The late senator was the kind of man the Founders had in mind.
A long time ago, and for no particular religious reason, I decided the psalmist was right: “Put not your trust in princes.” The point the unknown author was making is that it’s God, not some son of man, in whom one should trust. But regardless, it has seemed to me eminently true that princes are not trustworthy. I especially like the term “princes” because it’s more encompassing than “kings” would be. It seems to evoke the totality of the class of politicians, from the time of the psalms unto this democratic age.
I have made one exception in the years since, and that was for John McCain. I never worked for the man, except as an informal and unpaid adviser on national security to his 2008 presidential campaign. Perhaps that contributed to my ability to trust him: I thereby avoided finding myself the object of one of his famous outbursts of temper. But maybe not, because not one of the dozens of people I know who worked for him, and who presumably were at one time or another on the receiving end of one of his tirades, had anything but love and loyalty for him.
This is unusual for anyone, let alone a politician. Maybe I just never met the disgruntled ones, but you’d expect them to have surfaced, especially during the presidential campaigns, the primaries in 2000 and the general in 2008. Yes, reports on the temper came out and whisperings about the lack of fitness for office such outbursts might indicate. But that struck me then and has since as nonsense, not only because temper is a common trait among politicians but also because none of those who were closest to McCain seemed to hold it against him.
Because I never worked for him on a daily basis, my recollection of our interactions over the years is vivid. At a McCain Institute barbecue one lovely spring evening at his ranch in Arizona, for example, I introduced him to my wife with these words: “One thing you and I have in common, senator, is that we both married beautiful women.” Now, here’s a test of character for you: I think most politicians at such a moment would seize on such a remark to spin the introduction into something about themselves. Not McCain. He beamed at my wife and shook her hand as if no one else was there. It makes an impression, the bestowal of one’s full attention. McCain understood that part of being charming is being charmed.
McCain would be the last man to call himself a person of exemplary character. On one hand, this is absurd. He spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, where he was frequently beaten and tortured. He tells the story in Faith of My Fathers, his 1999 autobiography-memoir produced in collaboration with his longtime staffer Mark Salter. What’s odd about it is that unlike most campaign-season books, it actually has a story with an interesting personality at its center. And what makes that personality interesting is the constant struggle: first of all, to distinguish himself in a family of great achievement in the U.S. military; second, to come to terms with the inability to pass an impossible test, that of a prisoner under exceptionally cruel interrogation. You hold out as best you can, but … Even so, he describes how at various points in his captivity, he defied his captors in ways he knew would produce a new beating.
This is a situation so far removed from the ordinary in the contemporary world as to cry out for recognition. Likewise his description of fellow American prisoners who helped him survive the grievous injuries he sustained bailing out of his crippled A-4E Skyhawk bomber over North Vietnam.
This is the paradox at the center of greatness: No matter how much the great ones have achieved, it stands in contrast in their minds to how much more they believe they could or should have achieved. McCain was an exemplary practitioner of self-deprecating wit, itself a political art form. But as practiced by, for example, Henry Kissinger, such wit draws attention to the sense of superiority with which it is uttered. McCain’s greatness came into view not through false humility but from the real thing. Many are those who say “screw you” in circumstances in which doing so is without consequence. Few are the ones who do so when it will produce a savage beating. Fewer still are the ones who reproach themselves simultaneously for their inability to refrain from saying “screw you” and for their failure to say it as often as they should have.
I leave the “maverick” encomia to others. Even in the Hanoi Hilton, he was a remarkably free man. Presumably, the internal quality that made him so was not of the sort that caves readily under the pressures of democratic politics as practiced in the United States. Nor am I particularly interested in ideological evaluations of McCain’s conservatism, either of the sort from those on the left who regard the maverick reputation as a bogus gloss on a right-wing political career or from those on the right who see him as an establishment sellout.
The most striking aspect of his career as a politician is that he is exactly what the Founders had in mind when they were writing Article I of the United States Constitution: a legislator in the fullest sense. Congress, in accordance with its powers enumerated under the Constitution, is supposed to attend to the people’s business. The need to make such a statement seems somewhat strange, except that so few in Congress seem to harbor that point of view. Most of them seem far more interested in avoiding responsibility than taking it, in the joy of holding office rather than the tasks appropriate to holding office.
When the financial crisis descended over his campaign in September 2008 like the sword of Damocles, there were two presidential candidates who didn’t have slightest idea what to do, both members of the U.S. Senate. One decided to float above it and do nothing; McCain, on the other hand, said he was suspending his campaign to go back to Washington to work on the problem. Many, with the encouragement of the Obama campaign, considered his response a gimmick. If it was, however, it was a gimmick in character for a genuine legislator. Barack Obama made a smart political decision of a tiresomely familiar sort. John McCain made a bad political decision of an impetuous but somehow noble sort.
McCain wasn’t conventionally ideological. But he was a conviction politician to the core. I asked my friend Daniel Twining, who worked for him for seven years on foreign policy matters and is now president of the International Republican Institute, what his cumulative impression was. He emailed me, “When we traveled and would meet with dissidents in closed societies, he would always tell them to be strong, to fight, and never to give up, because in time they would earn their freedom. He connected with democracy advocates and human rights advocates in every culture because he too had been deprived of freedom and understood more keenly than the rest of us what that actually means—how it is an affront to the basic dignity of every human being. He also rejected as the ugliest form of cultural imperialism the assumption that human liberty was a Western ideal rather than a universal one—he knew, deep in his heart, that people everywhere value freedom in the same ways, and that those of us privileged enough to enjoy it in our country had a duty to help others earn it in their countries.”
On another McCain Institute occasion, to needle him, I mentioned that Herbert Hoover had actually founded the Hoover War Library, now the Hoover Institution, before Hoover became president—letting hang before McCain that having founded his institute, he could run again. He gave me one of his characteristic double-takes, which typically meant he was amused by the impertinence to which he was responding.
Of course he wouldn’t run again. The time had passed: he gave it his best. I sometimes wonder, had he won, if my faith in this particular prince would have held. Had Hoover never been elected president, he would be remembered as one of the great men of the 20th century for the millions saved from starvation in the effort he led after World War I—not as a failed president. McCain was a tireless champion of freedom and human rights and an exemplary practitioner of democratic politics. If he wasn’t the greatest man ever to seek the nation’s highest office and come up short, he was far greater than most who attained it.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the International Republic Institute. It is the International Republican Institute.