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John McCain’s vision of courage

In an era when the tasteless is transcendent and when the vulgar is venerated, there is special notoriety for Kelli Ward, a West Virginia native, a physician and a former Arizona state senator. Like so many Americans, she had a visceral reaction to the news that Sen. John McCain had brain cancer. She suggested he step down and made it clear she thinks Gov. Doug Ducey should appoint her to the position.

Ward, who challenged the senator in a primary last year, is running in yet another Republican primary, this time against Sen. Jeff Flake. But she said she believed that the “medical reality” of the McCain diagnosis was “grim,” and that he ought to resign. She is a medical professional, and perhaps her cancer diagnosis is more accurate than her political diagnosis. McCain is a giant of the Senate and an enduring American hero, and no one who knows him believes he is about to be silenced.

“His body has been through a lot,” says Victoria Clarke, who went to work for McCain in 1983, in his first year in the House, “but if anyone can beat this, he can.”

Reeling from criticism, Ward later made it clear that her call for McCain’s resignation applied to “when the time comes.” But the tumult around the McCain illness — first the news that he had yet another bout of cancer, then his dramatic return to the Senate last week — served as a strong, stirring reminder of the contribution the Arizona Republican has made to his country, the Congress and his party.

McCain gained that status not for his quiet competence (like the late Howard H. Baker Jr.), nor for his deep intellectualism (like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan), nor for his soaring rhetoric (like the late Robert Byrd), nor for his mastery of the inside game of legislation (like former Sen. Robert J. Dole).

He was, and is, a hell-bent-for-election rebel, a wild man both as a Naval aviator and a Capitol Hill lawmaker, more rebellious than reconciliatory, more outlaw than insider, more outspoken than soft-spoken.

Indeed, he has more in common with Andrew Jackson than does the incumbent president, who hung a picture of the seventh president in the White House. Like Jackson, McCain, a onetime flamboyant flyboy, lived with the consequences of his military background. Jackson was scarred by the sword of a British dragoon after he refused to clean his boots; McCain was scarred by the time he spent in prison after his plane was shot down over Hanoi in the Vietnam War, then by melanoma and finally by a glioblastoma.

The president called him a hero, but almost exactly two years earlier he said McCain was a loser, questioned whether he was in fact a hero and added, “I like people who weren’t captured.”

McCain not only was captured, he also extended his captivity after the North Vietnamese, conscious that their prisoner was the son of a much-decorated admiral who commanded American forces in the conflict, offered to set him free early.

“I was in solitary confinement when my captors offered to release me,” he said in his acceptance speech as the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. “I knew why. If I went home, they would use it as propaganda to demoralize my fellow prisoners. Our code said we could only go home in the order of our capture, and there were men who had been shot down before me.”

McCain has had lapses over the years. He was one of the Keating Five, lawmakers accused of impropriety amid the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s, and was reprimanded for poor judgment, a verdict widely applied to his selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska to be his running mate nine years ago.

But, overall, the country and the Congress have been elevated by his service.

He became a leader in overhauling campaign finance, he battled pork-barrel spending and, above all, he gave a brave and generous concession speech when Sen. Barack Obama defeated him in 2008. The Arizona senator said that his rival had “achieved a great thing for himself and for his country,” adding, “in a contest as long and as difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance.”

But his greatest speech may have come last week. Not since Republican Sen. Pete Wilson of California left his hospital bed after an emergency appendectomy to cast a decisive vote from a gurney for Ronald Reagan’s budget in 1986 has a lawmaker entered the ancient chamber in such dramatic, moving fashion. McCain met the moment with remarks urging his colleagues to put party aside and work for the country.

“… See if we can pass something that will be imperfect, full of compromises and not very pleasing to implacable partisans on either side, but that might provide workable solutions to problems Americans are struggling with today,” he pleaded. “What have we to lose by trying to work together to find those solutions? We’re not getting much done apart. I don’t think any of us feels very proud of our incapacity. Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn’t the most inspiring work.”

It was a perfect coda to an imperfect life dedicated to easing the imperfections in the American experiment.

“Though it sounds mushy to say this, he has always been in public service for all the right reasons,” said Clarke, a former assistant secretary of defense. “He just wanted to do a good job, and it was a terrific atmosphere to be in. He’d be the first one to say there may have been times he did or said things he wasn’t proud of, but overall America has gotten a lot out of John McCain.”

Here’s the most important: that courage and convictions should not — cannot — exist separately.

“John McCain learned firsthand that the courage of your convictions is far more important than the demands of political expediency,” says Roger B. Porter, who worked in the Gerald Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses before teaching at Harvard. “He learned, and showed, what courage looks like, and it was a special type of courage.”

Then he got cancer, for the second time, and sought to share another lesson. We should listen.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

David Shribman

David Shribman

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