The late Sen. John McCain pointed out in his farewell statement that Americans are “opinionated, vociferous individuals.” That certainly is true, as displayed in the response to his death.
The passing of a public figure usually is accompanied by widespread praise, the general idea being that we focus on their accomplishments and we don’t speak ill of the dead, at least not the recently dead.
The vast majority of comments I’ve seen regarding McCain likewise expressed admiration, but some on the left called him a warmonger, and some on the right called him a RINO. That’s a “Republican In Name Only,” which some consider a major insult.
Arkansas’ members of Congress and Gov. Asa Hutchinson all spoke well of him. So did former Arkansas elected officials. Those included Sen. David Pryor, with whom McCain refused to speak for years because of Pryor’s role on the Senate Ethics Committee that investigated him and four other senators involved in the “Keating Five” savings and loan scandal. In the end, the committee said McCain merely had exercised poor judgment.
Then there’s the reaction from the White House. McCain and President Trump were not complimentary of each other before McCain’s death, and Trump has been unenthusiastic in honoring him after his death. That’s probably enough said about that.
For many Americans, McCain the political figure cannot be separated from McCain the war hero. He was a bomber pilot shot down over North Vietnam who was then captured and beaten and almost died. His father was a high-ranking admiral who later became commander-in-chief over all U.S. forces in Vietnam. McCain refused to take advantage of that relationship to accept an early release and suffered more beatings because of it.
His sufferings left lifelong physical scars that never healed — he couldn’t lift his arms above his head — and other ones that apparently did. The aviator who bombed North Vietnam and then suffered within its prison walls became an ambassador for reconciliation with that country. The senator who had been tortured became one of the practice’s most outspoken opponents in Congress.
Entire chapters of American history have been closing in recent years. The last American World War I veteran died in 2011. The D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, occurred 74 years ago, which means most of the liberators who didn’t die on the shoreline have since died from other causes. The remaining veterans of Korea and Vietnam are now old men and women. And now we’ve lost John McCain.
Those generations often are celebrated for their bravery, nobility and honor, but thankfully those qualities still exist. Yes, we’ve lost the man who refused to be released ahead of his fellow POWs. But as McCain would be the first to point out, we still have many people like Jason Seaman. He’s the seventh-grade teacher who, though being unarmed, tackled and disarmed a school shooter. He survived being shot and saved his students. Seaman is from Noblesville, Indiana, a name that seems appropriate for his actions.
So no, we still have heroes today. Instead, the biggest void left by McCain will be in the Senate, where he was an island of independence in a sea of partisanship. McCain usually voted conservatively, but he refused to squeeze himself into a Republican-shaped box. Sometimes he voted against his party, and he made no secret of his friendship with Democrats, which infuriated some people. As the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, he seriously considered nominating Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joseph Leiberman as his vice president. Going against his gut on that decision was one of his biggest political regrets.
The loss of that independent spirit in the Senate — that’s what hurts most about losing John McCain. Whether or not you agreed with him or his politics, someone in a body of 100 senators must play that role, particularly in these bitterly partisan times.
Otherwise, too often it’s just 50-something senators from one party and 40-something from the other vociferously expressing opinions, but only the same two of them.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.