Senator John McCain was an excellent example for all of us. He was honored on his passing by Americans from Arizona to Washington, D.C. and everywhere in between during the past week.
That outpouring of respect includes praises from many citizens of the New River Valley.
Everyone has disagreements with some of his policies, which is as it should be. After all, he called himself a “maverick” (what an exceptional metaphor for a western state legislator); someone who voted on individual issues based on what he thought was right and not on political affiliation alone.
He often angered Democrats, as with his sometimes extremely hawkish views, but he also angered fellow Republicans, as when he put conscience above party in voting against the complete decimation of the Affordable Care Act.
We’ll come back to that sense of independence in a moment.
The place to start when reflecting about John McCain is with his sense of humility.
Now, most people would not think of McCain as particularly humble. Instead, what comes to mind is a forceful, easy to anger, often brash senator who did not suffer fools lightly. However, they forget some notable instances.
They are overlooking his comments about his own imperfections. They forget about the times when he realized he had made a mistake, like with his support of the Confederate flag on the South Carolina Statehouse during his presidential campaign.
He later candidly admitted that he was mistaken and should have opposed it as a symbol of racial malice instead of condoning it for political expediency.
When he lost the election for president, he modestly congratulated President Obama in his concession speech.
He talked about the significance of the first African-American president and what an honorable person he is.
He also talked about, to the chagrin of some of his supporters, the importance for all Americans supporting President Obama as he began his difficult work for the country.
In his last major speech in the Senate, he encouraged Americans to come together, to put aside divisiveness and find ways to cooperate and to compromise. He told senators how essential it was to “reach across the aisle” and put the needs of all Americans before ego or party.
Humility is rare in people these days, especially in politicians. McCain’s sense of honesty and humility was more than refreshing; it was inspiring.
McCain was also sincerely patriotic. He loved our country.
He was not the kind of person who showed love of country by hugging a flag on a stage; he lived his love of country consistently through words and actions.
Having grown up in a military family, he was shot down on his 23rd bombing mission over Vietnam. He was severely injured in the crash—so much so that a weeping Lindsey Graham described on the Senate floor in a remembrance speech how McCain could not comb his hair or put on a jacket. He was subsequently tortured and isolated in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison for five and a half years.
The son of an admiral, he was offered release but refused, since it would have meant leaving men behind who had no such opportunity. “Duty, Honor, Country”: McCain lived Douglas MacArthur’s words.
When McCain spoke of his deep love of this country, he meant it. His daughter remarked at his funeral service that he believed America did not have to be made great again because it always has been the greatest country in the world. These words are not symbolic; McCain believed this with all his heart.
America is the greatest country in the world. It has never been anything less than that when compared to others in ideology and for many centuries now, economic wealth. But we do have faults; we always have.
We have come a long way from enslaving blacks, putting Japanese citizens in concentration camps, or having separate and unequal schools. Yes, America is great, but we still have a ways to go to become even better, to create that “more perfect union.”
The beautiful thing about America is that it has always tried to improve, to make itself greater. In the same manner, McCain admitted he is not a perfect man, and he always strived to become a better one. It takes a humble man to admit his faults and to endeavor to become a better person.
McCain’s independent streak, as already mentioned, is legendary. He was not afraid to take a stand and, if necessary, stand alone. At the same time, he understood how government worked and that working together got things done.
Two of his best friends, Joe Biden and Joe Lieberman, were both Democrats (before Lieberman became an independent), and they often disagreed on policy issues and legislation, but they deeply respected each other.
Biden, Lieberman and McCain, being decent, civil men, would argue vehemently about the issues but could walk away as respected friends.
They would not think of lowering themselves to name calling, petty tweets or mean-spirited threats. They were too mature, honest and gentlemanly to act like that.
That is why most Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, mourn the loss of not only a long-time senator and war hero who put country ahead of politics, but also for someone who stood out as a beacon of strength, honor and civility.
This contrasts so sharply with some of the leaders who have appeared on the scene in the last few years who practice the politics of winning at all costs, even if it means acting in a demeaning, senseless or degrading manner.
Yes, McCain has taught Americans about duty, honor, bravery, civility, persistence, humility, and even the importance of having a sense of humor (self-deprecating at times).
He demonstrated a love of country that is more than rhetoric and must come from the heart. He reminded us that we might disagree, but we are all still on the same team; we are all Americans.
Thank you, Mr. McCain. We need more leaders like you. We need a new generation of men and women to continue the mores of honor and courage you set as a lifelong standard.
We are confident that in our American tradition, these new leaders will step forward and attempt to fill the very large shoes of men like you, Senator John S. McCain.
Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.