It’s been a full week of ceremony and celebration. John McCain, a senator, has been honored as few American presidents have been. Those of us who knew him thought of him as someone special; what we learned this week was so did the whole world.
We heard how people admiringly chanted his name when he visited the scene of his horror, the prison camp known as the Hanoi Hilton. We learned how Syrian refugees, furious at the inattention of humanitarian agencies, granted him respect. In the words of Joe Lieberman, who was there with his friend as they traveled to God-forsaken spots, “The name John McCain, based on the actions of the man John McCain, had become a source of hope and inspiration for oppressed people throughout the world.”
The inspirational John McCain story has been retold repeatedly this week. But we keep learning new aspects of it. At the Washington National Cathedral’s soaring sendoff (which the senator orchestrated) 95-year-old Henry Kissinger revealed a story we didn’t know.
As Kissinger was negotiating the end of the Vietnam war the North Vietnamese suggested that they send POW McCain home with the then Secretary of State. Without consulting the prisoner, Kissinger turned them down. After McCain was released along with the other POW’s he met Kissinger at a White House reception. His message? “Thank you for saving my honor.”
We have heard a lot about honor this week. It’s a word we don’t hear enough of these days. Doing the honorable thing — as opposed to the expedient, the self-aggrandizing, the politically popular — happens rarely these days. And that was the leitmotif of the McCain week.
Throughout the solemn and spectacular ritual at the cathedral that has been the scene of so many presidential events, our current chief executive was missing — uninvited to sit among the statesmen and stateswomen of the past half century who were there. And the eulogies made it clear why he was not welcome. First came McCain’s rawly emotional daughter Meghan’s unvarnished “The America of John McCain has no need to be great again because America was always great.” Then followed George W. Bush’s denunciation of “swaggering despots” and affirmation of McCain’s insistence that our common humanity knows no borders. And finally we heard Barack Obama insistence that the “bombast and insult” in our current politics that “pretends to be tough” but “in fact is born of fear” is in contradiction to McCain’s “adherence to our common creed” that we are all created equal.
It amounted to an indictment of our current president who whiled away the morning on the golf course. But it also served as an indictment of the politicians in the pews — the leaders of each house of Congress momentarily sitting together at McCain’s instruction. Their devotion to partisan purity was under attack in that sanctuary.
And those of us in the media should take it as a scolding as well. To the extent that we hand our microphones to the loudest shouters, herald our headlines with controversy and corruption and never celebrate those who quietly work together to get things done, we too contribute to the dysfunction that John McCain worked so hard to cure even in his death.
He constantly reminded us that there is more that unites us than divides us. He hammered home the most important thing about us — that we are Americans, and that we have the rights and therefore the responsibilities as citizens. That we have a duty to go into the arena and participate.
That’s what John McCain did in so many ways and he earned honors and accolades all along the way. But the titles that mattered the most to him are ones we can share: American. Citizen.