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John S. McCain - in war or politics, an inspiration: Elizabeth Sullivan

August 28, 2018

John S. McCain - in war or politics, an inspiration: Elizabeth Sullivan

Courage. Acerbic wit. Ability to speak truth to power. Willingness to admit mistakes. Always. And above all, being able to put nation above self. These were among the attributes of the late John Sidney McCain III.

That, and a family legacy of combat military service that dated to Sen. John S. McCain’s grandfather, John S. McCain Sr.

Nor was the late Sen. McCain alone among those who’ve seen combat and who refuse, as a consequence, to accept fakery, puffery, pretense and BS. 

On Saturday, after McCain’s death became known, I was sad, but prepared. He had prepared us. He’d fought until the end and had announced his brain-cancer treatments were over. I’d buried too many loved ones not to know what that meant. Final days. Final hours.

So I didn’t start crying until the emails from veterans who’d known and loved McCain started arriving. Because many of them knew what I also knew - that McCain’s departure from public office only by virtue of his death marked the definitive end of an era in public life when those steeled in overseas combat led us, inspired us, kept us honest and focused on what really matters.

The last U.S. combat veteran president was George H. W. Bush, like McCain, a naval aviator (in World War II) who also was shot down.

The last U.S. presidential election in which at least one of the major-party contenders was a combat veteran was 2008 -- when McCain led the GOP ticket.

Yes, McCain strayed into false expectations of U.S. power. Why else would he have supported the ill-conceived Iraq War with its disastrously mishandled occupation -- a disaster he recognized at the time, yet wanted to inoculate against with more and more troops? In McCain’s new memoirs, “The Restless Wave,” he finally admits, as quoted in Politico, that the Iraq War “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”

So it’s not that combat gives one all the answers. But it can teach you to recognize and mistrust the braggarts, the ones who talk but don’t do, the sycophants and hypocrites. 

McCain was as short-tempered as he was blunt. If he didn’t like you, he let you know about it. He had no patience for falsity -- once in 2008 even taking the mic from one of his own supporters during a presidential campaign town hall, from a woman who’d dissed Barack Obama as an “Arab,” to correct her, to boos from his own supporters, that Obama was “a decent family man,” as Politico also reported.

McCain didn’t become president. He didn’t have the money, or the mainstream political support; he found it difficult to schmooze and equivocate and misdirect and lie. He didn’t have enough ego -- and he made mistakes, including in his running mate.

But he could still laugh at himself with as much ferocity and savage wit as at anyone else -- as his memorable appearances on Saturday Night Live underscored.

I knew McCain almost entirely through his public persona. But as the daughter and widow of combat veterans, I recognized much about him. I’d seen these traits before. And my late husband, also a Vietnam combat veteran, also disdained those who never hazarded anything, who stayed at the rear, metaphorically, and in reality, who calculated over everything and who sought to mask their passions in public, including anger, contempt and impatience.

As the son of the U.S. admiral in command of all U.S. Pacific forces during the Vietnam War, McCain, who was captured by the North Vietnamese in 1967 and held until 1973, could have gotten out of captivity earlier. But he declined special treatment, and he paid a brutal price for that. And he survived that torture to bear witness to its failures as an intelligence tool and to condemn it and warn against it as a pillar of U.S. anti-terrorism policy. 

The flags today are all at half-mast, again; senators of both parties read their tributes into the record Monday while a vase of white roses set on a black cloth reposed at McCain’s usual seat.

Johnny, to paraphrase the old song about JFK, we hardly knew ye, but we finally can set aside our differences and petty disputes to acknowledge that we are all better off because of ye.

Elizabeth Sullivan is the director of opinion for cleveland.com and directs the editorial board for The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com.

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