I couldn’t bring myself to write this piece until today. It’s not that I didn’t try. But something in my mind convinced my hands that if I put it off, somehow John McCain might be with us a little longer. I needed that. The country needed that.
But a call from Cindy late last week told me it was time.
I’ve never known Washington without McCain. I started on Capitol Hill more than 30 years ago interning for Dennis DeConcini, “the other senator from Arizona,” which is what they call every Arizona senator not named McCain. When I eventually became the other senator from Arizona, too, I came to understand that it’s a title that comes with being in the shadow of a giant. It was like having an older brother to protect me. The guy nobody wants to mess with.
But McCain has been much more than that to me. Just as he taught the country the value of standing alone to do what is right, he taught me that as well. Early in my service in the House of Representatives, I managed to incur the wrath of a host of locally elected officials and newspaper columnists by challenging funding for a number of parochial spending projects. I was feeling pretty low, wondering if I was doing the right thing.
In the midst of my inner tumult, on a flight from Washington to Arizona, McCain made his way back to my seat with a stern look on his face. “Oh, no,” I thought. “Not him, too.” He stuck his finger in my chest and demanded: “Don’t. Back. Down! You’re in the right, they’ll come around.” It was all that I needed.
Over the years, I’ve been educated and entertained traveling a few miles with John McCain. From Douglas, Arizona, to Dixville Notch, New Hampshire; from Ajo, Arizona, to Afghanistan. I’ve heard him inspire and motivate soldiers in isolated outposts. I’ve seen him hold court with heads of state and empathize with exiled dissidents. I’ve seen him captivate journalists with a knowledge of obscure sports trivia and literature on the Straight Talk Express. I’ve seen his face light up as he received calls from Cindy and the kids.
But perhaps what says the most about John are the miles he usually traveled alone, such as during the mid-1990s to a veterans home in Northeast Washington to visit former Democratic congressman Mo Udall. By then suffering through the late stages of Parkinson’s disease, Mo often didn’t know John was there. But still John went, not for any political benefit, but to show love and respect for a lonely friend who meant so much to him and who had given so much to his country.
Life’s last mile took John to his beloved ranch in northern Arizona. It was there a few months ago where we sat for an hour or so, just the two of us, watching Oak Creek gently ripple under the shade of giant cottonwood trees. He named the birds singing above us in the branches. He quoted lines from the novels he loved. We reminisced about the past, of personalities come and gone. He spoke wistfully of those he admired and expressed optimism that such leaders would rise up in the future.
And now, in a way that would probably have him making wisecracks, we are wistful for John McCain. We may never see his like again, but it is his reflection of America that we need now more than ever. He was far too self-deprecating to ever have thought of himself as just such a towering figure, so I will go ahead and say it. He showed us who we are and who we can be when we are not at our best. And he devoted his life to service and to the exalted idea of America that was bigger and better than him. Bigger than us all. His fidelity to that idea, and his idealism in balancing fierce political battles with a determination to always see the good and find the humanity in his opponents is an example that transcended politics and made him the man that he was.
As I got up to leave that day, he said, “The doctors tell me I’m halfway there.” He paused. “The more I see this end coming, the more I am grateful for what I have.”
Today, I am grateful for John McCain. I’m grateful for the long and meaningful miles he traveled, and for having the privilege of having traveled just a few of those miles with him.
Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, is a member of the U.S. Senate.
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