I was in the far northern reaches of Canada on a wilderness river when Senator John McCain died. We got to our endpoint—Nahanni Butte—where there was internet connection, and I learned that he passed away a few days earlier. It was not a surprise, obviously. Friends had been keeping me posted about his struggles and diminished strength through the summer. Still, it was a very sad day when I heard the news.
John McCain stood up for me against an unfair political attack at a time when I was up for confirmation as deputy secretary of defense. Senator McCain walked onto the floor to confront a senator who was condemning me for work I had done as comptroller. He fought for me when no one else did. With an experience like that, I cannot be objective about this man. He has my loyalty until the day I die.
I have watched the commentary about Senator McCain—and especially about his funeral services—these past four days. He is either lionized for being one of the last “truth-speakers” in the Senate or is being condemned because he wasn’t loyal to President Trump at a crucial moment when the Republicans in the Senate stalled in their attempt to repeal “Obamacare”. It is one of the very disappointing things about Washington these days that the life-measure of a man is taken based on the political preferences of individuals involved in our current struggles.
I suffered more than once the sharp criticism of John McCain in the nearly 30 years I worked with him. But I noticed something in all these episodes. John McCain never reacted to personal attacks directed against him. I once observed him endure a four-block hectoring by left-wing “occupy Washington” hotheads as they condemned him with all kind of vituperation. He got to his car and responded, “Good night, my friends”.
John McCain got angry when he felt someone was insincere in their beliefs or championed a cause that was more about personal advancement than helping the country through a serious problem. Those things angered John McCain. He was never angry when someone argued against his point. I met with him often—especially in recent years about America’s faltering leadership in Asia. Every one of those discussions was principled and constructive.
David Brooks, the famed columnist, said that John McCain was really a World War II intellect. He missed the tumultuous self-questioning of the Vietnam era because he was a POW during the time. His incarceration created a remarkably generous and reflective intellect while strengthening his fundamental commitment to building a stronger and safer America. I was intensely proud of him—and told him so—when he courageously spoke out against torture and any shading of principles in the American security establishment that would condone it. “It was the right thing to do, Johnny-boy” he said in response.
But the finest moment of John McCain’s long public service was found in the concession speech he gave in 2008 when he lost the election to President Obama. The entire speech is worth rereading, but let me end with a few select sentences: “This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight. I’ve always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too.
“But we both recognize 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 has the power to wound. . .. America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the Presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth… These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.”
Grandeur, not self-pity. That was the transcending theme of his concession speech. That was the transcending message of his life as a public servant.