In a matter of months, maybe weeks, maybe days, the president of the United States will try to speak for the nation on the death of Sen. John McCain III. At 81, McCain has been the model of stoic virtue in reckoning with his terminal brain cancer, so this prediction will neither surprise nor offend him. “What is your life?” asks the Book of James, Chapter 4, verse 14. “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
Because President Donald Trump makes up in shamelessness what he lacks in principles, he should easily find something fulsome to say, or tweet, about this magnificent and maddening patriot. He will likely be brief and vague, though, because he’s more comfortable with genuine duplicity than with feigned sincerity. When then-candidate Trump scoffed at McCain’s heroism in 2015 — “I like people who weren’t captured,” he said, as if a draft-dodging sybarite could calibrate heroism — we knew we were hearing the real Donald. Whatever seemingly decent thing he says when the time comes will carry the stink of an inauthentic apology.
This is one problem, among many, with choosing a president based on how disgusted the choice will make the losing voters. Our major parties in the last election nominated candidates who were loathed by the other side; polls indicated they were the least-popular standard-bearers in the history of polling. And while this might be an effective way to rev up true believers (hate being a powerful motive), it cripples the survivor’s transition from campaign antagonist to voice of the nation. To speak with, and for, the whole country at key moments is a big part of the job, yet for some reason, our modern politics is failing to elevate candidates who can do it well.
I was never sure McCain was such a candidate, though I watched him seek the presidency in 2000 and 2008. He was an interesting campaigner, which is rare, but he wasn’t a great one. He resembled a racehorse that loves to surge from back in the pack, closing a length per furlong, yet loses focus if given the lead. Candidate McCain aspired to emulate Ronald Reagan, but Reagan was Secretariat; he ran as though he was the only horse on Earth.
Thus the charm of McCain’s “Straight Talk Express,” the bus he chartered in the winter of 2000 when he was 20 lengths back of George W. Bush and spoiling for an upset. With a skeletal staff serving mostly as straight men, McCain shot the bull with reporters as the Express crisscrossed New Hampshire. With the cockiness and ease of a former Navy aviator, the shoot-from-the-lip candidate soon had celebrities and news executives clamoring for bus time, and as he narrowed (but never closed) the gap, McCain’s delight was infectious.
On the other hand, he blew whatever small chance he had of beating Barack Obama in 2008 when his victory in the primaries caused him to break stride. McCain stumbled with GOP elders by pushing for a Democrat as his running mate. When they vetoed the choice, he impulsively chose the untested and unready Sarah Palin. At the time, I asked a veteran Republican for the backstory. “He didn’t get his way so he threw his peas against the wall,” came the answer.
But if McCain has proved less than the ideal messenger, he has achieved something larger: He is an ideal message. When the time comes, his whole life story will be recalled, but its essence can be distilled to a single choice.
Shot down over Hanoi in 1967, McCain was taken prisoner with three of his limbs broken, his shoulder crushed and a bayonet wound in his gut. But this was no ordinary prisoner. In the long history of the U.S. Navy, McCain was the first to be both son and grandson of full admirals, and his father was in command of all operations in Vietnam. When his captors learned this, they offered McCain his freedom. He had only to exercise his privilege, look after himself, and leave his fellow prisoners behind.
They tortured him nearly to death for refusing, bound his broken arms, beat his unhealed wounds. Decades later, I watched him limp into rallies on a leg that could never be properly repaired and raise his shattered and rebroken arms waist-high-their full extent. And I heard him ask his fellow Americans to trust, as he had trusted through more than five years of avoidable suffering, in duty, service and one another.
If this eulogy is premature, the reason for delivering it now is this moment cries out for it. John McCain reminds us that American greatness is made by those who understand that character is the sum of one’s hardest choices; that reality is not a TV show; that fame is mist but honor granite; that heroes don’t need fixers on retainer.
David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”