On John McCain

Posted on Aug 27, 2018
Durham, NC

John McCain died yesterday, on August 25, 2018. Like all politicians, his past is one of compromise and imperfection. At many other times in history, he wouldn’t have stood out of the crowd of politicians for his military service or his personal integrity. There were times and places where honor and integrity were of paramount importance (see Ron Chernow’s biography on Hamilton), and military service was a prerequisite to political office (see the Roman republic). Yet American leadership of late seems utterly lacking of people with integrity and an experience of service beyond political office.

While it’s most likely that this has been the case many times in the past (perhaps its always been this way and it’s only mythology that tells us otherwise), contemporary politicians seem ever ready and willing to bend over backwards to appease either popular sentiment or moneyed interests. Political expediency rules all, heresy guarantees a well-funded purist who will “primary” you. That’s why McCain’s refusal to demonize immigrants or to support torture are a beacon in an otherwise shadowed environment. Somehow he managed to convince voters, over and over again, that while they might disagree with him on many issues, he was a man of integrity who they could trust. While I personally disagree with him on most issues, I don’t doubt that he would have been a fine leader had he been elected in 2008. Unfortunately for him, he was sailing into headwinds, such as the financial crisis and a populace tired of eight years of republican executive power, that proved impossible to overcome.

After losing the biggest election there is, most people pack up and head into retirement. Not McCain, for whom service to country seemed salubrious to electoral woes. In this past year, perhaps because he knew that his time was running out, he criticized fiercely many of Trump’s actions and policies. One can only wish that others granted the privilege of power would likewise grow backbones and be willing to lead and guide, rather than slavishly chase political expediency.