John McCain’s death was hardly a surprise. (The announcement at the end of last week that the decision had been made to discontinue medical treatment was certainly a clear enough indicator that he was coming to the end of his days.) I admit that the national wellspring of emotion the senator’s death brought forth from political fellow travelers and opponents alike, even leaving the President’s belated and begrudging response out of the mix, caught more than a bit off-guard. But it was Senator McCain’s posthumously-revealed wish that he be eulogized in a bipartisan manner both by Presidents George Bush and Obama that made the strongest impression on me. That these were the two men who the most consequentially thwarted his own White House aspirations—the former by defeating him for the Republican nomination in 2000 and the later by defeating him in the presidential election of 2008—also impressed me as a sign both of humility and magnanimity. The funeral is this Saturday, so I’m writing this before knowing what either man will say. But my guess is that both will rise to the occasion and pay homage to the man, not for holding this or that political view, but for having the moral stamina to move past his own defeats at both their hands to return to the Senate to continue his life of service to the American people.Senator McCain was a complicated figure and hardly a paragon of invariable virtue. He himself characterized the decisions that led to his involvement in the “Keating Five” scandal the “worst mistake of my life.” (The fact that he made that comment after the Senate Ethics Committee determined that he had violated neither any U.S. law nor any specific rule of the Senate itself speaks volumes: here was a man who could have gone on to crow about his innocence—or at least about his non-guilt—yet who chose instead publicly to rue the appearance of impropriety that he feared would permanently attach itself to his name.) He owned up publicly to the fact that, at least in the context of his first marriage, he was not a model of marital fidelity. He was in many instances a party-line guy, going along with the plan to invade Iraq without stopping to notice that there was no actual evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed the weapons of mass destruction President Bush was so certain had to exist and in fact going so far as to refer on the floor of the Senate to Iraq as a “clear and present danger” to our country without pausing to ask himself how he could possibly know that in the absence of evidence that Iraq possessed actual weapons capable of reaching these shores.
On the other hand, his more than five years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese—the beatings and the torture he endured, his refusal to accept the early release offered to him because the military Code of Conduct instructs prisoners to accept “neither parole nor special favors” from the enemy, his two years of solitary confinement—speaks for itself. (And the phony “confession” he signed at a particularly low point when his injuries had brought him to the point of considering suicide does nothing to change my mind about his heroism. In the end, he defied his captors in every meaningful way and was momentarily defeated by them only once.) As does his lifetime of service to the American people, one given real meaning specifically by the fact, as noted above, that he specifically did not abandon his commitment to serve merely because he was twice thwarted in his bid for the presidency and instead simply returned to the Senate, following the admirable example of Henry Clay, who lost the election of 1824 to John Quincy Adams and then, after serving as the latter’s Secretary of State for four years, returned to the Senate where he served as Senator from Kentucky for two non-consecutive terms and died, like McCain, in office.But it was McCain’s posthumous letter to America that I want the most to write about today. Lots of literary masterworks have been published posthumously—all three of Kafka’s novels, for example, came out after he died in 1924—but most have been works that their authors for some reasons chose not to publish or were unable to get published in their lifetimes, not letters that their authors specifically wished to be publicized after they were gone from the world. That concept, however, is not unknown…and the concept of creating what is called an ethical will in which a legator bequeaths, not physical possessions or money, but values and moral principles to his or her heirs is actually a Jewish practice that has its roots in medieval Jewish times.
There are early examples of something like that even from biblical times—the Torah contains the pre-posthumous blessings that both Jacob and Moses left behind for their heirs to contemplate and to allow to guide them forward after Jacob and Moses were going to be gone from the world. (When the New Testament author of the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as doing the same thing, in fact, it is probably part of an ancient author’s effort accurately to depict Jesus as a Jewish man doing what Jewish men in his day did.) But the custom reached its fullest flower in the Middle Ages—the oldest extant ethical will from that period was written by one Eleazar ben Isaac of Worms in Germany and dates back to c. 1050. After that, there are lots of examples, many of which were collected and published in two volumes back in 1926 by Israel Abrahams under the title Hebrew Ethical Wills and still available for a very reasonable price. There is even a modern guide to preparing such a will to leave to your own descendants in Jack Riemer’s Ethical Will and How To Prepare Them: A Guide for Sharing Your Values from Generation to Generation, published in a revised second edition just a few years ago by Jewish Lights in Woodstock, Vermont.And it is in that specific vein that I found myself reading Senator McCain’s letter to the American people: not as last-minute effort to make a few final points, much less to get a few last jabs in at specific, if unnamed, opponents. (The Bible has a good example of that too in David’s last message to the world, which includes a hit-list of people David hopes Solomon will find a way to punish—or rather, to execute—after David is gone from the world and Solomon becomes king after him.) The McCain letter, neither vengeful nor angry, is not at all in that vein. Nor is it particularly soothing: it is, in every sense, the literary embodiment of its authors hopes for the nation he served and his last word on the course he hopes our nation will take in the years following his death. To read the full text, click here.
Senator McCain identifies the core values he feels should lie at the generative core of all American policy: a deep dedication to the concept of personal liberty, an equally serious dedication to the pursuit of justice for all, and, to quote directly, a level of “respect for the dignity of all people [that will bring the nation and its citizens] happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures.” Furthermore, he writes unambiguously that, in his opinion, “our identities and sense of worth [are never] circumscribed, but enlarged, by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.”He characterizes our country as “a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” And then he writes this: “We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world.” But his tone is not at all self-congratulatory. Indeed, the very next passage is the one that seems both the most filled with honor and trepidation: “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.” It is hard to read those words without reference to the current administration, and I’m sure that McCain meant them to be understood in that specific way. But the overall tone of the letter is not preachy or political, but deeply encouraging and uplifting. His final words to his fellow Americans are also worth citing verbatim: “Do not despair of our present difficulties,” the senator writes from the very edge of his life. “We believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history. We make history. Farewell fellow Americans, God bless you, and God bless America.”
I disagreed with John McCain about a lot. We were not on the same side of any number of the most important issues facing our nation, but those divisions fall away easily as I read those final words. Here, I find myself thinking easily, was a true patriot—a flawed man in the way all of us must grapple with our own weaknesses and failings, but, at the end of the day, a principled man and a patriot. His death was a loss to the nation and particularly to the Senate, but the words he left behind will, I hope, guide us forward in a principled way that finds in debate and respectful disagreement the context in which the American people can find harmony in discord (which is, after all, a peculiarly and particularly American concept) and a focused national will to live up our own Founders’ ideals.In the physical universe, energy derives from tension, friction, and stress. In the world of ideas, the same is true: Socrates knew that and developed a way of seeking the truth rooted not in placid agreement but in vigorous debate. That concept, almost more than anything else, is what shines through Senator McCain’s literary testament to the nation. He notes wryly, and surely correctly, that we are a nation composed of 325 million “opinionated, vociferous individuals.” But he also notes that when debate, even raucous public debate, is rooted in a shared love of country, the result is a stronger, more self-assured nation, not a weaker one enfeebled by conflicting opinions. I think that too…and my sadness at the senator’s passing is rooted, more than anything else, in that specific notion.
John McCain’s life was a gift to our country and his death, a tragedy. May he rest in peace, and may his memory be a source of ongoing blessing for his family and for his friends, and also for us all.