“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow.
The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” – Abraham Lincoln
When we lost Sen. John McCain on Aug. 25, we lost the real thing.
He had been a lot of things to a lot of people. He was a husband and a father. He was an admired leader, a maverick of the Senate. He was a gallant soldier, a genuine war hero. He exhibited qualities our current political leaders should try to emulate.
The shadow that is John McCain’s honored reputation will hang over the state of politics for generations to come, not only because he was the real thing, but because he was so much of what our politics now lacks.
John McCain personified civility. He treated everyone, especially those with whom he disagreed, with respect. That was on display in a 2008 town hall, as seen in a video that has been circulated frequently since his passing, when one of his supporters suggested that his political opponent Barack Obama was not American.
McCain took her microphone and rejected her notion. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen, that I happen to have disagreements with,” he responded.
But there’s another moment from the same town hall that gets less attention, although it is just as powerful and revealing of McCain’s character. It was when another supporter said he was scared of an Obama presidency. McCain rejected that notion, too. He was booed for it; the crowd wanted him to indulge their fears. He responded, “I will fight, but I will be respectful.”
We don’t have much of that on display today. Instead, we live in a climate where politicians on both sides of the aisle exploit fear and contempt for their own personal gain, vilifying those who are different or have dissimilar beliefs. In his farewell letter, McCain warned us not to confuse our patriotism with “tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all corners of the globe.”
We should be more like John McCain, and less like those who traffic in otherism and fear.
John McCain was a good man when no one was watching. He called mothers and widows of fallen soldiers on the anniversaries of their deaths to check on them, offer them kind words and support. There were no reporters present. He didn’t do it for the cameras. We probably wouldn’t even know about most of these calls had the mothers not spoken out about McCain’s compassion.
In the mid-1990s, McCain made repeated trips to a veterans’ home in northeast Washington, nearly 1,500 miles from Arizona, to visit former Democratic congressman Mo Udall. Udall, who was in the late stages of Parkinson’s disease, rarely even knew McCain was there. But he went anyway, not for publicity or political benefit, but to show respect for a friend of differing political beliefs who had given much to his country.
Like McCain, we should do right by others when no one else is looking.
John McCain was an American hero, the real, genuine article. While some people were dodging military service with imaginary bone spurs, he requested a combat assignment and the naval pilot was duly assigned to the USS Forrestal in Vietnam. “Nobody made me fly over Vietnam,” he would later say. “That’s what I was trained to do, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
McCain exemplified bravery after his plane was shot down and he was held captive for more than five years, withstanding near-fatal torture that left his body permanently damaged. When the Vietnamese soldiers learned of his father’s high rank in the Navy, he was offered an early release. He refused, saying he would only accept freedom if every other U.S. soldier captured before him was freed.
His strong will and unrelenting bravery even earned him the respect of his captors. He carried both into public service as a U.S. Representative and longtime Senator.
During his four decades of public service, he always put his country above himself and his party, something that’s rarely seen today, if at all. He never settled for what was easy; rather, he invariably stood up for what he thought was right, even if it meant being attacked for it. He never backed down from a fight worth fighting.
Like McCain, we should be brave and strive to do the right thing even if it isn’t politically expedient.
McCain was the first candidate to ever pique my interest in politics, something I would go on to study in college. I wrote to his campaign, bought bumper stickers and made signs. I passed out literature and formed a political club at my school. And I wasn’t even old enough to vote. John McCain was brave and gracious and he inspired me in a way that so few politicians ever have.
We must pick up the legacy that he leaves behind. We must return to decency and embrace civility. If we’re ever going to make our nation, state or community a better place, we have to meet people where they are, learn to set aside our differences and work towards being more constructive for the greater good.
We need to be more like John McCain.