The Merits Of McCain
When we’re dead, observed the French philosopher and wit Jean de La Bruyére, we’re praised by those who survive us, though frequently—when compared with them—we haven’t any other merit than that of no longer being alive. Death, then, is to be understood as an equalizer of sorts, a leveler by whose sweeping paw we’re made to be slightly and commensurately better than those who’ve not yet crossed the river Styx. For those to whom it comes, death is an improvement, however slight, upon this life we so burdensomely lead.
Perhaps Bruyére’s pessimistic egalitarianism goes a bit too far. Absent from his overshadowed pen, one can now see, was the coming Enlightenment’s high esteem for this world and its chief inhabitant and architect—man. Apparently, he was too early for that train.
He hadn’t the life-affirming humanistic dint of his near-contemporary Voltaire, nor the playful humor of his temporal next-door neighbor, Molière. Both would’ve balked at his this-worldly disdain. They would’ve stopped and looked around their environments (Paris, for the greater parts of both their lives), and taken the moment to bathe in its splendor and air. They would’ve cherished all that this life had to offer and all that lay around them rather than praying for uncertain ecstasies just out of reach. Voltaire and Molière would’ve soaked up this world, the full, tangible, and terrestrial heaven on earth, instead of desiccating themselves like ascetics for that which they knew not. Both would’ve agreed to waste not a second longer dreaming of More’s Utopia, nor Homer’s Elysium, nor Jesus’s empyrean high above; they would’ve rather extolled this and not the next life and relished the here and now.
More than anything, in their own words, which were never destined like Bruyére’s for the fault lines of history (into which they’ve largely since fallen, while Voltaire’s and Molière’s are quoted in nearly every breath), they would’ve reproved their countryman’s ranking of life. Vibrant at best, uncertain if nothing else, life in the eyes of Bruyére achieved a meager second place behind its only alternative. That alternative being, of course, death. In this world, so far as I I’ve encountered it, those two opposites remain the only choices.
But even the ardent humanist knows that to us all, death soon comes. Like the dying of the light against which the old and the wise so passionately rage, every man’s flame will be soon expired—every inch of flesh, sooner burned to ash. Dust to dust, cradle to grave is the only guarantee shared by every man, in every age, and in every walk of life. Kings will soon lie next to paupers, paupers to rodents, rodents to fungus—all with the object of continuing life’s discourse in another way. Sometimes unexpectedly, hopefully mercifully, though usually slowly, the path to the great beyond charts its course. None, sadly, has proven himself so heroic as to get in its way.
That said, every generation produces a man or a woman who comes close to doing just that. These are the heroes of an age, the extraordinary people for whom we name constellations and dining halls. They are those who challenge our fate. And now, with his recent death, it’s into this exalted pantheon of stars we count Senator John McCain.
If ever there was to be one who would break the iron law of man, who would be the exception to our shared mortal imposition of death—it was to be him. He was to be that last impediment between myth and mortality, demi-god and average-joe. Sadly, though, and frankly much too soon, he proved that he’s merely one of us. A human, that is, but surely to this nation he was something more.
Upon his epitaph, soon at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis to be unveiled, Bruyére’s sole celebration of the deceased might have to suffice. This isn’t because McCain enjoyed Bruyére’s only self-effacing “merit” of being nothing greater than a heart no longer in beat, but because his merits were too innumerable to name. They simply wouldn’t fit on one chunk of stone marking a patch of dirt. What’s more, even if they did, the lapidary would find their engraving an impossible task. You see, McCain’s accomplishments were far too long, far too extensive and much too reverberative, while our limitations in honoring them are oh-so brief.
He died an epitome of America. Old before he had the chance to be young, he seems to have entered the world prepared for a fight. Square-jawed and steely-eyed, he might’ve carried with him the pretensions of a lustrous pedigree; his father was a universally acclaimed American naval commander—for whom a battleship would later be named—while his grandfather was an honorable soldier in his own right. That said, the younger McCain, even with such a weighty ancestry, considered the cognomen “American” as being the one that mattered most; that of “McCain”, adorned with all of its inbred gravitas, was always in his estimation the less important of the two.
A Navy pilot by the second decade of his life, McCain was flying combat and reconnaissance missions in the far East. It was during the Vietnam War, or, as we’ve come to know it today, the botched sequel to France’s attempt to recoup a colony shorn of its roots, when the world learned of his blue-blooded American face. In 1968, whilst flying in the parlous airspace above the North Vietnamese city of Hanoi, his plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. At the last moment, before the plane fell to the earth, he was able to eject. By some miracle, of which there’d be many in the course of his subsequent days, he was able survive the damage suffered by his craft. Doubtless, though, he knew that having survived one hell, another was set to begin.
With nary an appendage left to his own personal use (both arms and a leg were broken during his fall), McCain was “treated” and casted head to heel with bandages and slings. Subsequent the cursory medical attention he received from the Communist physicians on site, he was put in front of a camera for an interview for all the world to see. A French journalist, doubtless one sympathetic to his erstwhile “countrymen’s” plight, asked the now fractured McCain a score of probing questions. Without an anesthetic, let alone an analgesic, the wounded soldier gritted his teeth and answered the best he could. Eyes of steel now melted into tears, McCain expressed his longing to be re-united with his young wife, with whom he had recently had a first child.
But his captors weren’t moved in the least. Their demeanor was rather mandarin than maudlin; peevish than lachrymose. Having not expressed himself on live television to be sufficiently grateful for their solicitude and care, McCain was beaten shortly after the interview was broadcast. Already battered, the lashes compounded and for eight long years, the maltreatment never ceased. From that point on, until the end of that endless war, he was to remain an inmate at the “Hanoi Hilton”—that infamous and previously French repository of Geneva breaches and death.
One could go on and describe his subsequent political career. Representative, Senator, Republican candidate for President of the United States—he checked off nearly every box. For decades, for well-neigh the entirety of my own life, he served at the highest echelon of statesmanship. Behind him drifts a politically ambivalent résumé, but this is to be expected after so long a time served. He was on the less progressive side of LGBT rights (as a member of the Armed Services Committee in the 1990’s, he was staunchly in favor of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, which effectively barred homosexuals from serving openly in the military). Likewise, he was on the less conservative side of campaign finance reform (an issue on which he and Senator Russ Feingold have had a lasting and deleterious effect still felt to this day).
While inimical to some, unpalatable to others, his positions were unique in that they always came from an honest place. In this sense, he was extraordinary and the self-appointed nickname, “maverick” fit him perfectly. He was a “maverick” in that he attempted mediation between two mutually ill-disposed parties—those of the left and right. Years ago, that wouldn’t have meant so much, but today such daring is a lamentably rare thing to see.
Had our cynic Bruyére known of John McCain, he might’ve changed his tune. He might’ve adjusted his quote in the recognition that such an estimable man had just perished. Bruyére couldn’t have said of McCain, in his passing from this life to the next, that the senator’s only merit was that of no longer being alive. McCain’s merits—such as they are and being too many to list—exceed all approbation, every inspection, and frankly, all time. We can only hope that more of us will live by his example and, when it’s finally time to go, disprove Bruyére’s quip as did he.