Lessons from the character of John McCain

Speakers told about how he forgave and sought forgiveness, about how honest, fair and civilised he was.

The late US Senator John McCain. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

IN SUMMARY

  • Speakers told about how he forgave and sought forgiveness, about how honest, fair and civilised he was.

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Like millions of others, I witnessed the uplifting memorial service to honour former war hero, senator and presidential candidate John McCain.

Mr McCain’s daughter Meghan was the first to pay tribute to him. “We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness,” she lamented. “The real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly.”

And later, in the most quoted part of her address: “The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold, she is resourceful and confident and secure, she meets her responsibilities, she speaks quietly because she is strong. America does not boast, because she does not need to. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great.”

Former Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman was next to speak. Mr Lieberman was Republican McCain’s first choice as running mate when he stood for president in 2008, but conservative Republicans were uncomfortable with Mr Lieberman’s support for abortion, so he was not selected.

Among those listening to Mr Lieberman’s personal and at times humorous speech about his friend were the Clintons, the Bushes and the Obamas – the three couples sitting next to each other in the front row, alongside three former vice presidents, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden.

Ninety-nine year old Henry Kissinger followed Lieberman, speaking in his heavy German accent about McCain’s important role in reconciling America and Vietnam following the war – despite having been a prisoner in Vietnam for over five years and being tortured repeatedly.

Now it was the turn of George Bush, eloquent and statesmanlike, and then his successor in the White House, Barrack Obama. Mr Obama revealed that McCain had called him earlier in the year to invite him to speak at his memorial service. A sure sign, winked Mr Obama, of the man’s sense of mischief. “What better way to get the last laugh than to get George and me to say nice things about him to a national audience?”

Earlier, Mr Lieberman had referred to the incident during Mr McCain’s presidential campaign when a woman at a town hall meeting spoke offensively about Mr Obama and Mr McCain told her off. Mr Obama now told us he wasn’t surprised that, as Mr Lieberman had put it, by instinct and without needing to consult anyone, this man who so lacked prejudice did the right thing.

Mr Obama also shared that when he was president, from time to time he would meet with Mr McCain to talk about policies and politics. They certainly didn’t agree on everything, but they learned from each other and they laughed together. “For all our differences, and they were deep, we never doubted that we were on the same team.”

He praised Mr McCain for “always striving to be better, to do better” and, like all the others who spoke before him, Mr Obama wished Americans today could indulge in more of the bipartisan and civilised political engagement (“not small and mean and petty”) that Mr McCain so richly personified. He disparaged those who “appeared brave and tough”, but more likely spoke out of fear.

Each speaker condemned the current divisive and abrasive style of US politics, telling positive stories about the man they were honouring, about how he forgave and sought forgiveness, about how honest, fair and civilised he was. They regretted the way the broader American society had regressed, wishing it could follow the example set by Mr McCain.

But would anything that was said make a difference? Would any of America’s leaders, never mind Mr Trump, behave any differently as a result? I was not holding my breath, and I was right not to. Any more than I do after our National Prayer Breakfasts and similar occasions here, where equally uplifting sentiments are expressed by the high and mighty, only for them to revert to the default aggressive, abusive language immediately they leave the venue.

One commentator asked if some of America’s younger senators would take on Mr McCain’s mantle. And by the way, will any of our younger politicians rise above the lowest common denominator of Kenyan politics? Will our recent “Handshake” take root, overcoming the never-ending divisive campaigning? Or will our politicians and voters continue playing our same dysfunctional games?

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