Senator John McCain: Mission Not Yet Accomplished


Great national leaders are few and far between, be they members of congress or presidents. 
The last 81 years — the age at which the great senator from Arizona John McCain passed away — have produced but two handfuls. 

We have had the likes of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Sam Nunn, Richard Lugar and Richard Durbin, Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill, Dick Armey, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and, nominally, Ronald Reagan. Shoulder-to-shoulder or heads above all of them stood Senator John McCain. 

McCain was a patriot of the first order, consistently putting country ahead of politics and power, putting policy ahead of self-gain and self-aggrandizement, putting truth, character and conviction ahead of division, rancor and instability. 

A war hero who put life and limb on the line. He suffered brutal torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese enemy, he held out for years, giving his captors fusillades of verbal lashings in response to their lashings with the whip and confinement in solitary.   

Weighing only 105 pounds near the low point of his captivity, he refused early release as a POW to deny the enemy any gloating and propaganda benefit.

Finally he cracked and signed a false confession — a typical product of torture — but emerged all the stronger for his travails. He proved again and again over the long run that character, integrity and personal honor are far greater than glittering or inflammatory political agendas and the fanning of flames to fire up a political base.

His die-hard base of loyalists came from his inner light and the slow burn of steadfast focus, credibility, warmth of personality, bi-partisanship and fact- based pragmatism in an enduring quest for stability. 

McCain sided with the great ones, worked effectively with the mediocre and disavowed the dregs, ne’er-do-wells, frauds and connivers of those in federal leadership. He aligned with those, be it Republican Ronald Reagan or Democrat Russ Feingold to forge policy and legislation that took the nation towards progress and balance. 

He called others out — especially in the Senate and White House — when he saw those crossing lines of truth or reason, or violated of cherished traditions of political decency and institutional tradition in crafting workable policy. 

A first-rate, bipartisan umpire with his own, highly consistent strike zone, he tore up Secretary of State John Kerry, once calling him a “human wrecking ball.” He lit up fellow Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, terming them, “wacko birds.” Yet he shunned the use of race, religion or gender-based denigrations.  

McCain saw such epithets — frequent barbs in the verbal arsenal of the current president and many of his followers — as beneath the dignity of a good American and a departure from American political tradition and Constitutional principle. 

He went after President George W. Bush in the aftermath of his bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina. McCain showed righteous political decorum and restraint by not naming Bush personally, avoiding the cheap and easy ad hominem, instead putting his focus on competence and policy.  “Never again, never again, will a disaster of this nature be handled in the disgraceful way it was handled,” McCain said. 

Then came President Donald Trump and perhaps, again, McCain gave in a bit to the assaults set upon him and many in the nation. The friction began when Trump dared to insult McCain’s bravery, sacrifice, character and integrity when he said that “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,” one of the all-time low blows in American history. 
Trump (and I) never volunteered to put ourselves in line to risk injury, death or capture by a foreign enemy power, unlike McCain. We were never tortured and never fought for our country, though I was destined to until Nixon ended the draft. Neither this president nor I is in a position to degrade those who served in the armed forces, much less a war hero. I never have and never will, unlike the president. 

As such I realize it is not about he who sloganeers himself in the flag or puts it on his house, hat, truck or campaign sticker, but he who stands for it with his blood on the line and with his country in mind and heart. I cannot but give accolades to the courage, and thick-skinned patriotism to a man like McCain, a man in whose light I walk and in whose shadow Trump pales. 

As such, I must see Trump’s cold-water remarks of condolence to the family of McCain — consciously lacking tribute to the Senator’s heroism and gifts to America — as yet another shortfall of what it takes to be great. 

Greatness shines on through history, and history judges. Legacies of the mighty giants never leave, but rather inspire us. While not a visionary as was Lincoln, McCain shared enough of Lincoln’s tenacity, high-minded moderation, art of compromise and the virtue of placing country over self that he now gives us the power to correct course. 

We can steer a path away from division and dismantling of the union. He has granted us a tall mission to accomplish in his name. Our striving to do so is almost surely what he would want as his enduring legacy. Let us follow as we may. 


Larry Freeman lives in Alameda. He teaches U.S. Government and Constitutional Law at Acalanes High School in Lafayette.