Few politicians who fail to win the presidency are subsequently judged to be giants in our history.
Among the select few are Robert F. Kennedy, Barry Goldwater and Hubert H. Humphrey in the 20th century; Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun in the 19th century; and William Jennings Bryan, who straddled the two.
There would certainly be lively debate about other political figures who deserve inclusion on such a list, and many non-politicians have earned places in our national story far more exalted than those of middling presidents and elected officials.
As John McCain’s contemporaries, we may be ill-positioned to insist with certainty that he will join the likes of Kennedy, Bryan and Clay as figures who were profoundly consequential though the White House eluded them.
Our judgment may be clouded because McCain’s personal virtues — his insistence on the importance of honor, his resolute candor, his graciousness toward adversaries, his willingness to sacrifice, his ability to laugh at himself and to admit to his failings — stand in such stark contrast to our current leadership, particularly the incumbent president.
And while Bryan and Goldwater fundamentally changed their parties, McCain’s eclectic independence makes it hard to define an ideology called McCainism that might serve as an enduring legacy.
But McCain will loom large historically because he represented a way of doing politics that is in danger of being lost and stood for a capacious sense of the public interest and the common good that will have to be at the heart of any reconstruction of our democracy. In this sense, he is more like Kennedy in embodying a range of public aspirations and in holding that the personal life well lived entailed, as Kennedy put it, an “appetite for adventure over the love of ease.”
This is why McCain won so many liberal admirers, despite their many disagreements with him — particularly on the Iraq War, his deeply hawkish approach to foreign policy and his flip-flops on tax cuts. He also infuriated and befuddled them with his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, a decision that weakened his own wing of the party and ran counter to the seriousness of his approach to public life.
And, given McCain’s clearsightedness about who President Trump is, liberals wished he had taken the decisive step of upending his party’s majority in the Senate.
Yet it was impossible not to renew one’s respect for McCain. He had a capacity to admit moral error that is rare among politicians of any stripe. He did this powerfully by calling himself out for pandering to voters in South Carolina’s 2000 GOP primary by refusing to denounce the display of the Confederate flag at the state Capitol.
He regularly put great things (the defense of the Western alliance on behalf of democracy above all) over petty things. He had a vision of the United States as a beacon of openness, thus his unwavering support for immigration reform, and of democracy as involving a government of equals, thus his consistent opposition to the outsize role of money in politics.
He was a conservative the way his hero Theodore Roosevelt was a conservative. “Wise radicalism and wise conservatism go hand in hand,” Roosevelt said, “one bent on progress, the other bent on seeing that no change is made unless in the right direction.” It was Roosevelt who warned that “a blind and ignorant resistance” to reform was “not true conservatism but an incitement to the wildest radicalism.”
One need not canonize McCain to appreciate him. On the contrary, the fact he was a politician who wanted to win means that he is a better model for other politicians than a saint. He could trim when he had to and sometimes brawled against opponents for reasons not of principle but of power — or just because he harbored a grudge.
Yet the former prisoner of war did all he could to live up to words he revered from Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
It is not easy to choose one’s own way in ordinary life. It’s even more difficult in politics. McCain will be long remembered because he kept faith with this obligation.