He died as he lived, on terms entirely his own – malignant cancer attacking his brain but never touching his spirit, his courage, his heart. When death came for John McCain at age 81, near suppertime on August’s last Saturday, we lost more than a few hundred words can describe.
That’s because the senior senator from Arizona, the Naval aviator, the survivor of the Hanoi Hilton, the patriot, the twice-failed presidential candidate, the public servant who possessed a sharp tongue and a legendary temper, was America’s Last Hero.
At least for now. At least until this nation navigates what feels like history’s smallest, most petty era and we once again mint a John McCain.
If those words read like they were written by someone who has quit on America, rest assured that is not the case. On this subject I agree with McCain, as he explained in his farewell letter to us.
“Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here,” he wrote. “Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”
He might as well have been talking about himself. John McCain absolutely never surrendered. Nor did he ever hide from history.
To be fair, America’s Last Hero was not perfect, nor did he pretend as much. Thirty years ago, McCain was branded one of the “Keating Five” tied to Charlie Keating of Lincoln Savings and Loan infamy. Cleared of wrongdoing, McCain became a reformer, working tirelessly to pass McCain-Feingold, a bipartisan fix to political campaign finances.
Vintage McCain, owning his poor judgment, transcending it. The same goes for his 1983 vote against an Arizona state holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"We can be slow … to give greatness its due, a mistake I myself made long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King,” McCain said during his 2008 presidential run. “I was wrong.”
Pardon me while I try to remember the last time an American elected leader uttered those three words – “I was wrong” – and convinced us he or she meant it. McCain’s authenticity was a testament to the way he comported himself: with his gaze fixed on larger things, qualities like honor, duty, sacrifice.
In 1996, back when I worked as a columnist for this newspaper full-time, I spent 18 hours trailing McCain while he worked the hallways and meeting rooms at the Republican National Convention in San Diego.
What stood out to me? Not how he knew the name and backstory of 90 percent of the city. It was the fact that McCain couldn’t raise his arms high enough to comb his own hair – thanks to the two broken arms and the broken shoulder he suffered in Vietnam.
He would call you “boy” and be charming doing so. He would call you far worse when he flashed his temper, then commiserate with you about the failures of the Diamondbacks bullpen.
He would run for President against Barack Obama, lose, and end up remembered for defending his opponent’s character: “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about.”
He was the last of his kind, our last hero, while inspiring us to believe that wouldn’t be the case. John McCain believed in this country’s ability to produce more like him, the next American hero, and the one after that.
Asked how we should remember him, McCain was fast to offer four simple words. “He served his country.”
God, did you ever, sir. Did you ever.