There is no denying that Senator John McCain is a true American hero. He was badly injured when shot down over North Vietnam and then endured five years of imprisonment, deprivation, and torture.
He said he “broke,” but if so, it was only after resisting to a point far beyond what could reasonably be expected of anyone.
The son and grandson of admirals and an Annapolis graduate, McCain was a natural leader with a fighter pilot’s devil-may-care flair for the bold and unexpected. After the war, he eventually became an effective Navy lobbyist in Washington where he was introduced to the trappings of political power.
Retiring from the Navy as a captain, he married an heiress after a divorce from his first wife and moved to Arizona where he began his political career and was eventually elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican. He soon became the darling of the media with his independence, candor, sense of humor, and willingness to shake up the establishment.
He brought a fighter pilot’s audacity to the often stodgy, predictable, and boring business of the Congress. Obviously enjoying the role of “maverick,” he joined with Democrats in pushing progressive immigration legislation and was a strong advocate for campaign finance reform. Guns-a-blazing, he targeted “earmarks,” swooping down on wasteful items slipped into the budget by senators of both parties.
Then something happened. The first sign of a dramatic change was the naming of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate in the last election. It was a move, more desperate than bold; a signal that he was willing to name an obviously unqualified, first-term governor in Alaska whom he barely knew as his possible successor. All in an effort to rescue his faltering campaign. Was he that ambitious? Did he really want to be president that badly?
He took the loss hard and then set his sights on his re-election campaign. But the party and the country had moved to the right, in no small part due to Gov. Palin’s rising popularity and the incipient Tea Party movement. J.D. Hayworth, a former Arizona congressman and conservative talk show host, announced he would run against McCain and began attacking him for his independence, progressive views, and willingness to consort with liberals.
Now 73, the old fighter pilot was in a quandary. Should he go down fighting or should he “modify” his views in an effort to assure his re-election? It was a tough decision; having lost the presidential race, he now faced losing his Senate seat. The old McCain would have said the hell with it, climbed into his cockpit, and flown the mission, even knowing he wasn’t coming back.
The decision was easier then – duty, honor, country. There was no turning back in the face of the enemy. But this was a different enemy, a more subtle and insidious foe. Ambition, celebrity, influence, and power can sap the strength of the very strong. Those who, under different circumstances, could take a beating or a bullet are often powerless to resist the ego’s siren song. It is the difference between physical and moral courage.
Unfortunately, McCain joined a long list of politicians who were only too willing to sacrifice what they stood for rather than themselves. He even abandoned and then denied being a “maverick,” a title he so obviously relished. Political survival became more important to him than the survival he risked so often as a naval aviator.
As an admirer of the old McCain, I would have preferred that he confront these new enemies with the same strength and defiance he displayed when facing his North Vietnamese interrogators.
I wish he had said: “Rather than abandon those principles in which I believe and for which I have fought, I am prepared to lose this election. Remaining in office is not as important to me as standing up for what I believe is right for my country. If that is not enough then so be it; for it is duty, honor, and country I hold dear, not the personal fate of this old warrior.”
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.