Editorial | Sen. John McCain

Editorial | Sen. John McCain

The senator's death, while not unexpected, represents a loss this country cannot afford.

The use of the word "hero" has been used so many times since the weekend death of U.S. Sen. John McCain that it's already become a cliche.

Nonetheless, McCain — a longtime member of the Senate and a 2008 Republican presidential nominee — really was a hero who demonstrated a depth of character under the most trying of circumstances that very few could match.

McCain, who was 81, was not a hero because he was a military aviator. Nor was he a hero because he was shot down over North Vietnam and taken prisoner. He evolved into hero status because of how he handled the tremendous physical and emotional strain he bravely and belligerently endured during his nearly six years as a captive of the North Vietnamese.

Whatever else one could say about McCain, no one could deny the grace and determination he showed under pressure.

It's well-known that McCain suffered tremendous physical abuse at the hands of the North Vietnamese, including permanent shoulder injuries that left him unable to comb his hair. It is perhaps less well-known that, during his deepest periods of despair, he twice attempted suicide and, after finally being broken by his torturers, he signed a statement confessing to being a war criminal.

But McCain was made of stern stuff, repeatedly challenging and cursing his tormenters and refusing release after the North Vietnamese realized that McCain was the son of a prominent Navy admiral. How many people would trade freedom for more torture just to deny the enemy a marginal propaganda triumph?

McCain's death came as a surprise only because of its suddenness. It was well-known that he was being treated for cancer at his Arizona home and that he'd been absent from the Senate for months. His death seemed inevitable.

But he just announced Friday that he was abandoning further treatment for his cancer. After that, the end came quickly.

Well, as McCain conceded decades ago, every person has his breaking point, and he apparently hit his when it came to further cancer treatment.

McCain was a born "aginner." A rebel without a cause in his youth, he flouted conduct rules at the U.S. Naval Academy and was a disinterested student who finished near the bottom of his class. But he was determined to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather — both Navy admirals — and he made a fine Navy pilot.

Fate then took a hand in shaping the rest of his life — prisoner of war, member of Congress, presidential candidate, dog in the manger.

Those who followed McCain's long career could not help but notice that he coveted respect and admiration, particularly from those not normally inclined to be supportive. He wanted to be seen as the most ethical, the most honorable, the most moral of politicians in Washington, D.C.

People could speculate endlessly about that motivation. But The New York Times suggested it had to do with being seen as the equal of his much-honored forebearers.

Noting that McCain was left unsatisfied after winning a slew of medals for his military accomplishments, "a Navy psychiatrist's report seemed to capture his happiest moment."

"Felt fulfillment when his dad was introduced at a dinner as 'Commander McCain's father.'" The Times reported.

With his background, McCain proved to be a political natural, easily winning election to the U.S. House and then the Senate from Arizona. Given his background, the news media swarmed to McCain, particularly when it came to military issues

His image was that of a straight-talking public official who showed an ironic sense of humor and more than a little willingness to pick fights with his fellow Republicans in order to win plaudits from Democrats and much of the media elite.

He had one brush with scandal as a peripheral player among five Democratic and Republican senators who unwisely went to bat for Charles Keating, an unsavory savings and loans magnate who was having well-deserved difficulty with regulators. As one of "the Keating Five," McCain was deeply embarrassed and chagrined to see his reputation for probity challenged.

Mostly, however, Sen. McCain fought what he felt were good fights. He was an internationalist in foreign affairs who advocated U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had friends on both sides of the political aisle, including notable Democrats like U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. His best-known foe on the Republican side was President Trump, with whom he waged a running feud.

McCain, however, was more than a collection of policy positions, some controversial and some not. He was mostly a compilation of characteristics and experiences that, when added together, made the kind of person and leader this country needs more of.

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