When icons died in times past, we eulogized their better angels and ignored their darker selves. It was the old principle instilled in us by mothers and teachers "if you have nothing good to say, be silent." It gave a slightly distorted portrait of the deceased, substituting kindness for clinical accuracy.
Then, as we began to recognize the complicated nature of humanity, we started weaving into our tributes the lesser moments of the deceased's life, in a well-intentioned effort to be authentic. Authenticity became more important to an America "awakened" to our historic flaws than simple hagiography.
As for me, I miss the days of shining light only on the triumphs of flawed human lives and leaving God to deal with the rest. Death deprives the deceased of a voice, and that voice would provide context, if not justification, for mistakes. And so this will be a tribute to the best part of John McCain, who died Saturday after a battle with brain cancer, which is virtually every scintilla and molecule of him. Others can pick over his failings.
When life left the weakened body of a man who sacrificed that body to a 5½-year ordeal of torture for a country and its values, a large measure of honor went with it. In fact, the default position in the halls of leadership today is dishonor, self-interest, poll-watching, preservation, and pandering. John McCain was, as he often noted, a maverick — which is another way of saying he didn't give a damn whom he angered or alienated by staying strictly true to course.
On those few occasions he forgot that principle, as when he chose a mercurial, exciting, energizing, but ultimately unqualified vice presidential candidate in 2008, he courted disaster. But warriors know how to regroup, and he did, going back to Congress and turning a presidential defeat into an opportunity for compromise.
A lot of people had problems with McCain's politics, which is not surprising when you serve for three decades in a period of vastly changing norms and policies. But only those who had ulterior motives and acted with malice could have had a problem with the man.
Five-plus years in the pit of hell in North Vietnam — from which he could have escaped if he'd accepted a role as an apologist for tyrants and allowed himself to be used as propaganda for the Viet Cong — forged his spirit.
And when his own country flirted with torture and tried to downplay the heresy to our founding principles, he spoke out. That he spoke out against his allies in Congress was another example of his courage.
John McCain was the son and grandson of warriors. He carried the fight in his blood and loved it. The irony of his life was that he came to be known as a champion of compromise, but he would not abandon his principles even if he sometimes walked a short distance from them.
He is now at peace. His suffering is over. Ours begins, because of this great loss. But we can take comfort in that he won this final battle. As written by the great poet Donne:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me….
One short sleep past, we wake eternally