We have used this space a great deal recently to comment on matters of local and provincial concern. That is as it should be particularly in an election year. But every now and then, people and events compel us to move out of our bubble of parochial concerns and pay tribute to history. And more importantly, to learn from it.
The passing of U.S. senator John McCain is just such an event and he was just such a special figure. He never forgot what the best in elective office and leadership was all about. That it went beyond partisanship. It was about honour, service, fidelity to truth and most of all courage. In the way he led his life, in the lessons wrought from his example, he became a figure that transcended national boundaries. All those who strive for elective office should be inspired by his standards and they should be reflected in their conduct.
He once wrote that being brave and ignoring fear makes everything else in life easy. He lived those words. As a prisoner for five and a half years in North Vietnam he refused an offer of early release until all prisoners were released. This despite the fact that he had been tortured so brutally — his shoulders broken repeatedly to the point where he could never raise his arms to full height for the rest of his life — that he knew he risked death by not accepting release. As a Senator he was called a “maverick” because he believed in bipartisanship for the good of the country. Principles above party. And he faced criticism from his own Republicans for his friendship with Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, Al Gore’s running mate, and the many pieces of legislation they worked on together. Lieberman was McCain’s first choice for Vice-President in his 2008 Presidential bid.
In that year, putting country over campaign, he suspended his Presidential bid for a week to come back to Washington for critical votes during the economic crisis. In the campaign he would not turn a deaf ear to racism even from his own supporters, once famously taking the microphone away from a questioner at a town hall because that person had used racial epithets against McCain’s rival then Sen. Barack Obama and defending him. And in the past several years he has not shied away from leading criticism of his own Republican President who won Arizona with a large majority when he felt the President was just going too far.
His courage extended into his passing when just last week he announced that he was stopping medication against the disease that killed him. Through the past year of treatments he was still in the Senate on votes and giving passionate speeches. He made a place for himself in the story of his nation and the history of our times. We celebrate his life and what he gave and was to all. He was always self-deprecating and once called his service to his country “imperfect.” Of course it was not. It was perfect in the most important sense of raising high the battered standard of integrity. He lived true to the words of Thomas Paine who wrote, “Every elected officials has a duty of best efforts and best judgement. But they betray that duty when they trade judgement for popular opinion.” John McCain was never guilty of that betrayal.
He never mortgaged honor to expediency nor compromised courage to timidity. And he always spoke truth to power. What more can be asked of any man. John McCain was hero for our times. But his legacy lives and is reflected in the following words from Theodore Roosevelt on the “man in the arena.” For John McCain never sided with the “cold and timid souls.” Tears well up in all, for we need more McCain, now more than ever...
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”