In gratitude Life in General

American Hero, Wise-Cracking & Flawed Political Icon: Thoughts on Losing Courageous & Complicated Senator John McCain

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

The announcement when it came from his office late Saturday afternoon was, of course,  not unexpected, but still it was shocking.

“Senator John Sidney McCain III died at 4:28 pm on August 25, 2018. With the Senator when he passed were his wife Cindy and their family. At his death, he had served the United States of America faithfully for sixty years.

The time of death was unusually exact for such statements, as if those who worked with him understood that it would somehow matter to the rest of us to know, not just the date and the general hour, but the minute that Senator John McCain left this world.

“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s,” McCain said in his acceptance speech for his 2008 run for president. “I loved it for its decency, for its faith in the wisdom, justice, and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again; I wasn’t my own man anymore; I was my country’s.”

Shoe-horned into the speeches of most other politicians, such statements would have come off as meaningless election self-aggrandizement. Yet, when John McCain spoke the words, they burst into the atmosphere of the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as hard won truths. Yes, the phrases were polished by Mark Salter, who was McCain’s speechwriter and close aid for three decades. But Salter knew how to distill the best and truest parts of his boss, who in his devotion to service of his country rejected what he called “half-baked, spurious nationalism,”  which he believed feared ethical leadership, and turned patriotism into an enemy-filled zero sum game.

John McCain was also hot headed, a smart ass (by his own description), cantankerous, and capable of going against his better instincts, sometimes disastrously, as with his close brush with scandal in the Keating Five debacle, and his selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate, which he came to regret.

Yet, the Senator admitted to his failings readily, especially when he failed to live up to the the ideals he set for himself. At times, friends thought, he blurted his mistakes too quickly ahead of his victories.  Still, his courage, his decency, and his “maverick” tenacity when pursuing whatever he believed to be truly righteous and important, in the end always gleamed the brightest, even in the eyes of those who opposed him politically.

In the Senate, McCain did not hesitate to reach across the aisle to get things done, and saw Ted Kennedy—with whom he often fought—as “the closest of friends,” he told 60 Minutes.

It made a bizarre and melancholic kind of cosmic sense that he and Kennedy coincidentally died on the same day, of the same disease, nine years apart.

Known for his straight talking, man-of-action persona, McCain also loved literature—like, really loved it. In May of this year, he told the New York Times Book Review that he’d recently reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for the “poetic quality of his prose.” McCain adored the terse, manly-man eloquence of Ernest Hemingway, but his other favorite was W. Somerset Maugham, whom he appreciated for his “cosmopolitan sensibility, his feel for the personal and social dramas provoked by clashing cultures,” he said.

McCain had plenty of experience with clashing cultures and countries. Arguably the nation’s most famous prisoner of war, McCain was shot down as a Navy pilot over Vietnam, where he spent 5 1/2 years as a POW.  The son of an admiral, less than a year after his capture, McCain was abruptly offered an early release. He refused to go home earlier than those captured before him. Post refusal, McCain was especially severely tortured, and was kept for more than two years of his imprisonment in solitary confinement.

His wartime injuries left him unable to raise his arms above his shoulders. He spoke out  ferociously against torture, and also about solitary confinement, writing that he and his fellow prisoners found social isolation to be “as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.”

In the senate, with a few notable exceptions like 2007’s Second Chance Act, he leaned mostly toward law-and-order legislation rather than justice reform.  Yet, his unassailable account of the high psychic cost of solitary helped reformers working to limit its use in state prisons, and continues to help justice advocates even now.

Similarly, it was the perennially hawkish McCain who was in the lead in 1993 and 1994, along with fellow Vietnam vet and close friend, Democratic Senator John Kerry, to restore diplomatic relations with the country that had imprisoned and brutalized him, when others in his party opposed the long-overdue move.

McCain experienced, up close, some of the best and worst that his—our—fellow humans have to offer.

But even in his last months, his optimism, rather than waning, seemed to bloom, if anything, more fully.

“I wish all of you great adventures, good company, and lives as lucky as mine,” he wrote to his fellow Americans, in his last book, The Restless Wave, written with Mark Salter, much of it after McCain knew he was dying, and released in late May of this year.

As Salter told the New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells about his boss and friend:

“He knows how to hold on to hope when it’s for suckers.”

Rest in Peace, Senator John Sidney McCain III.  We will miss you.  A lot.


The photo above shows Senator John McCain when he attended a reenlistment, naturalization and Independence Day ceremony at the Al-Faw Palace in Baghdad, Iraq, on July 4, 2007. He and Senator Lindsey Graham were guest speakers for the ceremony that reenlisted 571 service members and gave citizenship to 161. The U.S. Navy photo is by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jennifer A. Villalovos, Wikimedia Commons


Editor’s note: This essay was expanded slightly on 8-26-2018

21 Comments

  • Respectively, MK, the age of Trump is but a short diversion off our countrie’s rails.

