John McCain Deserves

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Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a public servant who personally inspired me, died this week.

Many people have taken this opportunity to express their admiration of him as a war hero who endured over 5 years of torture in a Vietnamese prison, their appreciation of him as an old-school legislator who could demonstrate respect and work with those of the other party, their gratitude for his humanity and dignity in trying circumstances.

Others have expressed their serious issues with McCain: he often lately criticized his fellow Republicans but fell short of taking action to stop most of their agenda, especially early in his political career he was known for his temper, his environmental record was unsatisfactory to many, his selection of Sarah Palin was both abhorrent and baffling to political supporters and foes alike.

All these beliefs about McCain can be true simultaneously. He was, by all accounts a complex character who was consciously aware of his personal contradictions. But he was, by any account, deeply committed to the idea of service: in the armed forces and in political life.

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I cannot personally imagine the horrors of enduring years of imprisonment, torture and starvation in a foreign land. I cannot imagine turning down the prospect of early release because I preferred to model solidarity with my fellow prisoners. And I cannot imagine coming back from that experience and looking for ways to further serve my country.

That is an exemplary life, a life worth honoring, commemorating and imitating. Would that his fellow elected officials be inspired to more closely follow his example.

He left a final message, below, that an aide, through tears, read aloud today. May it represent a path forward for our injured republic.

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Thank you, Senator. May your memory be eternal.

 

Adio, Olympia. Goodbye, Civility.

Why does someone leave a safe Senate seat? If you’re Maine’s Olympia Snow, it might be because you’re good and sick of the direction American government is moving, or, more precisely, the way our elected officials increasingly behave while they conduct the public’s business.

She had first assumed elective office in 1973, a turbulent (think Watergate) yet more civil time in American politics. Officeholders from both parties talked and worked with each other, even in public, to get things done for the broad public benefit. There was general agreement about the necessity of a functioning government. And few, if any, candidates or officials called political opponents agents of Satan, or anything.

By the time Snow was first elected to the US Senate, in 1994, there had been some erosion of civility but, in general, senators behaved like the members of the ultra-exclusive club they were. The Clinton impeachment was a turning point, by all accounts. Things got nasty, got personal, went nuclear. It wasn’t enough to get your bills through, wasn’t enough to stop the other sides bills. You had to diminish your opponent.

Washington politics became fighting to the death.

These days, politicians aren’t only uncooperative, they’re openly hostile to each other. They insist their opponents’ evil with religious fervor. Yesterday, Olympia Snow, the senior senator from Maine, declared she’d finally had enough.

She will leave her seat in America’s highest deliberative legislative body, and leave the verbal bomb-throwing to others. I’ll miss her intelligence, rationality and civility. Her departure is a sign that our country is surrendering to its worst impulses.