John McCain’s final act of service
It was a fitting culmination to a life of service.
For a few short moments, John McCain’s passing shattered the divisiveness of American politics and gave us a glimpse of something greater. His death reminded us how much better we can be than what we’ve become. It showed us the tremendous good any politician, or any individual, can achieve over a lifetime. And it helped us reimagine, however briefly, a nation rooted in values like integrity, kindness, heart, and humility.
As the news of McCain’s death broke on Saturday, the American discourse shifted slightly. The shift was fleeting but still real, impermanent but still impactful.
This shift was reflected in the outpouring of tributes from family and friends, opponents and allies, world leaders and everyday people. Beyond the admiration and respect for McCain the person, one found in these tributes even more profound themes: an acknowledgement that the senior senator from Arizona embodied something missing in the United States today. An aspiration to reclaim the moral high ground to which McCain so often led the way. A yearning to no longer be tethered obsessively to the petty smallness and meaningless squabbles of partisan politics.
In those short moments reflecting on McCain’s life and legacy, it was possible not to care about what Donald Trump had said or done. It was possible to ignore the gaping disconnect between John McCain’s vision of America and the president’s. It was possible to make real, if momentarily, the tired rhetoric of “country before party” by paying tribute to someone who actually lived it more often than not.
In honoring McCain, Bernie Sanders and Sean Hannity found something to agree on. So did Hillary Clinton and Trey Gowdy. Even Mitch McConnell and Elizabeth Warren came together, at least for 280 characters, to praise the legacy of someone who refused to believe we can’t be better tomorrow than we are today.
There was still plenty of scorn and outrage and partisanship to go around, of course. Lingering questions persist of how a nation should mourn when the role of the nation’s mourner-in-chief remains vacant. But for a moment, it was possible to disregard all of that “malarkey,” in the words of McCain’s dear friend Joe Biden, in favor of something greater.
In his death, as so often in his life, John McCain helped us imagine. The unity that followed his passing offered a glimpse not necessarily of the United States without Trump, but of a country capable of taking on the complex forces and toxic strains of thought that preceded this president and will persist long after he leaves the White House. A country capable of reckoning with its sins and shortcomings. A country that often falls short of its ideals and fails to live its values, but nonetheless struggles mightily to become a better version of itself.
John McCain was a human being, with all of our frailties and flaws. In many ways, his imperfect life echoed America’s own: visionary and aspirational, full of contradictions, constantly in pursuit of self-improvement, prone to mistakes but capable of remarkable greatness. A truly heroic person recognizes his successes but devotes himself to his struggles. So it was for John McCain, and so it should be for the nation he served for so long.
In the days to come, will our public discourse return to what it was last Friday? Probably. Is it a tragedy that it takes the death of a once-in-a-lifetime public servant to provide a short respite to the toxicity of our discourse? Certainly. Have the partisan fissures in our politics been healed by one icon’s passing? Of course not.
But is there also immense value in a timely, if brief, reminder of what truly matters? The flicker of aspirational patriotism that McCain’s death inspired in newspapers, tweets, and email inboxes today suggests there is.
Just as he did so many times in life, in death John McCain showed us, yet again, what it means to pursue something great. He helped us imagine, yet again, that America can be better. It is a fitting conclusion to a life of leadership, patriotism, and service.