    We have gone from McCain-Feingold to Citizens United. The anomaly of The Donald was bound to happen.

    • Was just thinking the same thing Jimbo. Like Acient Rome we’re leaving the republic stage, well into the imperial stage. Trump is is probably just a one off, a last hurrah, then back to the Uniparty. The FBI, CIA and DOJ want to make examples , so no one else gets any big ideas in the future.

  • May John McCain rest in peace. Regardless of what political party he was affiliated wth, he was an American Military Veteran whose story speaks for itself. It strikes me very odd that trump can complain about NFL players kneeling when the National Anthem is played and speak foul about John McCain because he was a P.O.W. Only a non veteran idiot would speak such disrespect and foolishness. The clock is ticking.

    • Starlight Scope

      “…And speak foul about John McCain because he was a P.O.W.”

      That grated against me, too.

      How in the fuck do you avoid becoming a P.O.W. when you get shot down & have to bail out over a densely populated area?

      Impossible.

      • Cognistator, I agree. Any Armed Forces Member worth their salt would also take offense to McCain being ridiculed as a former P.O.W. It’s no different from Cops being ridiculed by punks in the street. As far as I’m concerned, the line was cross at that moment regardless if Don was not the President at that time. Shame on those with a blind eye.

        • That would include the Gold Star member Captain Humayun Khan who unselfishly fought and died in Iraq attempting to save his fellow soldiers, all for this glorious Country. Bashing his family was disgusting and disrespectful by trump. Our U.S. Military will outlast any and every President that has taken oath.

  • Hear, hear Scope – for your first two sentences. McCain is the guy who refused to be released unless the rest of the POWs were also released. Enough said.

    We can argue the rest of that crap at another time.

    • I refer you to the words of Retired Admiral William McRaven who spoke the unadulterated truth. If you have a problem with what he expressed to America, I’m sure there’s a way to discuss your disagreement via correspondence. Semper Fi.

  • Celeste, what you allow CF to post is so wrong it brings your own morals into question. I was no big fan of many of McCain’s stances but the man was an absolute American hero. The American Left is nothing but a huge hate group now with thousands of cowards like CF.

    • This hateful division perpetuated on both sides of the political road really needs to stop. As adults, we should be able to disagree without all the name calling and over generalizations. As an aside, I have friends that do not share my political opinions and they are far from cowards. Our focus needs to be about our country and it’s citizens, not any party. On that note, I join in the mourning for Senator McCain. A brave patriot that had the strength of character to be both decent in his dealings with others and to do what he thought was right to the very end.

    • “The American Left is nothing but a huge hate group now with thousands of cowards”. Wow that’s so rich coming from a big online bully like yourself Miss Fire!

      I wonder which of these two groups espouse more dangerous and sometimes deadly hateful ideologies and policies, the American Left of the American Right?

      And to quote you “what you post is so wrong it brings your own morals into question”, but I’m sure you are simply unaware of this fact. But if you can easily point that in others then you probably suffer from the same shortcomings. Except yours come with some hate and ignorance, but I guess that’s what being a big BULLY is all about.

      Ponte trucha compa!

  • EDITOR’S NOTE:

    Dear Sure Fire, As I’ve expressed approximately 9,753 times in the past (conservatively), I appreciate when commenters bring inappropriate comments to my attention because I’m busy and don’t always see them. CF’s comment was loathsome, and it’s now gone.

    But as for “….what you allow CF to post is so wrong it brings your own morals into question…” and the like, I have officially lost patience with both of you.

    Fair warning.

    C.

  • The post by “Old and Jaded” pretty much reigns supreme. Senator McCain was an honorable man period. His life and legacy transcended many boundaries and was not limited to any group as he was “ALL” American as evident by him remaining in the Hanoi Hilton by choice. It takes honorable men to recognize honorable men. The division of America spouted by a select few who comment on this blog is tiring and unproductive.

  • Ruiz, I feel your pain. Celeste, I don’t start with outrageous comments and any reading of this board would show that, please set the record straight it’s the board donk CF and it can’t be disputed.
    I wonder, do people here hate thiefs more or people who attack others? I kind of understood some people who beat the hell out of others at times, could get why they were so angry though still did my job. An outright thief though, that’s a special type of vermin.
    Just saying..

  • All this love and good feelings are great. However he was part of the Keating 5. Crony politicians who relaxed the regulations for their buddy Keating, which in turn led to failure/scandal of the saving and loans industry in the 80’s/90’s. Military service aside, his political service was none more remarkable than most of the self serving ticks in politics nowdays. All this pro/anti Trump this or that or trying to figure out when he recently changed is all minutiae to the fact he was a dirty politician years ago….

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