Friday, Aug. 31, 2018 — A lion of American public service lies in state in the U.S. Capitol today, at peace after more than six decades of service to our republic.
By any measure John McCain was a successful man. But, I don’t believe the outpouring of grief at his death can be attributed entirely, maybe not even primarily, to John McCain’s power and prestige, his years of service, his courage in captivity or his affable nature, zeal for life and capacity to make even his most ardent foes smile.
All of those attributes made McCain a remarkable man. But, in his passing America has sustained and sensed an even greater loss. At a time when self-interest and greed reign, when truth holds little meaning and partisan loyalty trumps allegiance to the nation, America is bidding farewell to a man who lived his life by a deeper code of integrity and selfless service.
In his farewell letter to us all, McCain outlined the code by which he sought to guide his life.
“To be connected to America’s causes — liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people – brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures,” he wrote. “Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.”
McCain was more candid when asked in an interview not long after his cancer diagnosis last year how he would want to be remembered.
“He served his country, and not always right — made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of errors,” McCain said, “but served his country, and, I hope we could add, honorably.”
I think we could add that, Senator, and in no small measure.
McCain’s friends and foes alike have lined up to offer praise because they recognized in him something this country sorely needs: integrity, courage and the ability to place the greater good above himself. Those yet unable to match McCain’s standards might still honor his character, and recognize the need to replicate it among our nation’s leaders, no matter their party.
Even McCain’s one-time enemies respected him. Retired Vietnamese colonel Tran Trong Duyet, who ran the infamous Hanoi Hilton while McCain was a prisoner there, told Agence France Presse (AFP) he admired McCain for his “stubbornness” and “his strong stance” while in captivity.
“If he came to Vietnam, I would greet him, not as a former prisoner and a jailer, but as two veterans, from both sides of the battlefield, now meeting again in the spirit of reconciliation,” Duyet told AFP. He expressed sadness on learning he’ll have to wait until the next life to make that reunion.
But, even in death, McCain continues to instruct and inspire us. His funeral, planned by McCain before his death, is choreographed to display the virtues McCain embodied in life.
Among McCain’s pall bearers tomorrow will be Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice chairman of the Open Russia movement and two-time survivor of assassination attempts likely orchestrated by Vladimir Putin.
McCain and Kara-Murza shared a passion for freedom and democracy, and opposition to Putin.
Kara-Murza’s inclusion in the funeral entourage is a recognition of his courage, but also a reminder to Americans we’re called to oppose autocracy in all forms and a warning to protect our nation, its institutions and values from Putin’s brand of autocratic thuggery.
The eulogies also are instructive. McCain asked former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush to deliver eulogies. It takes incredible class and humility to ask two people who beat you in presidential elections to speak at your funeral.
More importantly, McCain’s choice of eulogizers reminds us our personal ambitions must take a back seat to the greater good, and our common interest in this republic must transcend political differences.
McCain’s final words on this topic aren’t some weak-jawed admonition to “just get along.” He calls us to fight for our beliefs — to fight ferociously — but to remember, in the end, we fight on the same side.
“We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals,” McCain wrote. “We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement.”
Orson Swindle III, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, naval aviator and former commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, shared a cell with McCain in Hanoi.
When NPR asked Swindle how Americans should honor McCain’s memory, Swindle said “I would like to ask people to exercise their right to vote … to wake up and start voting for people who love this country more than their job.”
If we’re to truly honor John McCain, we must seek and elevate men and women who live out the inscription above the chapel doors at his beloved alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy: Non Sibi Sed Patriae — Not for self, but for country.
McCain will be laid to rest within sight of that chapel dome on Sunday, next to his classmate and longtime friend, Admiral Chuck Larson.
I’m sure the old shipmates are enjoying their reunion. Their watch is complete. It falls to us now to rise to the immense challenge of deserving their legacy, and placing the good of this nation above our petty differences.
Neal is a News & Eagle columnist and staff writer and 1998 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com, on Facebook and Twitter @JamesNealwriter and online at jamesrneal.com. Beat Army!