The death of Senator John McCain over the weekend evoked a flood of praise for him as a war hero, a principled politician, and an irrepressibly colorful personality who made an indelible mark on his era.
McCain entered the public consciousness as a prisoner of war, shot down while flying a mission over North Vietnam. During his years in captivity, he withstood horrendous physical and mental torture, all the while remaining defiant of his brutal captors and providing inspiration for his comrades. When offered an early release as a propaganda ploy because his father was an admiral, he refused, insisting on the standard practice that those first to be captured should be first to be freed. He would not jump ahead in line, no matter the cost.
After coming home, McCain decided to channel his patriotic energies into politics. Not every war hero who entered politics made the transition successfully. Eisenhower did; MacArthur didn’t. But John McCain was to succeed, and succeed in a big way, serving six terms as senator from Arizona and becoming one of the leading members of that exclusive club.
His political career, brilliant as it was, was not without its disappointments. Notably, as the Republican presidential nominee, he lost to Barack Obama in the 2008 elections.
Back in the Senate, he continued to stand up for the strong and righteous America he believed in. An unreconstructed interventionist, he advocated a forcible U.S. role in Syria, which eventually became policy in September 2014 when President Obama authorized the bombing of Islamic State targets there.
However, McCain did not let up on Obama, for whom he reserved the disdain that the principled have for those whom they hold to be lacking in principle.
“U.S. leadership is indispensable here,” he said, referring to the Syrian situation. “President Obama doesn’t have an ideology. He has a degree of naiveté. It’s the failure to understand the American role in the world. He fails to appreciate that when American leadership disappears, a vacuum is created and bad things happen.
“I would call Obama as naïve as McNamara was in Vietnam concerning the realities of warfare and the nature of the enemy,” he said. “‘If you’re going to take Vienna, then take Vienna.’ What Napoleon meant by that was that you should not only go for your objectives, but you should do so as rapidly as possible.”
At the same time, his disagreement with his former adversary was never personal. Obama, who is expected to give a eulogy at McCain’s funeral, released a statement saying that “We shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher — the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched, and sacrificed.
“Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did,” Obama added. “But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means. And for that, we are all in his debt.”
At the same time, the former POW victim of torture did not take the position that anything goes in war. McCain opposed President Trump’s nominee for CIA director because of her past role in overseeing torture.
Though he was a proud Republican, he never hesitated to put principles before politics. While suffering from his final illness, he made a dramatic statement by casting the key vote against repealing Obamacare without a replacement plan in place, and he never hesitated to speak up against the president’s policies when he felt they were wrong.
While John McCain was very much an American hero, the Jewish community recognized in him a true champion of Israel. His patriotism had a special place for the Jewish people.
In a 2002 address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, McCain eloquently expressed his views:
“Friends, I make no claim to wisdom on how to resolve the crisis in the Middle East. Like you, I look for guidance in the values we share with the only democracy in the region. I know this: No American leader should be expected to sell a false peace to our ally, consider Israel’s right to self-defense less legitimate than ours, or insist that Israel negotiate a political settlement while terrorism remains the Palestinians’ preferred bargaining tool.”
Together with his close friend former Senator Joe Lieberman, he made numerous visits to Israel. During a farewell party for Lieberman, McCain quipped that he was ready to convert to Judaism. After making so many trips with Lieberman and putting up with kosher meals, Shabbos elevators and sitting next to him while he davened wearing tallis and tefillin, he explained, “I might as well become Jewish myself.”
In his memoir, McCain wrote his own obituary: “I don’t have a complaint. Not one. It’s been quite a ride. I’ve known great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war, and helped make a peace. … I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.”
The American people have lost a true hero and role model. He will be greatly missed.