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John S. McCain: American patriot

August 26, 2018

There may never be another such as John S. McCain, 81, who died Saturday after a battle with brain cancer. Which is another way of saying that the nation has too few heroes in its political class. McCain surely filled that niche.

His heroism occurred in two spheres, as a naval aviator who became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and as an elected official — a U.S. representative and senator. This makes his achievements all the more remarkable.

His heroism was indelibly linked with the word that came to describe him — maverick. He veered from that trait from time to time, some say opportunistically as the political need arose, but he returned to it always.

It was his true north.

He was a maverick when he bucked his Republican Party to co-sponsor landmark campaign finance reform with perhaps the most liberal member of the Senate, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold.

He was a maverick when he returned to Washington from his sickbed in Arizona — after being diagnosed with brain cancer — to cast one of three GOP votes that kept his party from repealing the Affordable Care Act.

He was a maverick as a member of the Gang of Eight to bring comprehensive immigration reform to the Senate floor.

Knowing personally what torture is — a lesson learned as a POW in the “Hanoi Hilton” — he was a maverick to forthrightly call out the George W. Bush Administration for its “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

And, most recently, he was ever the maverick in standing up to the invective and bullying that has come to characterize the administration of President Donald Trump. McCain was and remains a rarity in that regard in his party, but he recognized his man earlier than most, while Trump was running for the presidency. This prompted the candidate to question his heroism. Trump said of McCain, “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

But McCain was surely a hero during and after his captivity in North Vietnam. After 5 1/2 years of torture and much of his imprisonment spent in solitary confinement, he was offered an early release obviously because his admiral father was in command of the war in the Pacific. He refused because he knew other POWs had been there longer.

“I knew that my release would add to the suffering of men who were already straining to keep faith with their country,” he later wrote.

That some of the contributions of being a maverick were ultimately stymied do not render his efforts meaningless. The U.S. Supreme Court rendered his campaign finance reform meaningless with its Citizen United decision — money is now speech and corporations are people. The Gang of Eight’s immigration reform floundered in the U.S. House, never became law, and was replaced with harsh rhetoric against immigration and immigrants by the president and others in the GOP. His vote prevented outright repeal of the ACA, but the act’s effectiveness nonetheless has been eroded by executive order.

Ironically, being a maverick cost him in his second presidential run in 2008 (the first run was against George W. Bush in the GOP primary in 2000). He named the little-known governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as his running mate and her statements quickly caused many to question her ability to step into the No. 1 spot if tragedy occurred. He lost the 2008 race to Barack Obama.

It’s always easy to jump on a bandwagon headed in the wrong direction, but harder to stand athwart it. Easy to join your voice to a chorus, harder to hit that discordant note that’s not on the sheet music — on purpose.

John S. McCain will be remembered not just for his maverick ways and his true heroism. He will be remembered for the wisdom, compassion, integrity and patriotism that were their foundation.

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