps the closest was Senator Lieberman, spurned by the Democratic party in 2006, but re-elected by the people of Connecticut anyway. His fate reinforces the message about the fate of “bipartisan” Democratic politicians, and makes clear the fact that the interest in it only runs to Republicans agreeing with their ideological opponents. Ask Sen. Joe Manchin if the Democratic party of West Virginia praised his “bipartisan” support for Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.
Which further illustrates how far out of the political mainstream McCain was. Personal principles were more important to him than a party platform, because he realized, perhaps better than most of his colleagues, that politics is an intensely personal affair; if one doesn’t have strong principles and a will to serve the national interest, one is easily lost in the thicket of Washington, D.C.
Did he make mistakes? Yes; who has not? Was he occasionally vainglorious, peevish, temperamental? Certainly; he was human. Did he hold grudges? What powerful man does not, and he was powerful, indeed.
Against all those, he sought to do right as he saw it, for his country and his fellow citizens. He didn’t truckle; he took his hat off to no political fashion. This distinguishes him from the majority of modern politicians, who tend to do to their fellow citizens what they think will be good for them, and profitable for themselves in the bargain. In fact, with McCain’s passing, an entire species of politicians may have finally gone extinct. That is perhaps the greatest loss to ponder when the mortal remains of John McCain are laid to rest in that antique cemetery by the Severn in Annapolis.
John McCain, Godspeed.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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