The senator has asked us to do our part to fulfill the promise of America. Now it is our duty to demonstrate that his faith in us was not misplaced.
In the twilight of his life, John McCain looked at the nation and had to have asked what we all wonder: What has America become? The petty grievances, embrace of bombast, and lionization of leaders with a paucity of character and moral integrity do not help fulfill the promise of America.
The death of McCain has caused Americans of all backgrounds to feel what Abraham Lincoln once called the “bitterest agony” of loss. And so this week, America and the world paused to mourn and watch as McCain is laid to rest. As he faced the inevitable, the wily Arizona senator knew that he would have a captive audience and choreographed the entire period of mourning. He orchestrated it to be a clarion call for continuing what he stood for, while also pushing back and battling against the continued umbrage of today.
To share his final message, McCain chose a bipartisan duo, former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to eulogize him at Washington’s National Cathedral today. They each denied him the presidency in 2000 and 2008, but McCain still respected them and their voices. It is a testament to his belief that we might have a difference in views, but we are still united by our love for this country. The former presidents will undoubtedly celebrate the uniquely American life that McCain led, but also weave into their eulogies the Arizona senator’s message that we should all strive to serve a cause greater than our own self interests. Their words will be their own versions of McCain’s farewell message to America and the world.
“We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world,” McCain wrote. He continued, “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
On Thursday, we watched former Vice President Joe Biden — still grieving for the loss of his own son Beau who three years ago succumbed to the same cancer as McCain — speak at McCain’s Arizona memorial service. “There are times when life can be so cruel, pain so blinding it’s hard to see anything else,” Biden said. Wise counsel indeed.
Biden’s remarks reminded us that even though they were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, the two men were close friends. Both underwent and withstood terrible ordeals, the kind that could break a man’s spirit. Yet, they each came out of them with a strength and appreciation for life that reflected the boundless optimism expressed by our Founding Fathers.
McCain chose Biden for a reason. It was a way to remind us that there still are men of decency in this world of ours. It also might be a cleverly thought out political maneuver — not to mention a gift to a potential 2020 presidential candidate who used the occasion to sound like a comforter-in-chief. Biden’s stirring line, “John understood that America was first and foremost an idea, audacious and risky, organized around not tribe, but around ideals,” could certainly be interpreted as a subtle reminder to voters of what truly makes America exceptional.
Our political world today is permeated with vitriol and a pernicious desire to decimate our opponents. This hyperpartisanship is a pestilence, as it prevents us from achieving our true glory and destiny — or even basic solutions to the issues of the day. Each side of the aisle seeks to tear the other down, while seemingly deriving pleasure from the sadistic schadenfreude of their destruction. Further, each party seeks to sow fear of the other or some external threat.
Sadly, it is working.
In a 2016 Pew Research Center study, it was revealed that 62 percent of highly engaged Republicans fear and are afraid of Democrats. 70 percent of Democrats feel the same way about Republicans. Influential figures on the left tell Democrats that Republicans “want to punish the poor and kill the ‘useless eaters’ [a term used by the Nazis to describe those unworthy of life].” Republicans respond with claims that the left wants to take away your job, opportunities for the disabled, “your chance at a better life,” as well as create a society where gangs of violent illegal immigrants roam the streets threatening you and/or your loved ones.
It is now common that candidates for office and our elected officials ask for your support by appealing to one’s fear. The approach is dangerous, as it foments distrust and furthers the partisan divide. Additionally, it does grievous harm to our ability to have true and worthy dialogue and debate over the issues confronting America. It is impossible to sympathize with and understand those we disagree with when we believe that they are a threat to our very existence.
That is not an America that is healthy, nor is it one that John McCain and many others believed in. We all know it to be true and it is likely why the loss of the Arizona senator has left us with the feeling of nostalgic melancholia, not just due to his death, but because of what he personified.
McCain, a man nonpareil, embodied not only what America and its ideals are, but what they strive to be. A true throwback to a bygone era, he believed that the Senate should be an independent check on the executive. He fought for that American institution which he so loved. McCain was always known for his commitment to duty coupled with the belief in service over self. Now that voice is silenced, but It does not mean America is too.
Like John McCain, America is an imperfect nation. It is constantly endeavoring to overcome its challenges and improve itself. Yet, we can only do this when we join together. Over these past few days, his eulogists and friends have all helped the late Arizona senator carry out his final mission. In leaving us, John McCain has asked us to do our part to fulfill the promise of America, because he has faith in us. Now, it is our duty to demonstrate that his faith was not misplaced.
This column was originally published in NBC News Think on September 1, 2018.