The Death of Political Courage

Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during a campaign appearance at Sacred Heart University February 3, 2008 in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during a campaign appearance at Sacred Heart University February 3, 2008 in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Commitment to principle, despite its costs, is what America has lost with John McCain’s passing.

More than a decade ago, Senator John McCain sought to stop the Bush administration’s attempt to weaken the protections offered by Geneva Conventions. The provision at issue was obscure, the matter legally complicated, and the White House was ready to fight. But McCain was determined.

At the time, I served as the senator’s foreign policy adviser. Talking in his office, we went over the issue one more time. It’s important, I said, but few understand it. You may well lose if you choose to fight this. Even if you win, you’ll get no credit for the victory, and the matter will soon be forgotten. But, I added, I think it’s the right thing to do.

“They are threatening to weaken the Geneva Conventions,” McCain responded. “I can’t let them do that. I’ll fight them to the end—even if it costs me everything.”

Everything, in late 2006, included the Republican presidential nomination, for which the senator was preparing to announce his candidacy in a matter of months. Everything would also be his last and best shot at the White House, a position to which much of his career and life seemed to lead. Everything might mean his standing with Republicans, many of whom already looked at the senator from Arizona with curiosity or dismay when, a year before, he led the fight to bar torture of terrorist detainees. Some of the senator’s political advisers warned that a fight over this issue, and with this president at this time, would result in votes he’d never get and dollars he’d never raise.

But fight McCain did. And he won—ultimately a quiet, legalistic success that left intact the Geneva Conventions, the formal protections that establish basic standards of treatment for those, including Americans, captured in combat. That expression of political courage—risking his power and ambition in a cause greater than himself—was quintessential John McCain. I was never prouder to work for him than on that day some 12 years ago. And this commitment to principle, despite its costs, is what America has lost with the senator’s passing.

In the remembrances that accompanied his death on Saturday, many emphasized McCain’s moral courage, stretching from North Vietnamese prison cells to his famous “thumbs down” vote on last year’s Republican health-care bill. Whether they agreed with any of his particular views or decisions, most admired his service to America and penchant for brave stands that cast aside the political consequences. McCain bucked his party by working with Russ Feingold on campaign-finance reform and with Ted Kennedy on immigration. He pushed for the surge in Iraq when the crumbling war effort led many to seek withdrawal instead of victory. He was a champion of human rights who supported the use of American power for moral ends. McCain believed deeply in American exceptionalism; his celebrated line that treating terrorist detainees humanely is “not about them, it’s about us” summed up much of his worldview.

Yet McCain was also very funny and lots of fun. During the first overseas trip on which I accompanied him, we stopped in Estonia, where then-Senator Hillary Clinton joined our traveling party. Dining outside in the central square that first evening, McCain ordered several rounds of vodka shots for the table, and then asked the waiter to bring over a bottle. Thus commenced a night of senatorial revelry, which ended with an impromptu walking tour of the Old City—as Secret Service officers and the occasional local looked on with more than a little curiosity.

On the same trip, we stopped in Iceland for a few hours to refuel our military aircraft. We had been scheduled to see the foreign minister at the conference center adjacent to the Blue Lagoon, a vast thermal pool and major tourist destination. Upon hearing that the minister was still driving down from Reykjavik, McCain suggested that we rent bathing suits and hit the water. Before I knew it, the senior senator from Arizona had changed, doffed his terrycloth robe, and jumped into the warm blue pool, proceeding to hold a press conference from the water.

The senator loved storytelling as much as having fun. On a visit to Canada’s Yukon Territory, an official mentioned offhand that the poet Robert Service lived nearby during the early 1900s. Within minutes McCain disappeared, having jumped into the car of a friendly local in order to see the old residence first-hand. Upon his return, McCain explained that while in solitary confinement during the Vietnam War, his neighbor taught him, through their shared wall, poems memorized while in school. Among these was Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which McCain learned via the “tap code” American prisoners of war used to communicate. Now in Whitehorse decades later, the senator proceeded to recite the poem in full – both verbally and then by tapping out its code.

Yet nothing about McCain—not his wartime memories or the down moments of his political career—was ever gloomy. On the contrary, his wicked sense of humor tended to triumph. When confronted with bad news, he’d often remind staff of the “the immortal words of Chairman Mao” that “it’s always darkest before it’s completely black.” (Mao didn’t actually say this, and McCain knew it.) On a visit to Antarctica, he threatened—facetiously, I chose to believe—to leave me in Ernest Shackleton’s hut when the plane departed for home. When we hit turbulence on airplanes, he’d note that he had successfully crashed multiple planes and lived to tell the tale, so not to worry—we’d all be fine. Over one period of months we watched the HBO series Da Ali G Show in its entirety, leaving him eager to sit for an interview with Ali G himself—and figuring he could give as good as he got. (We suggested that this was not the best idea).

When it came to matters of national security, however, McCain was deadly serious. The senator pushed for the muscular use of American power in pursuit of the nation’s interests and in defense of its values. He cared not just about Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Russia, but also about places like Burma, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Cambodia. He valued American alliances and the ideals that infuse them, he believed that the liberal order established after 1945 was worth defending, and he was convinced of America’s unique responsibility to take on burdens others would rather shed.

John McCain was graceful, too, even amid his generally blunt and sometimes combative demeanor. I watched him speak quietly to grievously injured servicemen and women in the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. I saw him tour the old prison in Hanoi and then discuss improving national ties with Vietnam’s leaders. I witnessed him sit patiently with the few remaining dissidents in Uzbekistan and pledge support for their cause. And on election night 2008, I stood on the grass at Phoenix’s Biltmore Hotel while McCain gave a concession speech for the history books. Pledging to help Barack Obama lead the American people through the days to come, he wished “Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.” It seems almost quaint, this graciousness in the face of political defeat, a vestige of better political times. Our leaders today could learn much from it.

It was this grace that struck me most during my last visit with McCain. In March, sitting together outside his cabin in northern Arizona, we watched a creek flow around a hill and through the trees. We spoke not of Trump, nor of Washington gossip, or even of old war stories, but of things a touch more profound. John—and it was always “John” to his staff and friends—wanted to talk history, and about his time in Arizona. We chatted about the Battle of Borodino, Stalin’s 1930s show trials and the generalship of Ulysses S. Grant, and about the land he and Cindy had developed outside Sedona. While everyone he knew fretted over his health and feared what was in store, his demeanor was far more serene. He was thankful, he said, for his family and visitors, for the opportunity to serve his country, and for the life he’d lived.

McCain would have been the first to reject any misplaced claim to sainthood, and he emphasized his imperfections. The senator admitted his errors, and he learned from them, and then he went on to make new and different ones. He could be quick to anger, usually but not always in the cause of righteousness, and I was on the receiving end of a little heated language on occasion. But he’d then so often compose himself, call me “old pal”—even when I was a staffer four decades his junior—and we’d be off and running again. That was par for the course. It was also one reason why, even among those he fought over politics or policy, few seemed able to help but love him.

It’s hard to imagine American political life without John McCain. His departure leaves a void of congressional leadership, of national-security thought, and of moral direction that seems nearly impossible to fill. And if ever there were a moment when his presence is necessary, this tumultuous time in our country’s politics is it.

Yet today hundreds of people could tell a story of their time with McCain much like the one I’ve related here. He shaped the views and careers of his Senate colleagues and staff and his friends and supporters. His fingerprints are all over America’s law and policy, our institutions and even the way in which Americans think of themselves and their role in the world. And in all this, he leaves behind something far, far greater than himself—a legacy which is, by his own reckoning, the best measure of a meaningful life.

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