Now He Belongs To The Ages

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

Sen. John McCain didn’t quite make it to the presidency but he might have worn the title easily had history gone another way.

In an extraordinary lifetime of achievements that catapulted him from naval hero and prisoner of war to re-election to the Senate where he was serving his sixth term, McCain demonstrated the highest values of those called to public service.

Brought to “lie in state” in the Capitol Rotunda—he is only one of 31 American leaders including Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy and 13 Senators ever to be so honored.

His memorial ceremonies observed by millions across the nation and around the globe was not merely a tribute to the man. It symbolized a deep-felt yearning to move beyond the petty and destructive politics that troubles us today and is putting in question our roots as a nation built on the rule of law.

Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, both of whom denied McCain his hopes of reaching the Oval Office, provided solemn and sometime even humorous testimony to the greatness of a warrior from the West who showed no quit.

Obama summed up well what many Americans are feeling:

“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage.“ ”It’s a politics,” he went on, “that pretends to be brave, but in fact is born of fear. John called us to be bigger than that. He called us to be better than that.”

The allusions to one president who was not there and not invited—Donald Trump—were unmistakable.

With the White House occupant now looking at mounting evidence of criminal wrongdoing and some of his closest advisors already convicted or facing indictment, a presidential good-bye was most likely not the lasting image McCain would have wanted.

The president instead was playing a round of golf at one of his family-owned courses tweeting angry messages denouncing the multiple investigations into criminal wrongdoing.

In what was one of the most emotional and poignant eulogies perhaps ever delivered before a national audience, Meghan McCain, the president’s daughter, left no doubt as to her feelings:

“The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great,” she thundered in a direct rebuke of the man who questioned her father’s heroism because he had been taken prisoner.”

That brought unusual applause for a solemn occasion from a cross-section of the nation’s political elite gathered at the National Cathedral to give McCain the send-off he richly deserved.

The tributes had poured in from all over the nation and world from people of every political stripe—including those of prominent Californians who worked with him very closely in the Senate.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein praised the highly decorated wartime aviator and son of two admirals who had chaired the Armed Services Committee as “a leader, a public servant and a patriot, and he’ll be terribly missed.”

Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, another Democrat and often outspoken critic with whom he frequently tangled said, “John McCain was a force in our nation until the minute he left us. His voice will be sorely missed in this time when his courage is so needed.”

McCain was a son of the West but his appeal was universal.

He was admired as a leader of his party—the GOP. But his legendary heroism bore no political label.

His beliefs had strong conservative roots, but his baseline values were to seek effective compromise and consensus which earned him the respect even of opponents with whom he often disagreed.

He teamed up with former Wisconsin Democrat, and arch-liberal, Russ Feingold, to pass the landmark Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (also known as the McCain-Feingold Act) designed to regulate the financing of political campaigns.

It is one of the ironies of history that McCain died exactly nine years after the death on the same day his close friend and frequent ally, Sen. Ted Kennedy, the liberal “Lion of the Senate” succumbed to the exact type of cancer.

The reasons for McCain’s likeability are not hard to fathom.

He displayed something in increasingly short supply today in much of official Washington—a sense of decency, honesty, fairness and restraint which has practically disappeared from our civil discourse.

During an often stormy and controversial career, his maverick tendencies—a reputation he resented for what he saw as his efforts at bipartisanship—put McCain in much disfavor with some of his GOP colleagues who felt he showed insufficient dedication to the party line.

It was a price McCain was more than willing to pay if it could bring about satisfactory resolution of complex issues with minimum personal rancor which he saw as the ultimate obligation of a U.S. Senator.

McCain left little doubt that his patriotism was honed in an unquenchable desire to serve country before self.

Those same convictions and strength of character that enabled him to endure brutal treatment as a prisoner-of-war for over five and a half years resulting in life-long disabilities proved to be his greatest strength.

No vote he ever made showed more courage than the one he cast when he now famously put thumbs down on a bill that would have repealed the Affordable Healthcare Act—the signature law that may solidify the legacy of Barack Obama who defeated him and was often the brunt of McCain’s sharpest lashings.

What drew less attention but defined the long-evolving philosophy of the ailing 81-year old Arizonan was the speech he gave in casting that vote when he chastised both Democrats and Republicans for the disorderly way in which the legislation was being rammed through the Senate without the benefit of any hearings.

A stickler for proper senatorial decorum after more than three decades of continuous service, McCain admonished a hushed chamber, “We must return to normal order.”

It is a telling message about the state of the union that McCain did not live long enough to see that.

Vice President, Joe Biden, an unabashed liberal Democrat and one of McCain’s closest friends in the Senate, had delivered earlier in Phoenix a tearful eulogy which captured the nature of the man as well as any did:

“There are principles and ideals more than ourselves worth sacrificing for and if necessary, dying for. Americans saw how (McCain) lived his life that way, and they knew the truth of what he was saying. I just think he gave Americans confidence.”

It is unfortunate that it takes the death of an inspirational leader to bring a bitterly divided nation together even if only momentarily.

There is little evidence that any healing process has begun and it is unlikely it will in what appears to be the mounting storm still ahead.

Yet, at least for a few moments, adoration has been focused on a decent and honorable public servant who, though by no means perfect, sought hard to do what was right for his country on a stage he commanded more powerfully and for a longer time than almost anyone else.

McCain, always the optimist about his nation’s future, perhaps wrote his own best eulogy in a letter given to his Chief of Staff that was shared upon his death:

“Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here,” wrote McCain. He concluded, “Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history. Farewell fellow Americans.”

Farewell to you Senator and job well-done.

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