Since the news broke of Sen. John McCain’s passing on Saturday night, tributes to the man, and his full life of public service, have been rolling in from all corners of the political spectrum. In testament to the respect he commanded even from his political opponents, two former rivals in presidential contests—Barack Obama and George W. Bush—will be among those to eulogize the senator at a service in his honor.
While those who knew him better and shared the heavy burdens of leadership with him will speak for the country, I feel compelled to add this small token of gratitude for how his example of statesmanship and courage impressed just one family.
My parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1980s and settled in Silicon Valley, California, where I was born. I grew up in Palo Alto, among the people who would, in the next two decades, become recognized around the country as the cream of the tech world, although they already saw themselves as such back then.
They were clever, rich, and privileged; a new American elite who had been granted every advantage. Yet they saw patriotic attachment to the country that had given them everything as unsophisticated at best and jingoistic at worst.
During McCain’s first presidential run in 2000, I was too young to be substantively involved in politics. Yet all in my family noticed what a contrast this man—son and grandson to admirals, born into prestige—provided to the detached, global-citizen class of Palo Alto. McCain’s first and most important allegiance was always as an American. “No association has ever meant more to me than that,” he said, when conceding the election of 2008.
McCain represented an older American elite, a better one, that still considered privilege synonymous with the duty of service. Few families have taken that duty more seriously than the McCains, with their cross-generational ethos of service to country, inside and outside the military.
Others have and will continue to write about McCain’s heroism in Vietnam, his accomplishments as senator, and the many achievements of his rich life. But to our little family of brand-new Americans, he was a shining example of a servant leadership class, who did not take the blessings this magnificent country had bestowed on them for granted. He showed us the highest standard of what it meant to be an American.
Over the years, most people can point to political and policy disagreements with the original maverick. He was, like his hero Theodore Roosevelt, the “man in the arena,” and just about all of his colleagues and rivals had to climb into that arena to meet him at some point or another.
But only the vicious and dishonest could ever doubt that McCain made his many important decisions with the best interests of his country, as he saw them, at heart. If every public servant shared his patriotic intentions, the country would be a far better place, and it is poorer for having lost one of its finest.
Never has a political slogan so perfectly captured the ethos of the man running: Country First. From the age of 17 to his passing at almost 82, McCain put his country first, and for those decades of faithful service, we, his fellow countrymen, should show our deepest gratitude.
McCain said of himself when he came back from captivity and torture in the Hanoi Hilton, “I wasn’t my own man anymore, I was my country’s.” Your country thanks and honors you, Senator McCain, and it will miss you.