I wrote about each of these at the time of their passing (here, here, here, here, here and here), but it’s worth reviewing the common themes of their lives and the way they endeared themselves to the American people.
Bush and McCain were military men, distinguished by their bravery and self-sacrifice. (Bush was the youngest Navy pilot, fresh out of school; McCain endured unimaginable torture.)
All three spent their lives in service to others and fully understood their power and influence weren’t for personal aggrandizement (Don’t brag, Barbara Bush reminded her children) but, rather, to be used to help the country and the world.
They weren’t complainers. McCain felt he was the luckiest man alive despite injuries in captivity that afflicted him. Barbara uprooted family, moved to China and in and out of Washington, D.C. It wasn’t a burden but a great adventure. George was vilified by his party and lost the presidency, but he was not embittered.
They were all funny, irreverent and blunt — especially Barbara and McCain. They abhorred the bullies, the self-important and the flatterers. They could spot a phony and didn’t mind pointing him out to others.
They were all Republicans, but none was an unthinking partisan. They didn’t hate Democrats; George and McCain would take support from either side of the aisle to achieve their goals.
They were all devoted to children and grandchildren, setting a model of decency, honor, kindness and courage for them — and for the country. One could see them delight in the company of their extended families — McCain in the Arizona desert and the Bushes at Kennebunkport.
They lived vigorous lives, traveling and playing sports. George and McCain seemed incapable of being idle, whether in their public life or in private time.
They were all readers — Barbara devoted her time to literacy as first lady. They were interesting and interested in the world around them.
They were, in many ways, atypical Americans but typical of their generation, which, if you want a label other than “Greatest Generation,” might be called the “It’s not about you” generation. (The baby boomers, by contrast, were arguably the most self-absorbed generation in history.) The singular realization that happiness and success come not from self-indulgence but from service — what McCain called “the privilege of serving a cause greater than oneself” — was their North Star. And their lives proved it.
Their passing this year was cause for nostalgia and reflection, for commiseration about a different era in America. They should, however, be an inspiration: Don’t whine, be curious, serve others, and “It’s not all about you.” Now there’s a moral code to live by.