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It won’t be the same without John McCain

August 27, 2018

History’s verdict on U.S. Sen. John McCain will perhaps change very little with the effects of time and distance.

Sen. McCain, who died Saturday after openly sharing his struggle with brain cancer with the American people for just over a year, made plain throughout his life who he was and what he stood for. He possessed the ever more rare senatorial quality of looking at the effects of a measure, not just who was sponsoring it.

He gloried in being a maverick, and Americans of many political persuasions liked and admired him for it.

John S. McCain III, whose death came a few days before his 82nd birthday, was a naval officer’s son who lived in New London for a short time in childhood. He grew up to become a Navy pilot and then a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years. The story goes that when he first ran for Congress in Arizona, people objected that he had lived there only two years. He retorted that the only place he’d lived longer was the “Hanoi Hilton.”

John McCain represented Arizona as a Republican senator from 1986 until his death. He had two years left in his sixth term, in a career that began with succeeding the Senate’s then-most famous conservative, Barry Goldwater. In 2000 Sen. McCain unsuccessfully sought his party’s nomination for president, but he just bided his time until 2008, when the man he lost out to, George W. Bush, was ending his term.

Sen. McCain won the nomination that year but lost the election to Barack Obama. As a prime example of the way he chose people over labels and could ignore old rivalries, he asked both Bush and Obama to speak at his memorial service in the National Cathedral in Washington on Saturday.

Since the election of Donald Trump, Sen. McCain has brandished his maverick status with even more flair. Within a week of his brain cancer diagnosis, at two in the morning he cast the deciding no vote that halted a Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare. He omitted President Trump from the plans for his funeral.

John McCain will be missed for heroism in wartime — a war that lasted longer for him than for most. For Vietnam-era vets and families who lost service members, he serves as a preeminent example that the sacrifices made by individual soldiers, sailors and pilots were no less heroic or significant in that unpopular war than in any other. He chose to be buried at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

He will be missed for his statesmanship, particularly his ability to act upon his conservative principles rather than use them to block lawmaking. For that he has been called the last “lion of the Senate,” a title other senators inexplicably haven’t wanted to claim. Yet he will also be recalled for his presidential run, which introduced former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the Tea Party to their places in American political history. Lesser men and women than John McCain haven’t caught on to his model of combining principled advocacy and valuable compromise.

He will be badly missed for his particular brand of patriotism. He refused to waste the lessons of hardship he learned in that horrible prison camp. At his death he had served three years as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and used that megaphone to insist that the United States should not be sanctioning torture of prisoners. His last book, “The Restless Wave,” is one final reminder of his credo that we can’t allow ourselves to be as sadistic as “they” are.

The Senate and national politics won’t be the same without John McCain. The country may hold its breath, waiting for the results of this year’s elections, but for now the roll call in the Senate has one less Republican, one less lion, one less maverick. He will be missed.

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