Elephants in the Room
This is Not a Eulogy for John McCain
McCain fervently believes in the ennoblement of caring about something bigger than your own interests.
Perhaps no one alive has paid as high a price for the truths we hold to be self-evident as has John McCain. He chose military service as a profession. Offered early release as a prisoner of war by North Vietnam, he kept faith with his fellow POWs and insisted on order of capture release, extending the time of his captivity by years. He might have been president had he indulged back in 2008 in attitudes and political rhetoric that got Donald Trump elected in 2016. McCain is an admirable man, but that’s not what this column is about. I’m not ready to eulogize Senator McCain, and I’m confident he wouldn’t want us to.
I had the good fortune of working as senior policy advisor on his 2008 presidential campaign. He can be irascible, has a Vesuvian temper, exhibits no compunction at disparaging those he considers failing in their responsibilities, and thinks his way through problems by arguing about them with voluble tenacity. And I can say without hesitation that I admired him more at the end of the campaign than I did when I took the job.
McCain is legendary for telling off authoritarians — recall him saying he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw the letters KGB — and unapologetically advancing the values of political liberty and government accountability. But he also does the quiet, patient work of nurturing young leaders, building the institutions essential to democracy, bearing witness for dissidents and their treatment in repressive societies, and modeling respect for journalists. He stands up with leaders of countries in transition, shielding them with his integrity, and encouraging their own. He bears witness to the idea that it isn’t good enough to strengthen the West at its core, but that we must also strengthen it at its ragged edges, grabbing on to imperfect vessels and helping them to succeed.
In the current emotion surrounding his medical diagnosis, many tributes are eliding over a choice McCain was widely calumnied for: his selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. But that, too, is an important part of his legacy, because he foresaw the political tsunami that produced President Trump’s election. He understood earlier than most how frustration with Washington’s insularity and condescension was building. In selecting as his vice presidential candidate a charismatic populist, he attempted to cajole into the mainstream the forces that built to bursting in 2016. Recall that the McCain-Palin ticket was ahead of the Obama-Biden ticket in September 2008; the financial crisis was his undoing, not his VP selection. Palin was a leading indicator of what would become the Trump voter, and the ridicule heaped on Palin — and on McCain for selecting her — further embittered those who felt disrespected by political elites.
So as we praise his civility, the way he talked down his own supporters, let us also recall the message he sent that many did not want to hear: the revolution is coming, and Republicans need to find ways to address the concerns of voters who supported Sarah Palin and would, eventually, bring Donald Trump to the White House.
McCain fervently believes in the ennoblement of caring about something bigger than your own interests. It’s defined his life. So send him your prayers. Then pick up the batons he has always uncomplainingly carried. Respect your fellow Americans. Model civility in our public discourse. Find ways to bridge the chasm and solve our country’s problems. Take seriously the threats our country’s enemies pose. Hold governments accountable for their actions toward their own people. Help people striving for liberty and dignity. There’s important work to be done.
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