The last week or so has not been particularly good to people I admire. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, went on to her final reward and lots of well-deserved R-E-S-P-E-C-T; she’s always been one of my favorite singers because of the passion she brought to every song. Neil Simon, playwright of some of my favorite comedies, died Sunday morning; I fondly remember Biloxi Blues filming just north of me, and some of my high school friends serving as extras.
Both of those deaths were painful for what both Franklin and Simon contributed to the arts and the American ethos. The death of John McCain, who would have been 82 today, is painful because it seems he might have been the last Republican on Capitol Hill willing to work with the other side in the nation’s best interests. The citizens of the United States, and of his own state, were his concern.
McCain was no angel, sometimes had a quick temper, and he made many mistakes (as do we all), but he held firm to his principles, even correcting supporters, during his 2008 run for the White House, who disparaged Barack Obama. Though he might have disagreed with someone, he could still respect others’ opinions and beliefs, a characteristic that appears to be on its way to extinction. He also could, most of the time, take a joke and not take himself so seriously (the man loved to give colleagues and reporters bunny ears, for instance). That’s another trait many of us sorely need.
While he could be just as partisan as his colleagues—though he lamented his role in letting passion overrule reason—he had no problem calling out people in his own party, including the president. Sen. Lindsey Graham told Vox recently that one of the things most misunderstood about McCain was his consistency regardless of who’s in power. “[H]e’s been a pain in the ass to Republicans and Democrats and a valuable ally to presidents based on issues, not based on personality. He will cross his party for something he believes in, and he will fight a Democrat when he thinks they’re wrong.”
That’s what we should concern ourselves with—the issues, not the parties, and certainly not endless conspiracy theories with little relation to the truth (no, McCain didn’t collaborate with the North Vietnamese, nor did he start a deadly fire on an aircraft carrier … didn’t take long for those to start up again … sigh). It helps no one to be unwilling to concede a point based not on the logic of a position, but the partisanship of the person holding that position. How can anyone seriously think that only one side has the answers?
This is why I growl sometimes. That and it makes people leave me the hell alone.
Once upon a time, more in Washington, D.C., were open to cooperating with those across the aisle and working not for their party but for the best interests of all. Arkansans have been lucky enough to have had a few notable such representatives and senators, like John Paul Hammerschmidt, David Pryor, Vic Snyder and Dale Bumpers, and the bulk of their actions in office weren’t embarrassing, which many of those in government now can’t claim. The population of decent people in D.C. has waxed and waned over the years, but it seems almost nonexistent now, especially with McCain’s passing. Pettiness has taken the place of respectful protocol and careful deliberation. All that matters is who wins.
But in situations like this, there are no winners.
McCain, who spent more than five years as a POW during the Vietnam war, left a legacy of patriotism and political cooperation in service to the people of Arizona and the United States. How we pay homage to that is up to us.
Fellow U.S. senator from Arizona Jeff Flake put it better than most I’ve heard, saying on ABC’s This Week that we can best honor McCain “by seeing the good in our opponents, by being quick to forgive, by realizing that there’s something more important than ourselves, to put service, you know, over and above our self-interest, as he often said. And—and as he lived.”
McCain himself, though, gave powerful direction in his speech upon returning to the Senate last July, soon after his glioblastoma diagnosis:
“Our system doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives an order to our individual strivings that has helped make ours the most powerful and prosperous society on earth. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’ Even when we must give a little to get a little. Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’
“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.
“Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. … 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. There’s greater satisfaction in respecting our differences, but not letting them prevent agreements that don’t require abandonment of core principles, agreements made in good faith that help improve lives and protect the American people.”
He was just as powerful in his final letter, released after his death:
“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.“We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”
It couldn’t hurt to try. Heck, we might even start getting along again.