John McCain’s Call to Our Humble Better Angels

So many words now about John McCain. Soaring, eloquent tributes, bitter reminders about his less savory words and stances, implicit rebukes at yesterday’s memorial to the relentless degradation of our democracy and basic decency by he-who-was-not-named.

McCain was many things, but in the end, among the countless stirring images and words from the proceedings of the past few days, what has perhaps struck me most is what a master strategist he turned out to be. Taking the full measure of his own demise, the man orchestrated down to every last dotted “i” and crossed “t” his own powerful rejoinder to the travesty of the current administration while reminding the assembled legislators in particular of the responsibilities they bear in pursuit of the common good.

Not, mind you, “the Republican good,” or the “Democratic good,” but the common, American good, the people’s good.

Toward that end, I would like to lift up not the many fine speeches and written reflections observers have poured into the void since McCain’s passing, but return instead to one of his own last Senate speeches, easily one of the most eloquent of his career. It took place on July 25 a year ago when he returned to the capital from Arizona after his brain cancer diagnosis to announce that despite having voted to continue debate on the health care bill that was seeking to overturn Obamacare, he would not be voting for it in its current form.

(Three days later, despite additional frantic adjustments on the bill by McCain’s fellow Republican legislators, he issued his forever memorialized, theatrical thumbs-down “salute” to it and the president, no doubt one of the most powerful speeches ever proffered on the Senate floor, despite it containing not a single word.)

Laced with generous dollops of self-effacement, McCain gently urged his fellow senators to think hard about putting bitter partisanship aside and returning to compromise and the “regular order” of the Senate so that it could once again live up to its historic stature in service to the nation:

“I’ve known and admired men and women in the Senate who played much more than a small role in our history, true statesmen, giants of American politics. They came from both parties, and from various backgrounds. Their ambitions were frequently in conflict. They held different views on the issues of the day. And they often had very serious disagreements about how best to serve the national interest. But they knew that however sharp and heartfelt their disputes, however keen their ambitions, they had an obligation to work collaboratively to ensure the Senate discharged its constitutional responsibilities effectively.



This thread of humility rather than hegemony, of looking to a larger purpose beyond naked partisanship, runs throughout McCain’s Senate speech.

Not for him, the goal of large-scale, sweeping change hailed as “revolutionary” by besotted backers and heresy by opponents. McCain was a creature of a Senate, where, he observed:

“Our responsibilities are important, vitally important, to the continued success of our Republic. And our arcane rules and customs are deliberately intended to require broad cooperation to function well at all. The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems and to defend her from her adversaries. That principled mindset, and the service of our predecessors who possessed it, come to mind when I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body. I’m not sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today.”

Notice the call to compromise, the paean to “incremental progress” and the past’s “most revered members of this institution,” not to be confused with those of the current Senate, which he would be almost embarrassed to claim as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

He also suggested that both sides take a long hard look at the demonization they project on the other.

He urged them to consider the very intent of our Founders to make it extremely difficult to legislate and move the country in any given direction without great debate, sober reminders of human weakness and fallacy, and exceedingly incremental change.

Change should be hard and require often odious compromise that leaves every legislator with far less than a whole pie for his or her troubles and still famished for more, said this band of 1776 revolutionaries who cast a wary eye on revolution.

McCain said it this way:

“Incremental progress, compromises that each side criticizes but also accepts, just plain muddling through to chip away at problems and keep our enemies from doing their worst, isn’t glamorous or exciting. It doesn’t feel like a political triumph. But it’s usually the most we can expect from our system of government, operating in a country as diverse and quarrelsome and free as ours.”

Implicit in that is Churchill’s memorable line:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In this fractious era, our own democracy feels far more fragile and imperfect than even Churchill was envisioning, given that the two main political parties resemble exasperated marriage partners with their arms folded and sullenly turned away from each other on opposite sides of the house.

Heap the most divisive and emotionally infantile figure ever to bestride the Oval Office onto that mix, and you have a country sorely in need of a major therapeutic intervention. McCain, in his dogged way, was trying to be that therapist in this speech.

Notably, like the imperfect-but-still-trying adult that he was, he also owned up to his own actions in having helped create the whole sorry mess:

“Both sides have let this happen. Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline—either by deliberate actions or neglect. We’ve all played some role in it. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.”

In that mea culpa, McCain joined himself to his Senate colleagues from both parties, and, in a larger sense, to the entire nation of imperfect, often floundering, emotionally fissured souls, the vast bulk of them with good intentions and, unfortunately and oh so humanly, biases and blind spots that leave them too often at the mercy of their passions.

And while it is true that there is no full and permanent cure for our varying degrees of ignorance and intransigence, it is just as true that humility is the true foundation of whatever righteousness we can claim, without which no good, communally beneficial change can ever occur.

“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.”

Touché, John McCain, for that last unequivocal pillorying of the public menace that is cynical media millionaires making hay off our passions. He wrapped that critique inside a call for greater humility that recognizes senators’ ultimate “dependence on each other,” perfectly capturing the jagged, contradictory, sometimes tortuous, literally tortured path he traversed to his status as an American icon, profoundly imperfect, combative, but ever striving.

