Charles Brian Orner
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The Sostenuto Blog

McCain's Final Message


John McCain is dead, and the nation mourns. The mediasphere has been replete with accolades and remembrances, while the naysayers have been mercifully mum—although it is in our nature that remonstrations will surely follow. This is perhaps as it should be for a public figure; none among us fully righteous, nor fully blameless, and like all of us, McCain's imperfections are what defined his character. But as a public figure, McCain demonstrated the capacity—and the willingness—to sometimes rise above his imperfections. This is why, above everything else, he has earned, and is entitled to, our veneration and our respect.

Everything else, in his case, happens to include a half-decade of torture as a prisoner of war. In reflecting on this, one notes two inescapble truths. The first is that is simply is not possible to comprehend it. Absent personal knowledge of such matters, the rest of us can perhaps speculate, but we cannot know, really, anything. No description can be adequate; no attempt at empathy sufficient. It is unknowable. McCain was famously reluctant to administer details, and in this, he was much like many a veteran of the unspeakable atrocities of war. Survival is what matters, and from what is unworthy of discussion. No doubt he was sometimes honorable, and sometimes pathetic. In an entirely untenable circumstance, every man has a price. The difference between John McCain and most of the rest of us is that he knew his.

From this observation, the second truth arises, and that is an implicit, inescapble, unfathomably deep deference that manifests from this fact, and this fact alone. McCain's suffering on behalf of the nation he served has bestowed upon him the presumption of honor that other politicans must rightfully earn in ordinary fashion. This, too, is entirely proper. Suffering confers substance, and this brand of respect is not a decision we confer so much as a gravitas we observe. This is surely related to the larger arc of the human condition—the wisdom borne of maturity, the respect due our forebears, and the inescapble fact that providence is capricious, and it is only by arbitrary good fortune that we have escaped a similar fate. We observe, we acknowledge, and we defer. It is a perfectly natural response for anyone who is not a sociopath.

McCain has been called a "maverick," by which it might charitably be said that he was unreliable. As a movement conservative, McCain rarely saw an opportunity to war that he did not pursue, and his reliably Republican predilections toward the economically underserved and impoverished were not at all the stuff of legend. Tellingly, he managed to undercut perhaps his single greatest achievement as a legislator—the McCain Feingold Act—by dutifully voting for SCOTUS appointees that every thinking person on the planet knew would eviscerate the legislation. It is entirely fair to state that his record in the Senate was uneven, and even largely unremarkable. This is not to say that he was, however, and in his later years he demonstrated the willingness to reach across the aisle to effect legislative compromise that few others in his party would or could. John McCain was, above all, a statesman.

McCain on his worst day was generous of spirit, even with his Democratic counterparts. He could be relied upon to be congenial and profane in equal measure—counterpoints sometimes separated by little more than a verbal respite for a breath or a belt. He could and did behave badly from time to time, but he would inevitably circle back to humility and even apologia; imperfections on display, yes, but never perpetually dominant. He was utterly human in the best sense; a sometime victim of his own hubris and temperament, but ultimately intolerant of them. He sought something higher in himself, and in so doing, pursued the greater good for everyone. Precious few in the Washington cesspoll can claim as much, and no other Repubublican in a leadership role can even pretend to.

John McCain reminds us that we are each imperfect, but that more is possible. More is demanded. Each of us is called upon to rise above our foibles and failures in search of improving the larger world. This is the most essential human striving—to perfect the world by perfecting ourselves—to fight tooth and nail for causes that do not serve us personally, but that are nevertheless dependent upon us. Military men and women know this work well. Congress no longer knows this work at all.

In stark contrast to his colleagues, McCain was sometimes able to do so. He renouced torture when it was politically inexpedient to do so. He defended the honor and integrity of his opponent in the 2008 presidential election when almost any other Repubican would have succumbed to craven political opportunism. He cast the vote that saved the ACA, and in the most unceremonius fashion possible. "No." John McCain represents a brand of Republican that no longer exists; principled, deeply moral, and indefatigable in pursuit of a certain kind of American integrity. As such, he was the polar opposite of Mitch McConnel and Paul Ryan—soulless, spineless ideologues who would sell their dear mother for thirty pieces of tarnished silver—and Donald Trump, who would simply steal the silver from his mother. In this sense, at the time of his death, John McCain was no longer a Republican at all.

McCain is being honored as a national hero. This may or may not be a bridge too far, but we live in times in which his essential decency and his personal sacrifice rise high above the craven cowardice otherwise on display from the White House and from Congress. That example is perhaps less about who he was, and more about whom we have become. His mistakes were consequential, and sometimes eggregious, but he drew the line at Donald Trump when every other coward in his party folded. He drew the line at torture. He drew the line at neofascism. In the final analysis, John McCain was a genuine patriot, and what was once ordinary has become heroic.

The Putin Apologist will not be attending his funeral. This last, final statement of genuine patriotism reminds us again how far we have fallen from the American ideal. It is the period at the end of a long and labyrinthine sentence, replete with poignant phrases and subordinate mistakes, but beautiful in sum and substance. The message is simple, stark, and as clear as an Arizona morning: take instruction from what you find here, but also from what you do not. It is the message of a man dissatisfied with himself, striving toward something better. Something higher. Something that we are not now, but that we may someday become again.


Brian Orner