You should never write a eulogy prematurely. My Italian grandmother, a woman who knew the perfect alchemy of evil eye, oil and forbidden words, was adamant about the bad luck that derived from doing things the wrong way, in the wrong order, to the wrong people. So there is something a little off in writing in praise of a man who has just been diagnosed with brain cancer. Some will think you are only doing it to start the farewells.
But I have written about Sen. John McCain in the past, in elegiac tones. The senior senator from Arizona has angered liberals and conservatives with his decidedly contrarian, middle-of-the road views on everything from immigration to campaign-finance reform to Iraq and national security and, most spectacularly, a vice presidential nominee.
Lately, conservatives who support Donald Trump (or simply oppose Hillary Clinton) have been angered by what they see as McCain’s unwillingness to play for the home team, and they were not at all happy with his less-than-robust endorsement of Trump in last year’s primaries and after the general election. I’ve had knock-down, drag-out fights with Trumpsters who defended their man even when he made some truly despicable comments about our country’s most famous POW.
I also criticized Sarah Palin for endorsing the guy who ridiculed the war hero who gave her a ready-made career.
But today, it’s not about the politics. It’s about the man.
John McCain spent 5 1/2 years of his life in captivity in Hanoi. His body was broken in two; he doesn’t have the full use of his arm because of the vicious treatment and lack of medical care. He was deprived of sleep, told lies about his family and countrymen, and kept in solitary confinement.
John McCain was tortured. For that reason alone, his voice was both the most poignant and the most powerful when he spoke out against torture in the context of U.S. treatment of detainees during the war on terror.
The sight of McCain lashing out against his own people and using his own scars as personal witness of the immorality of the abuse of prisoners was chilling, moving and historic. McCain must have been repulsed by these men at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, people who, even if they had not been convicted of actual crimes, are self-confessed enemies of our country and our democracy. He must despise the hateful philosophies of those who want to destroy our nation, the nation he defended with every lash against his back and broken bone in his body.
And yet, McCain has a character forged in a family with a tradition of military service, in his years at the Naval Academy and as an officer, and in a foreign hell, a landscape that now lives only in photos, film and the inner recesses of his mind. That character led him to speak out against the unspeakable.
Many times, I’ve heard political critics of the senator say “Yes, he’s a war hero, but…” and I have to stop them. There is no dependent clause worthy of that first, important phrase. He’s a war hero. Period. You do not have to agree with his policies and politics — in fact, he fought so you would not be forced into philosophical slavery and compliance. But you have to respect the life of this man. Respect means that you do not belittle his service by tying it in to a petty political disagreement. You can say, “I don’t like his position on immigration,” but you better not reference his years in Hanoi.
John McCain is far from perfect. He cheated on his first wife, who spent long, loyal years waiting for him to come home from North Vietnam. He had some questionable ethical dealings in the late 1980s and early 1990s as part of the savings and loan scandal, and he has often allowed his desire to win an election to supplant his fundamental beliefs. He was once a leading light on immigration reform, but the light dimmed when he saw how violently his conservative base reacted. He is not a shadow-casting giant when it comes to political courage.
But he is a giant of another sort, one so rare in this day and age when battles are waged by snarky pundits on the internet. John McCain bled for us. He was beaten, clad in the dirty pajamas of a prisoner. Yet he refused to break faith with the country whose uniform he proudly wore.
He would have died for us. But he is alive, and today he is fighting a most personal battle.
This is not a eulogy, but a prayer. Get well, sir. Your country still needs you.
Christine Flowers is an immigration lawyer and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.