Was John McCain an ‘honorable man?’
“The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft’ interred with their bones.”
That line in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, from Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” eulogy of the slain leader, is the bard’s take on how we hold different perspectives in our judgement of people in their passing. Caesar’s commitment to Rome, he says, was misunderstood, and Brutus and the other assassins, he asserts with some sarcasm, were “honorable men.”
We hold neither in contempt in the lens of history. Each had reason for their action. We can be certain, though, Romans of the time stood firmly in opposing camps – Caesar or the conspirators – despite the literary account of Antony’s powerful lamentations over his friend. After all, both sides believed they acted in the best interests of Rome.
So it is with the outpouring of respect for the passing of Arizona Sen. John McCain, and those who, rightly or wrongly, discount his public legacy of having the best interests of our country foremost in his mind and actions.
He was a flawed human and an imperfect politician, as he readily admitted in recent interviews. “He served his country, and not always right,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper, last year, when asked how he’d like to be remembered, adding that he “made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of errors. But served his country. And, I hope, could add, honorably.”
From the Liberal perspective, there certainly is a litany of the mistakes to which the late senator, though not willing to own, himself, may be referring.
A warrior with charisma is still a warrior. He called for war and voted for war and unabashedly declared that we should be willing to stay in Afghanistan a thousand years. “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” McCain darkly sang in a failed attempt at humor during the 2008 presidential campaign.
He gave us Sarah Palin, which, arguably, empowered the far right of the Republican Party for the last decade. He was angry and short-tempered, and I even made an argument during that campaign that his PTSD made him unqualified to be POTUS.
Palin is certainly one of the mistakes he would acknowledge – as evidenced by her exclusion from Thursday’s memorial service – as well as his vote against the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday.
But, he was authentic, and, frankly, while the “maverick” myth is more hyperbole than reality, he did break with Senate leaders from time to time.
His personal history as a tortured prisoner of war in Vietnam made him the loudest, strongest Republican voice against George W. Bush’s euphemistic “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He was the title co-sponsor of the last aggressive campaign finance law (which the Supreme Court castrated after the infamous Citizens United case) along with one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, at the time – Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. And, of course, there was his “Nay” vote, the famous thumbs down, that killed the Republican replacement bill for Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Real partisan hacks “should be made of sterner stuff,” as Shakespeare put it.
He was often articulate and passionate about the fucked-up legislative process in Washington, and believed that policy disagreements don’t make one a less patriotic American than a political opponent. He called for unity in “the country that we both love,” after the divisive and challenging 2008 race, citing Barack Obama’s message of hope as “inspiring…millions of Americans,” who had been left behind and disenfranchised from having a say in America’s leadership.
“[W]e both recognize,” he continued, “that though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.”
Rereading that speech, now, it comes across a bit tone deaf and certainly marked by his perspective as a white American of privilege. Yes, “we have come a long way,” but there is so much farther to go. The memories are still fresh. Sadly, new ones are made every day; they still wound; there is still disenfranchisement. Yet, the sentiments, while culturally naive, speak to his larger belief in America as a country where people come together to get stuff done. That is her promise.
“The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems and to defend her from her adversaries,” McCain declared in his first address to the Senate after his diagnosis, last summer. “That principled mindset, and the service of our predecessors who possessed it, come to mind when I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body. I’m not sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today.”
John McCain understood that there can be no national unity without bipartisanship, and his maverick-ness was more about maintaining that principle than any contrarian bent from a conference with whom he occasionally (but too rarely) disagreed.
“Our deliberations today,” he lamented to his peers, “are often lively and interesting. They can be sincere and principled. But they are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember.”
I understand that some of my younger friends only know the impolite politics of the post-Gingrich 1990s, and for that, they can be forgiven their vehement opposition to all things not essentially imbued with a sense of social responsibility for the world. As a matter of fact, I do not disagree with that ideal one bit. It is a fine commitment into which I hope humanity lives.
But know this, my partisan compatriots: while many are mourning the senator’s loss as a personal tragedy, many more are mourning the dimming of one of the last embers of our commitment to “a more perfect union,” without which our country ceases to be “e pluribus unum,” only finding unity in the siloed echo chamber of like minds.
No matter what, we cannot force our will on others, and the attempts of the Majority in Congress to do so only drives the wedge between us deeper. Extremism (and the Russians) gave us Trump, a “leader” with the conscience of a Corleone, caring only about himself, his family and the lieutenants he trusts (for now). The members of Congress and the Evangelical Christians who laud him unflinchingly are beholden to their own ambitions, justifying their support as an imperfect means to an end.
So, yes, fighting stubborn tribalism in the United States is honorable. It is something we should all be doing. That means dismissing the urge to say, “Well, we are willing to be united with them. They just have to agree with us.” That is not consensus. Giving no quarter on political and social ideals just leaves you smug and self-satisfied with a bucket of quarters, getting you no closer to having those ideas fulfilled.
Let Sen. John McCain be honored for his service to our country, and if you only see the “evil,” then I invite you to cross the aisle, for a bit, peer into the casket and see the good, so you will know the causes for which we all fight: compromise, consensus and unity.
Then, as Antony, I ask you:
“What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him?”