I grew up on a rather heavy diet of reading, and my first forays into the written word were fairytales followed by stories of the lives of the saints. I admittedly felt that perhaps those icons of religion were more superhuman than I thought possible, and so the ones like St. Theresa and St. Augustine who were flawed like I was became my favorites. Eventually I developed an addiction to biographies of famous people in which I learned of the human frailties of some of my heroes who nonetheless impressed me with their courage. In those critical moments when the world needed them to overcome their weaknesses, they rose to the occasion. Profiles In Courage was like a kind of historical Bible to me that outlined some of the finest stories of humans who were willing to risk everything to do what they believed was right. I suppose that I learned much about character from the many volumes that I devoured, and in the process I began to believe that there are special people among us who have the same imperfections that we all possess but also a moral foundation and strength that separates them from the pack.
The list of my heroes is long and eclectic but one of the traits that all of them shared was a willingness to admit to wrongs. They understood their own imperfections and fought internally to eliminate them, but in their humanness they sometimes lost those battles. Mostly though they were able to follow a path of righteousness no matter how difficult it sometimes became. People like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Gandhi have sometimes been picked apart by people who have concentrated more on their mistakes than on the totality of their dedication to justice and compassion. I prefer instead to view them from an assessment of their willingness to make difficult and even dangerous decisions in order to do what they believed to be right.
Sometimes it seems as though we have a dearth of heroes in today’s world. I admire Pope Francis for his loving candor and I think that Jimmy Carter is one of the kindest people on the planet, but in general there is far too much tribalism and anger. Those who apologize for their missteps are often deemed to be weak or wishy washy. Instead we seem to prefer people who barrel ahead with bravado even when it is obvious that they are wrong. We mistake anger for courage, bullying behaviors for strength. From out of the crowd of puppets and posers a true American hero has emerged, and his name is John McCain.
John McCain is an interesting fellow. He’s from a military family who expected him to serve his country, something that he initially did willingly but with little enthusiasm. It was not until he became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War that he began to truly understand what it means to be a patriot. His injuries were so extensive that to this very day he is unable to lift his arms to comb his own hair. When offered the opportunity to be freed simply because he was the son of an important military figure, he insisted on following the tradition of going in proper order. After much torture he broke at one point, a fact that haunts him to this day, but on the whole he demonstrated a kind of bravery that few of us would have been able to muster.
Upon his return to a normal life after the war was ended he struggled to know what to do with his life. His marriage foundered, another flaw for which he takes full credit. When he finally found himself he knew that he wanted to be a public servant and began a decades long career as a Senator from Arizona. His military background led him to believe in the necessity of working with his colleagues rather than fighting them. He often disagreed with their ideas, but was willing to find ways to allow everyone to win for the sake of the country. He was admired by his fellow lawmakers regardless of party affiliation and created lasting friendships along the way. He was a principled man who believed that it was indeed possible to stand for certain ideals without ignoring differing points of view and finding common ground.
Twice John McCain decided to make a run for President of the United States. In 2000 he lost his party’s nomination to George W. Bush, but came out on top in 2008. He had wanted to choose Joe Lieberman as his running mate but was talked out of that idea by his handlers, a moment that he still regrets. His campaign never really got off of the ground because he lacked the charisma of his opponent Barrack Obama, and his own party viewed him as being weak, lacking the kind of fighting spirit for which they were searching. He instead gave them fairness even to the point of defending Obama against false accusations. The fact that he was a good man seemed to have little appeal to the electorate.
John McCain has continued to be his own person, even as his party has taken a direction so unlike him. He votes according to his conscience, a trait that is all but lost in the present political arena. He voices his beliefs even when they are unpopular. He refuses to be beholden to the pressures of a base or the leader of any party, and while I may not always agree with his ideas, I am in awe of his conviction. Now he is dying and in his last moments on this earth he continues to show us how we should live. He is truly among the greats in my estimation and I hope that other politicians are taking note of his character because men and women like him are all too lacking.
I would like to think that the madness that is present day Washington D.C. is temporary, and that one day we will come to our senses as a nation and insist that our country be run by men and women who understand the necessity of working together for the welfare of all of us. I would like to believe that collegiality and respect will return. John McCain has demonstrated how to do that throughout his lifetime. Notwithstanding comments from our current president, he is indeed a hero.