--Marcus Aurelius, Philosopher and Roman Emperor
Where have you gone John McCain? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
A story: near the close of the 2008 campaign for the Presidency of the United States, Republican nominee Senator John McCain faced a moment of truth and courage, one I'll never, ever forget witnessing. It all unfolded a decade ago on the stage of a rally in Minnesota. With a little more than a month to go before election day, McCain was behind in the polls and struggling to make up lost ground.
Context: ten years ago the fact that an African-American, for the very first time ever, had a very good chance of winning the highest office in the land: this heartened many but also threatened and scared many voters too. Folks who looked with suspicion upon that candidate's exotic sounding name--"Barack Hussein Obama"!? Others, including a publicity seeking businessman and developer from New York City, who insisted Obama might be foreign born, maybe even a Muslim.
In that historic campaign McCain could have easily jumped on the fear mongering train. Stoked the ugly whisper campaign against Obama. Presidential politics are often marked by such Machiavellian tactics. To win at all costs, right? But that was not candidate McCain. A decorated Vietnam War veteran and a prisoner of war for six years in a North Vietnamese cell: he endured torture and starvation. McCain was a person of honor, integrity and above all, courage.
Not a saint. He could be tough and blunt. He made frequent mistakes but usually took immediate responsibility for his sins. His conservative politics were certainly not my cup of tea, but always I was so impressed by the political courage he showed in his life as a public servant for so many years. When McCain was confronted with political hypocrisy or deception, with political buffoonery or grandstanding, he named it for what it was. He did not suffer fools lightly. He was a maverick until the day he died.
And so at that town meeting style campaign event on October 11th, 2008, McCain could have gone low. Played dirty. Used fear to garner votes. Smeared Obama. Been a bully or a braggart. A voter stood up and said to McCain: "Frankly we're scared of an Obama Presidency. (Applause). McCain responded: "First of all I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be. But I have to tell you, he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared (of) as...President." (Boos and hisses). A second voter pushed back: "I can't trust Obama...I have read about him. He's an Arab." McCain quickly took back the microphone and said: "No. No Ma'am. He's a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign is all about."
McCain's honorable defense of Obama did not win him many fans among the party faithful. In doing the decent thing McCain that day no doubt angered conspiracy minded "birthers" who still insisted that Obama was born on foreign shores, was maybe even an "Arab". But McCain, in that one shining moment, showed courage, as a man not willing to give up his personal integrity for the sake of winning an election. Such courage was the hallmark of his career. He actually worked across the aisle with Democrats like that liberal lion Ted Kennedy to pass legislation. He put country before party, the common good before a narrow partisan good. He was a patriot in the deepest sense, beyond the pseudo patriotism of flag lapel pins and public posturing.
McCain was the real deal. And yes, as a country, we will surely miss him.
As he wrote in "Character Is Destiny", a book he co-authored with Mark Salter in 2005: “So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people....Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and the joy of living....Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of vision. When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”
Godspeed John McCain. Thank you for your service.