By STEPHEN M. SALISBURY
Our country lost a great American hero in the past couple of weeks. Senator John McCain (R) of Arizona died four days short of his 82 birthday on August 25. He was the victim of an aggressive brain tumor known as a glioblastoma, the same type of cancer that took the life of Senator Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts in 2009.
That’s the thing about cancer. It is no respecter of persons. It doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. It doesn’t care how old you are. It, frankly, doesn’t care how healthy you are. It can strike anyone, any time and it can be merciless. Anyone who has ever battled the disease successfully will tell you, the disease wants to defeat you and all you can do is fight as if you’re life depends on it, which, of course, it often does.
Senator McCain was no stranger to battling against all odds to overcome a valiant foe. He’d spent five and a half years as a POW during the middle part of the Vietnam War. He was tortured and permanently disabled during his tenure at the “Hanoi Hilton.” His first marriage failed not long after he came home. He was embroiled in the Keating savings and loan scandal of the mid-1980s after becoming a member of the House of Representatives. In other words, he was in no way a perfect human being. He was a politician, but I think what many who are grieving his loss would say defined the man, was his desire to serve.
As I thought about the loss of Senator McCain, it made me think about what it means to be a patriot. At its most basic level, I suppose, a patriot is someone who loves their country. A true patriot, in my opinion, is someone who is willing to consider the greater good over their own self-interest. A true patriot quietly serves others not expecting to be rewarded. Anyone who knows me, or who may have read any one of my columns over the past several years, knows that my political perspective leans very far to the left. Yet even though Senator McCain tried to appeal to the more conservative wing of his party the past several years, and for sure when he settled for Sarah Palin as his running mate for the presidency in 2008, I had great respect for him as a public servant. Admittedly, I voted for him in the primaries during his first presidential run in 2000 against George W. Bush even though he had dropped out of the race at that point.
Again, acknowledging the Senator was a flawed individual, three of his most public acts revealed to me the kind of individual he was and one who had the type of character to which we should all aspire. The first was his fight to normalize relations with Vietnam during the Clinton administration. This spoke to his ability to forgive and care for people whom he had fought against and had treated him very poorly at one time in his life.
The second was when he stood up to an ignorant supporter during his 2008 campaign against then Senator Obama when she called Obama an Arab and said she couldn’t trust him. McCain stopped in the middle of her diatribe and said, “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” This spoke to his ability to disagree with someone politically without demonizing them as a human being.
And finally, last year, after having been just diagnosed with brain cancer and undergoing surgery that left him clearly disfigured, he sped back to Washington to cast the deciding vote to keep the Affordable Care Act in place. This spoke to his ability to fight for what he believed was right regardless of the political consequences.
I alluded earlier in this column to the scourge of cancer. I’ve truly lost count of the number of close family members and friends of mine who have either fought the disease or succumbed to it. My point is that no one is immune to the possibility of defeat. I believe our country is fighting a cancer of character both in leadership and in how we treat one another. I believe there is a tumor growing that is fed by hatred and disrespect and total lack of compassion and empathy. If one wants to be a true patriot, then one must be willing to fight this enemy and look to those like Senator McCain who provide a worthy model by which we can all learn what it looks like to truly serve our fellow humans in this place we call our country.