John McCain was no saint.
He didn’t have to be in order to have, upon his passing this week, his body lie in state, first at the Arizona capitol’s rotunda and then at the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
The latter is a rare honor shared by only 30 Americans presidents, vice presidents, members of Congress and military commanders before him.
The Arizona senator got there for reasons of politics, emotions, achievement and character, with his most outstanding quality being a stubborn belief in himself.
Throughout a life that steamed mostly at flank speed before dropping anchor four days short of 82 years, John McCain showed himself to be the kind of man who can give every which way but up.
By now, nearly everyone in America knows that way back in 1958, the U.S. Naval Academy graduated this son and grandson of admirals near bottom of his class. He had been and remained well into his military career a party animal and proud of it.
A multitasker, he didn’t give up either on his aspiration to reach the rank of his father and grandfather— until a poorly executed ejection from his burning warplane over Hanoi crippled him for life.
He got to fly bombing missions over Vietnam in 1967 by quickly and skillfully wrangling after graduation, despite his academic ignominy, a coveted place in flight school and then at the controls of real planes that flew.
He admitted to having goofed off a lot in the early days of his training to be the bomber pilot.
“My daredevil clowning had cut off electricity to a great many Spanish homes, and created a small international incident,” he wrote after one self-inflicted piloting disaster over Spain.
He wrecked or had shot from under him five airplanes, yet each time climbed back into a new cockpit and flew like there was no tomorrow. Each time there very nearly was no tomorrow.
Breaking both arms and his right leg because of his inexpert ejection from his burning A-4E Skyhawk “Bantam Bomber” over North Vietnam, he went on to be the best-known and most widely admired Vietnam-war veteran in America.
It wasn’t easy.
He told his North Vietnam communist captors to stuff it when they tried to score a propaganda coup by offering to release him from the grim accommodations of the Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo prison) before a long list of fellow American POWs in line ahead of him.
He endured beatings as punishment. His captors broke his rib, rebroke one of his arms. After five and a half years, the Hanoi Hilton’s innkeepers released him with the other prisoners of war.
Unable to put his arms into his own jacket himself or comb his hair, he left the Navy for a political career.
Throughout that second career, he conveyed an aura of compassion, ultra-righteous rectitude, short-fuse temper and naysaying rebelliousness. It helped make him a feared, often annoying force of nature, especially for fellow Republicans whose worldview lay well to his starboard.
That air about him combined with his quick, often self-deprecating humor generated more TV talk-show appearances, decade after decade, than any other Republican in Congress or anywhere else.
Implicated in the 1989 Keating Five scandal early in his political career, he joined forces with a liberal Democratic senator to successfully sponsor 12 years later another layer of regulations on campaign money raising.
That drove the rest of his fellow Republicans up the wall — except for President George W. Bush’s campaign finance director Jack Oliver.
Mr. Oliver quickly discovered that Mr. McCain’s drive to further sanitize the machinery of campaign finance would allow Mr. Bush to raise $100 million more for his 2004 re-election effort than the record $99 million raised in the 2000 Bush presidential campaign.
Mr. McCain’s good-governance stratagem, it turned out, doubled the “hard” dollar limits on individuals’ direct contributions to candidates and drove other donations away from political-party organizations and to outside groups.
It was nonetheless Mr. McCain’s idea of how to get money-fueled influence-peddling out of politics and strengthened his hero status to fans of campaign-finance reform.
Most important for his legacy, virtually every liberal luminary in the news-politics-polemics industry — the people who have sway over everyone else’s legacy — embraced him as their hands-down, all-time favorite Republican.
He was never the staunch conservative that the anchors, reporters and pundits at ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press have been insisting he was.
That insistence has displaced quadrillions of air molecules over America since his passing from a brain tumor on Saturday at his Sedona, Arizona, ranch, with his wife Cindy — loyal through thick and thin — and worshipful daughter Meghan at his bedside.
The man who almost never gave up didn’t give up when the rest of the world thought he should have. That would be the summer of 2007, when the wheels flew off his GOP presidential nomination campaign. GOP voter affection and money shriveled in response to his praise for a broadly-forgiving immigration-reform bill. The base hated it.
He didn’t give up his support of that bill, either — the cost to him in votes and donations be damned.
Letting most of his staff go, he and a lone aide hustled to campaign appearances on commercial flights. Stubbornly believing in himself, he “lived off the land” (his words), stuck to his immigration stance and by December 2007, he was back on track.
He went on to win the nomination but lose the general election to the man who stirred as never before the nation’s youth and minorities to became America’s first president of mixed race.
Again the man who barely made it through the Naval Academy and barely made it through his second presidential nomination run showed the character to defend on the campaign trail his Democratic opponent against claims that he was an Arab, a Muslim, born overseas and not legally qualified to be president.
By 2013, in more than half his Senate votes, Mr. McCain was siding with President Barack Obama.
To Americans who go misty at the sight of hands reaching across the aisle, Mr. McCain was a hero for whom bipartisanship wasn’t just a word; it was, for better or worse, a moral obligation.
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