McCain’s fine road of honor

Published 1:47 pm Saturday, November 11, 2017

by John Railey

Maybe some of us hang on Republican Sen. John McCain’s words these days because we know that all too soon, he’ll be gone, just as too many of our fathers and grandfathers already are. Like them, McCain reminds us of an America that seems all but lost, one where dignity, honor, courage, loyalty and selflessness still meant a lot — as well as the ability to laugh together and work together.

He is our straight-talking rascal, a man of steely resolve well worth honoring on this Veterans Day weekend, and every day, for that matter.

The son of a World War II admiral, he made his own bones in the Vietnam War after being shot down in his Navy jet and enduring years in a brutal North Vietnamese prison.

Now the senator from Arizona is facing a deadly brain tumor with his trademark courage. He’s standing up to President [Donald] Trump by civilly speaking out for bedrock American values, on the Senate floor, in press interviews and, most recently, in a speech to midshipmen at his alma mater, the United States Naval Academy, in which he weaved his own story in with our proud history. It was so good I am going to give most of my column space to it today.

He began his address with his self-deprecating humor:

Six decades ago — in the age of sail — I was an undistinguished member of the Class of 1958. My superiors didn’t hold me in very high esteem in those days. Their disapproval was measured in the hundreds of miles of extra duty I marched in my time here. To be honest, I wasn’t too thrilled to be here back then, and I was as relieved to graduate — fifth from the bottom of my class — as the Naval Academy was to see me go.

He talked about what he learned at the academy: “Lessons about sacrificing for something more important than yourself. Lessons about courage and humility. About friendship. About the meaning and responsibilities of honor.” And he talked about what he’d learned in more than eight decades of life in our land:

I’ve seen America become a more just and prosperous country, coming ever closer to the ideals set down by our Founders. I’ve seen America organize and lead an international order based on liberty, mutual security, free markets, and the rule of law that liberated millions upon millions from tyranny and poverty. But we need only look back upon my own lifetime to understand how hard-fought those victories were.

He spoke of the first world war and the end of the second one:

The statesmen who built the successful liberal international order after World War II grasped three basic truths. First: that tyranny is always a threat to peace because it is an affront to all humanity’s natural desire for freedom. Second: that liberal institutions are nevertheless fragile, and must be affirmed with conviction at home and abroad. Third: that the American example and American leadership are indispensable to securing a peaceful and prosperous future.

He praised Republican Presidents [Ronald] Reagan and George H.W. Bush for their leadership in world affairs. And then he brought the midshipmen to the present:

But the contrast between the hopeful atmosphere of 1991 and the current circumstances of our world is a stark one … Why do many Americans ignore our moral and historical knowledge and seek escape from the world we’ve led so successfully? There are many wise answers to those questions. My own is: We are asleep to the necessity of our leadership, and to the opportunities and real dangers of this world. We are asleep in our echo chambers, where our views are always affirmed and information that contradicts them is always fake. We are asleep in our polarized politics, which exaggerates our differences, looks for scapegoats instead of answers, and insists we get all our way all the time from a system of government based on compromise, principled cooperation and restraint.

… I believe in Americans. We’re capable of better. I’ve seen it. We’re hopeful, compassionate people. And we still have leaders who will uphold the values that made America great, and a beacon to the oppressed. But I don’t take that for granted. We have to fight. We have to fight against propaganda and crackpot conspiracy theories. We have to fight isolationism, protectionism and nativism. We have to defeat those who would worsen our divisions.

We have to remind our sons and daughters that we became the most powerful nation on earth by tearing down walls, not building them.

… I have, sometimes unwittingly and often imperfectly, served that cause all my adult life. Like your service, mine began here in this place of honor and honor’s demands. I arrived a rebel without a cause, and left much the same. But I would discover that a sense of honor had been imparted to me here that would speak to me in the darkest hours.

Had McCain chosen a better running mate in 2008, he might well have won the presidency. I think he would have served honorably. As it was, he gracefully conceded to Barack Obama, who has made no secret of his respect for McCain.

I’ll let Sen. McCain close this column with his final words to the midshipmen: “May your lives be as lucky as mine. Godspeed. Semper Fidelis. Fair winds and following seas.”

JOHN RAILEY grew up in Courtland, a son of World War II Naval veteran Dick Railey. He is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, which first published this column.