We Can Be Heroes

John S. McCain

John S. McCain III 1936-2018
Senator, aviator, POW

“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Donald J. Trump, Presidential Candidate, speaking in Ames, Iowa, July 2015

When I Google “John McCain war hero” two types of listings appear. The first type is his obituary. The second are  blogs intent on validating the statement shown above.

The eulogists will do a far better job of recounting the late Senator’s life than I can. But I do believe his is a life worth noting because, politics aside, there are lessons to be learned.

In this partisan age, I realize, many people whose politics differ from John McCain’s will struggle to admit that or that they can find any agreement with him. I hope such readers will bear with me because I think it would be a sad thing if our politics completely defined who we are.

It’s fitting, I suppose, that popular culture has moved from heroes to superheroes to broken, modern heroes.  The President, three summers ago, clearly hadn’t gotten the memo and probably still hasn’t. Nor, at first glance, do some bloggers.

What both those parties seem to be looking for is the cartoon hero of yesteryear, some two-dimensional mash-up of Jesus and The Terminator. The blogger linked above offers Audie Murphy as a true hero. Click that link and read the Murphy entry on Wikipedia for yourself,  then tell me that there’s such a thing as a pure and noble hero.

John McCain as a young naval officer.

What there are, and probably always have been, are flawed people who try to do what they believe is the right thing without doing the wrong thing. It’s not as easy to do it as it is to type it.

So some questions.

What’s the right word for a warrior shot from the sky, who survives years of torture, resists his captors as long as he can with ruses like reciting football team line-ups, and refuses early release because it’s a political stunt?

Now, what’s the proper word for a man who avoided service in the same conflict because of bunions?

What’s the right word for a man who, elected to office, initially went along to get along and, when found out, came to realize it was one of “the worst mistakes” of his life?  A man who then crossed the aisle and co-sponsored  far-reaching campaign finance reform that is still under attack and being dismantled piece by piece by those ‘get along’ types.

What’s the right word to describe a man who entered an arena that doesn’t value the foundational concepts of his training–duty and honor–and then seemed unable to play by the rules of ignoring such contradictions, instead calling attention to them with his wisecracks, grimacing and  self-defeating choices?

John McCain meets President Nixon on his return from captivity.

And what do you call a man who was seemingly aware about all these things about himself?

Maybe hero isn’t the right word but maybe, like those parties I already mentioned, we expect too much of heroes. When Senator McCain stopped the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017, many people I know with progressive politics applauded his actions. Some even used the ‘H’ word.

Until he soon after once again voted along with his party and then he was once again a coward, a traitor and a goat. While understandable, believing that strict adherence to principle is possible, let alone desirable, strikes me as somewhat naïve.

No one ever passes a test of ideological purity. No one ever completely abandons their party. No one stands up as a paragon of virtue under the harsh light of intense scrutiny.

The best we can hope for is someone who has a deep-seated sense of fundamental values and does their best. I ask you, are the people we currently have representing us the people who fit that description? If not, you. know what you have to do.

I think that could be the best way to honor Senator McCain’s legacy. Because as I said on Facebook when I heard of his passing last evening, his party and his country need people like him more than ever.

Rest well, Senator.




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