This is not the blog I expected to write the first week of school. However, the death – and life – of Senator John McCain is so significant to me that I felt compelled to write about him; not about his political party or his ideologies, but about an American hero whose extraordinary life is a model from which we can all learn. Such lessons are always timely, and seemingly more urgent in these times, and as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
John McCain was a flawed man who made many mistakes. He had a temper, used foul language, and some of his decisions were simply wrong. How do I state that with certainty? Because Senator McCain was always the first person to point out his own shortcomings. He knew how to be humble, make fun of himself, and he had a quality that is in short supply today: the ability to admit when he was wrong, and to apologize. Every interview I read or heard this week has spoken of his ability to forgive, to ask for forgiveness, and to move forward. He had no time for grudges; the work was too important. This was true with reporters, staff members, and most importantly colleagues on both sides of the political aisle. This spoke deeply to the quality of his character.
By now we all know the story of his five long years as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, his chance to be released early, and his refusal to do so because he would not leave behind his “band of brothers” nor accept release sooner than those who were imprisoned longer. That decision cost him dearly as he was subjected to torture that left him permanently limited in the use of his arms and legs. When Senator McCain returned to the United States he commented that he owed more to his country than his country owed him, and he dedicated the rest of his life to public service. This is the definition of a hero, and speaks deeply to the quality of his character.
Senator McCain believed passionately in the American Democratic experiment. He believed in a more perfect nation, and the possibilities of a society connected by a covenantal relationship as expressed in our founding documents. This belief framed all that he did. Whether you agreed with him or not, he believed that America has a role in the world to protect the rights of others against tyranny. He believed that our democratic principles could be exported, and that they were worth fighting for, and that they involved helping others to achieve freedom even if it meant sometimes losing.
At home, Senator McCain was a protector of the United States Senate, and understood at his core that in order to get anything done for the American people it would require crossing the aisle and working with members of the other party. Some of his closest friends and co-workers were Democrats. In fact, he was known to seek out those least likely to work with him, and then develop working relationships and friendships to get things done. Some of the notables included Teddy Kennedy, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton. Sadly, we are living in a time of political and social tribalism – political party before country, particular subgroup before humanity. This was not Senator McCain. He was on Team America. This spoke deeply to the quality of his character.
While I fully recognize the complexity of the divisiveness that plagues our country right now, and one could argue the selection of his running mate when he ran for president in 2008 flamed the fire of this divisiveness, he never participated personally, and pushed back against it. Who can forget, just 10 short years ago, at a town hall meeting when as a presidential candidate, John McCain shut down a fellow citizen who tried to verbally discredit and smear his opponent, Barak Obama. And who can forget his incredible concession speech, or the speech he gave last year at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia? This was a man who believed in the higher ideals of America, and tirelessly fought for them. While a realist, he was also an optimist. This spoke to the quality of his character.
What can we say about a man who asked two former Presidents, one Republican and one Democrat, both of whom defeated him in the presidential elections, to give eulogies at his funeral?
Speak of Senator McCain to your children. Tell the story of a great warrior and statesman who put country, values, and integrity ahead of his own ambition. Talk about the power of a person’s character over personal gain, self-aggrandizement, and recognition. Remind them that to be fully human is to give of yourself in service of others. That is living.
Senator McCain’s legacy, and what he taught us through his life and actions, will be for the ages. For now, as we approach the Jewish New Year, let this great American hero inform our introspection. How can we be a better version of ourselves next year? What will we do to extend ourselves to others in compassion, and with empathy? How will we give beyond ourselves? How much time will we devote to the quality of our character through our actions and words? How can our higher American ideals and our sacred Jewish tradition and values inform our life’s journey?
I find it fitting to end with the words of one of John McCain’s Presidential heroes, Teddy Roosevelt, for I am certain, John McCain strove to live by this ideal: (This is one of my favorite quotes, ever!)
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”