Glory appears not greater than goodness…
Nothing can cover his high fame, but Heaven;
No pyramids set off his memories,
But the eternal substance of his greatness…
-Dolabella in Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s “The False One,” Act II, Scene 1
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is now in the last stages of his heroic life’s journey of service to his country. On Friday, the McCain family released the following statement (McCain.senate.gov):
Last summer, Senator John McCain shared with Americans the news our family already knew: he had been diagnosed with an aggressive glioblastoma, and the prognosis was serious. In the year since, John has surpassed expectations for his survival. But the progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict. With his usual strength of will, he has now chosen to discontinue medical treatment. Our family is immensely grateful for the support and kindness of all his caregivers over the last year, and for the continuing outpouring of concern and affection from John’s many friends and associates, and the many thousands of people who are keeping him in their prayers. God bless and thank you all.
Only a few people in American history have demonstrated the courage, character, and commitment to the nation that has defined Senator McCain’s life. He served the nation as a naval aviator. He serves the nation politically. Even after the culmination of his journey, he will still serve the nation with his inspirational example.
Despite the ravages of cancer, he is unbroken. His remarkable qualities have been made unambiguously clear. His ability to look beyond himself to appreciate the people who have touched him, given him care, and prayed for him endures.
It was nearly 51 years ago, on October 26, 1967, that John McCain’s extraordinary qualities became widely apparent. In the March 2000 issue of Biography Magazine, which is now out of print, (Biography.com), Washington Post staff writer Annie Groer wrote:
On the day that changed his life forever, John McCain was a ruggedly handsome 31-year-old naval aviator with a family legacy of military service and a fondness for having a good time. Then came October 26, 1967—the day McCain assumed a new and agonizing identity, one that remains associated with his name to this day. He became a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Shot down over the center of Hanoi while trying to blow up a North Vietnamese power plant, McCain broke both arms and his right knee when he ejected from his plane. When he was pulled from his landing spot in the waters of Truc Bach Lake, an angry crowd of onlookers kicked and beat him, broke his shoulder, and then bayoneted his ankle and groin before he was dragged off to prison.
That was only the beginning. For the next five and a half years, John Sidney McCain III—the son and grandson of four-star U.S. admirals—was beaten, tortured, and starved. He was thrown into solitary confinement for more than two years. His wounds were so grievous, and medical treatment so scant, that more than 50 years later, he still can’t raise his arms above his head.
His having survived the cruelty of his North Vietnamese captors was more than enough to set himself apart from his peers. But there was more to the story.
At one point, the North Vietnamese, mindful of McCain’s family lineage, offered to release him, hoping to score a publicity bonanza that would demoralize other American captives. Instead, McCain flatly rejected the proposal, saying other prisoners had been there longer than he… “After that, they mistreated me so badly they wouldn’t release me early because of what I would have said.”
…“He never had a moment of regret that he didn’t go home,” said fellow POW and cellmate Jack Fellows, of Annapolis, Maryland. “We all wanted to go home but we had a mission, which was to survive with our honor intact.”
McCain was finally released in March 1973, some two months after the United States and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords (Mount Holyoke College) that brought an end to the Vietnam War. However, North Vietnam renewed the war in December 1974 and completed its invasion on April 30, 1975.
Upon his return to the United States, Senator McCain would go on to devote most of the remainder of his life to public service, first in the House of Representatives and then in the United States Senate. Twice, he would pursue the U.S. Presidency. He would lose the Republican nomination to George W. Bush in 2000. In 2008, he secured the Republican nomination, but was defeated by Barack Obama in the face of a financial crisis and rapidly deepening economic contraction. Throughout his political tenure, he displayed a streak of independent thinking, sometimes disappointing fellow Republicans and conservatives along the way.
Many of his Republican colleagues fault him for his having thwarted the Senate’s final effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act with a dramatic, early hours, “thumbs down” vote on July 28, 2017 (Senate.gov). Even as Senator McCain had noted numerous flaws in the Affordable Care Act, he was confronted with the reality that his Party had failed to develop a coherent alternative that would have produced better outcomes than the Affordable Care Act.
The Congressional Budget Office had warned that repeal would have resulted in an increase in uninsured Americans by 17 million in 2018 and 27 million in 2020, with average premiums increasing by 25% in 2018 relative to current law and 50% in 2020. Senator McCain refused to vote for a situation that would be worse than the status quo. Although one can argue the politics of his choice, it is far from unreasonable for Senator McCain to have expected that the Senate strive to produce better outcomes. Service to country is about making things better for one’s nation and its citizens. Senator McCain lived up to that ideal.
Perhaps James Carroll described McCain’s example best in a July 17, 2017 article in The New Yorker. Carroll observed, “…being stripped in captivity of moral self-righteousness as well as physical health prepared him to emerge at the crucial moment as a figure of American redemption, of aspirational nobility—even if the nation lately falls far short of the standards he set fifty and twenty years ago by Senator John McCain.”
Now, John McCain is moving toward the completion of his extraordinary American journey. Through his long-running service to the nation, he has established the “eternal substance of his greatness.” Amid all the polarization and partisan turbulence that swirls about Washington, D.C. today, darkening the American political landscape, John McCain’s honor remains intact.