We will not canonize John McCain as the patron saint of All That is Right and Good. We will not call him a hero simply because he served his nation as a military officer, nor because he survived five years as a prisoner of war.
We will not call him a paragon of virtue, because he wasn’t. We will not call him a moral compass, nor a guiding light of political theory, nor a beacon of humility. He was none of those things.
In short, John McCain was like most of us: complex, flawed, human. And for that — and for what he accomplished both because of and in spite of that humanity — we admire him.
McCain, in describing himself, used words like “arrogant,” “smart alec” and “wiseass.” His temper on Capitol Hill was legendary, once getting into a profanity-laced tirade against colleague Sen. Ted Kennedy. Then they became friends. His wit was vicious, and he wasn’t above using it on himself.
Nobody would agree with all his decisions. He was implicated in the influence peddling scheme known as the Keating Five, intervening on behalf of a building and loan executive being investigated for bad financial dealings. He was later exonerated, but criticized for “poor judgment” for accepting campaign contributions from the executive.
Just a couple of years later, he would become one of the leading advocates of campaign finance reform, looking to end the practices of which he had been accused.
He was an early advocate of immigration reform, trying to find a way toward citizenship for the foreigners who overstayed a visa, which accounts for most undocumented immigrants in America. He realized very quickly the dangers of climate change, and sought regulation to reduce the damage.
He was a solid opponent of abortion rights, alienating liberals, but in 2017 was a critical vote in continuing the Affordable Care Act, alienating conservatives.
He even took exception to his own supporters. In 2008, a woman at a rally derided then-candidate Barack Obama as “an Arab.” McCain chided her: “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is all about. He’s not.”
And with that one statement, John McCain defined himself, and in many ways set himself apart. He was a man of principle.
When one is elected to office, one must compromise. It’s both the saving grace and bane of participatory government. An effective leader understands half a loaf is better than none, and more fair than winning the entire loaf. The best leaders compromise on direction, on progress, on success. But never on principles.
McCain wouldn’t compromise his principles. He understood that people he disagreed with had the welfare of America as much in their heart as he did. People of principle can disagree. He would work with them, and become their friends. And he still disagreed with them.
We hope McCain was not the last of his kind, nor that his death is the passing of an age. Instead, we’d like to think McCain will be an inspiration to a new generation of political leaders — leaders who understand country and constituent come before self, and who will not sacrifice principles on the altar of political expediency.
Former president Obama and former president George W. Bush — McCain campaigned against and lost to both — will speak at services for the senator. It says something about the man that he accords so much respect to people he so actively opposed.
And for that, we respect him.