In that way, he was a stand-in for all of us whom he sought, in his better moments of dancing with angels, to represent.

Leonard Cohen, as singular and personally powerful a man as was John McCain, singing his own hymn to democracy.

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5 comments to John McCain’s Call to Our Humble Better Angels

  • Mary  says:

    Thank you Andrew….great job of taking out key exerpts from McCains past. The quote that I am using with all my SSU students today is the one Obama mentioned yesterday that was McCains favorite quote from Hemingway, his favorite author: It was something like: ” what you do today will set the tone for the rest of your life so do it carefully” . Obama started and ended his speech with that quote used by McCain and we can take it and use it today.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks, Mary. Missed the festivities yesterday when, as it happened, I had a memorial to go to here, so am still catching up. Looks like that quote is from the Robert Jordan character in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”:
      “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today. It’s been that way all this year. It’s been that way so many times. All of this war is that way.”

      I think this sentiment is often something I want to impress upon young people, who can just bump along sometimes in life without understanding how everything builds upon everything else, how every seemingly desultory decision can have momentous influence on how your life will go. Yet one can see and appreciate this most only in retrospect, it seems, when the puzzle pieces come together, when the roads taken and untaken manifest themselves clearly, from the requisite time and distance. Until then, we are just living life, trying to make out figures and patterns in the fog…

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Many thanks for posting, and for commenting/narrating this eloquently written McCain speech to his colleagues. I am struck and saddened that they have failed to hear him, or worse, not hold these truths. Senators reflect, to an extent, the values and expectations of voting constituencies. Yet I believe that they can and must also embody and act upon a higher calling for the common good, and they are failing miserably on this count much to the detriment of our democracy. John McCain “got it” and lived it as far too few of his colleagues currently do. For this, we must all be thankful for Senator McCain and vote for better angels in November

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    General William Tecumseh Sherman characterized war as hell. After John McCain’s A-4E “Skyhawk” plane went down in North Vietnam in 1967, he lived the next 5 ½ years in Hoa Lo Prison, the epitome of Sherman’s description of war. McCain was hung by ropes from two broken arms and suffered the brutality of near daily beatings. When his captors refused to set his cellmate’s broken arm, he cut up his own bandages into a makeshift cast. Despite his years of confinement, often solitary, McCain told Time magazine in 1978, “Until the day I went down, I lived under my father’s shadow (commander of the Pacific fleet during the Vietnam war). Incarceration relieved me of that burden — he couldn’t affect my future there.” That was McCain’s “silver lining” spin on hell. In 1994, McCain with fellow Senator John Kerry, also a decorated Vietnam war hero, co-sponsored a bill to end economic sanctions against the country that had tortured him for so long. That was McCain’s revenge on hell. In 2000, during a visit to Vietnam, McCain said of the guards who tortured him at the at the “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp, “I still bear them ill will, not because of what they did to me, but because of what they did to some of my friends.” That was McCain’s selfless journey through hell. War is hell. No argument from McCain there. But for people like John McCain, hell’s horrors only accentuate life’s joys.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Jay, ran into this quote from George Bernard Shaw the other day, always such a reliable source:
    “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” It’s a hard truth, but true it is, seems to me. And probably more vital to keep in mind now than ever. This is not only the country we have, but the country we have ALWAYS had—it’s just that Trump Country was underground for a long while, repressed, feeling disenfranchised, silenced, until it found its mouthpiece, its spokesperson. And now it is above-ground, free, and intent on being loud and influential as can be, making up for lost time. And here we are…

    Robert, it’s been interesting seeing the range of responses to McCain’s passing and the pageantry and accolades that accompanied it. Friends of mine on the left have been decrying all the lionization, saying he was a war-monger who terrorized the Vietnamese with his bomber and is responsible for God-knows-how-many civilian deaths, none of which he ever lamented. And there is this matter of him having voted with Trump 87% of the time, a mark that, for all McCain’s distemper around the subject of Trump, is right up there with being a loyal foot soldier.

    And on the right, he’s getting it good from hordes of Trumpies who lump him in with the most reviled of liberals. A brief sampling I came across just this morn:

    “This Clown Show of a McCan’t Petty Man Funeral cost the American tax-payers how much $$$? Thank God for President and Mrs. Trump, whose rude, oafish, asinine, tasteless, boorish treatment by the elites such as the McCan’t family is a national disgrace.”

    “McStain always put himself before the nearest microphone to backstab anyone that would get him praise from the commie-media.”

    So there you go. In my experience, if you’re getting it from both sides, you’re probably right about where you need to be in hewing to your north star. McCain’s voting record certainly wasn’t my cup of tea, and the Sarah Palin choice was pretty damn close to being unforgivable, but that was more a signal of his desperation than any deviousness, I think, and he seemed to regret his failure of nerve on it later on.

    So be it, and what a fascinating chapter or two he represented in American history, eh?

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