I’m a Democrat who hasn’t always voted for the Democrat. I’m a Democrat who believes the far left is little better than a mirror image of the far right. I’m a Democrat who wants a strong and rational Republican Party as a counterweight to excessive taxation and regulation. I’m a Democrat who believes the best legislation ever to come out of Washington was bipartisan. I’m a Democrat who believes reasonable compromise comes from strength rather than weakness. I’m a Democrat who understands there are enemies in the world who would destroy us this minute if they could. In other words, I’m an American. As an American I am sad John McCain has left us and angry that fate has picked this particular time.
We need a few dozen more John McCains in the Senate right now. Instead we have one less. It would be overly simplistic to say the torch has been passed from the modesty of McCain to the megalomania of Trump, but sitting here late at night in a not so optimistic mood, it seems about right.
McCain’s life was largely about service. Service may involve pay but is not transactional. Service means sending your good will and positive actions out into the universe not knowing what good might come back to you but not worrying about it in the least. Ideally service is its own reward. Trump and his ilk have never served a day in their lives. They have worked, perhaps, and they have lobbied, manipulated, and bullied for sure. But they are virtually incapable of service because for them every waking moment is a question of what personal gain awaits.
Everyone suffers. The type, intensity, and duration of suffering differ. But what differs most is what we take away from the suffering. Few if any of us will ever know the depths of suffering John McCain endured within the dank crude concrete walls of the Hanoi Hilton. Even fewer of us will ever fathom the mechanism by which it altered his psyche. But from afar it does seem McCain left hell on earth with a profound appreciation for what America could be and with an expanded appreciation—a joy—for simply being alive.
There is no joy coming out of the White House. True joy requires true humility, and the Oval Office supply of same is like that of ice in an inferno. There is no joy in living life with 24/7 vigilance for any perceived verbal slight. There is no joy in picking small pins from your thin skin and figuring out how to fire them back as Scud missiles. There is no joy in having no real convictions about the nature of the self other than a warped sense of survival of the fittest.
John McCain’s suffering did not lead to sainthood. But it did allow moments of utter clarity, many of which we were privileged to witness. When in the 2008 presidential campaign at a town hall a misguided elderly woman stood up and accused candidate Barack Obama of being an untrustworthy Arab, McCain’s principled defense of his opponent was spontaneous and genuine. A line in the sand was drawn between fair and unfair politics. Trump and his disciples know no such line. In fact, three years later Donald Trump himself pushed to new heights the ruse known as birtherism, the most noxious of all identity politics, in an attempt to tap into the xenophobia of the lone misguided McCain voter Trump hoped to find—and did indeed find—within millions of seething racist Americans.
McCain’s suffering decades ago, and his suffering from brain cancer much more recently, may have played a role in his deciding last stand vote against the attempt to kill the Affordable Care Act. McCain didn’t view Obamacare as anything like a panacea for the country’s gradually unraveling healthcare system. But like Winston Churchill calling democracy the worst form of government with the exception of all the others, McCain saw no viable replacement up the GOP sleeve. As someone denied basic medical treatment for years in prison, McCain seemed to understand desperation, and desperation trumps economic theory unmoored to the human condition.
As Americans, we are increasingly unmoored to the human condition. The President of the United States is concerned only with being in power, and we in the resistance are, ironically, increasingly concerned only with removing him from power. John McCain did not want to exit this crisis any more than he wanted to get shot out of the sky over Vietnam. But for McCain the war is over. Those left behind should honor him with service, joy, and the lessons of our own suffering.