McCain’s vi­sion of courage


In an era when the taste­less is tran­scen­dent and when the vul­gar is ven­er­ated, there is special no­to­ri­ety for Kelli Ward, a West Vir­ginia na­tive, a physician and a for­mer Ari­zona state se­na­tor. Like so many Amer­i­cans, she had a vis­ceral re­ac­tion to the news that Sen. John McCain had brain cancer. She sug­gested he step down and made it clear she thinks Gov. Doug Ducey should ap­point her to the po­si­tion.

Ward, who chal­lenged the se­na­tor in a pri­mary last year, is run­ning in yet another Repub­li­can pri­mary, this time against Sen. Jeff Flake. But she said she be­lieved that the “med­i­cal re­al­ity” of the McCain di­ag­no­sis was “grim,” and that he ought to re­sign. She is a med­i­cal pro­fes­sional, and per­haps her cancer di­ag­no­sis is more ac­cu­rate than her po­lit­i­cal di­ag­no­sis. McCain is a gi­ant of the Se­nate and an en­dur­ing Amer­i­can hero, and no one who knows him be­lieves he is about to be si­lenced.

“His body has been through a lot,” says Vic­to­ria Clarke, who went to work for McCain in 1983, in his first year in the House, “but if any­one can beat this, he can.”

Reel­ing from crit­i­cism, Ward later made it clear that her call for McCain’s res­ig­na­tion ap­plied to “when the time comes.” But the tu­mult around the McCain ill­ness — first the news that he had yet another bout of cancer, then his dra­matic re­turn to the Se­nate last week — served as a strong, stir­ring re­minder of the con­tri­bu­tion the Ari­zona Repub­li­can has made to his coun­try, the Congress and his party.

McCain gained that sta­tus not for his quiet com­pe­tence (like the late Howard H. Baker Jr.), nor for his deep in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism (like the late Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han), nor for his soar­ing rhetoric (like the late Robert Byrd), nor for his mas­tery of the in­side game of leg­is­la­tion (like for­mer Sen. Robert J. Dole).

He was, and is, a hell-bent-for-elec­tion rebel, a wild man both as a Naval avi­a­tor and a Capi­tol Hill law­maker, more re­bel­lious than rec­on­cil­ia­tory, more out­law than in­sider, more out­spo­ken than soft-spo­ken.

In­deed, he has more in com­mon with An­drew Jack­son than does the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent, who hung a pic­ture of the sev­enth pres­i­dent in the White House. Like Jack­son, McCain, a one­time flam­boy­ant fly­boy, lived with the con­se­quences of his mil­i­tary back­ground. Jack­son was scarred by the sword of a Bri­tish dra­goon af­ter he re­fused to clean his boots; McCain was scarred by the time he spent in prison af­ter his plane was shot down over Hanoi in the Viet­nam War, then by melanoma and fi­nally by a glioblas­toma.

The pres­i­dent called him a hero, but al­most ex­actly two years ear­lier he said McCain was a loser, ques­tioned whether he was in fact a hero and added, “I like peo­ple who weren’t cap­tured.”

McCain not only was cap­tured, he also ex­tended his cap­tiv­ity af­ter the North Viet­namese, con­scious that their pris­oner was the son of a much-dec­o­rated ad­mi­ral who com­manded Amer­i­can forces in the con­flict, of­fered to set him free early.

“I was in soli­tary con­fine­ment when my cap­tors of­fered to re­lease me,” he said in his ac­cep­tance speech as the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee in 2008. “I knew why. If I went home, they would use it as pro­pa­ganda to de­mor­al­ize my fel­low pris­on­ers. Our code said we could only go home in the or­der of our cap­ture, and there were men who had been shot down be­fore me.”

McCain has had lapses over the years. He was one of the Keat­ing Five, law­mak­ers ac­cused of im­pro­pri­ety amid the sav­ings-and-loan cri­sis of the late 1980s, and was rep­ri­manded for poor judg­ment, a ver­dict widely ap­plied to his se­lec­tion of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska to be his run­ning mate nine years ago.

But, over­all, the coun­try and the Congress have been el­e­vated by his ser­vice.

He be­came a leader in over­haul­ing cam­paign fi­nance, he bat­tled pork-bar­rel spend­ing and, above all, he gave a brave and gen­er­ous con­ces­sion speech when Sen. Barack Obama de­feated him in 2008. The Ari­zona se­na­tor said that his ri­val had “achieved a great thing for him­self and for his coun­try,” ad­ding, “in a con­test as long and as dif­fi­cult as this cam­paign has been, his suc­cess alone com­mands my re­spect for his abil­ity and per­se­ver­ance.”

But his great­est speech may have come last week. Not since Repub­li­can Sen. Pete Wil­son of Cal­i­for­nia left his hos­pi­tal bed af­ter an emer­gency ap­pen­dec­tomy to cast a de­ci­sive vote from a gur­ney for Ron­ald Rea­gan’s bud­get in 1986 has a law­maker en­tered the an­cient cham­ber in such dra­matic, mov­ing fashion. McCain met the mo­ment with re­marks urg­ing his col­leagues to put party aside and work for the coun­try.

“... See if we can pass some­thing that will be im­per­fect, full of com­pro­mises and not very pleas­ing to im­pla­ca­ble par­ti­sans on ei­ther side, but that might pro­vide work­able so­lu­tions to prob­lems Amer­i­cans are strug­gling with to­day,” he pleaded. “What have we to lose by try­ing to work to­gether to find those so­lu­tions? We’re not get­ting much done apart. I don’t think any of us feels very proud of our in­ca­pac­ity. Merely pre­vent­ing your po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents from do­ing what they want isn’t the most in­spir­ing work.”

It was a per­fect coda to an im­per­fect life ded­i­cated to eas­ing the im­per­fec­tions in the Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment.

“Though it sounds mushy to say this, he has al­ways been in pub­lic ser­vice for all the right rea­sons,” said Clarke, a for­mer as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of defense. “He just wanted to do a good job, and it was a ter­rific at­mos­phere to be in. He’d be the first one to say there may have been times he did or said things he wasn’t proud of, but over­all Amer­ica has got­ten a lot out of John McCain.”

Here’s the most im­por­tant: that courage and con­vic­tions should not — can­not — ex­ist sep­a­rately.

“John McCain learned first­hand that the courage of your con­vic­tions is far more im­por­tant than the de­mands of po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency,” says Roger B. Porter, who worked in the Gerald Ford, Rea­gan and Ge­orge H.W. Bush White Houses be­fore teach­ing at Har­vard. “He learned, and showed, what courage looks like, and it was a special type of courage.”

Then he got cancer, for the sec­ond time, and sought to share another les­son. We should lis­ten.

David M. Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib­, 412-263-1890). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manPG.


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