When considering the case of John McCain, I have often recalled an old rule from William Hazlitt, a partisan of the radical movements in the age of revolution: “It has always been with me, a test of the sense and candor of anyone belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.”
McCain is as close to a great man as his generation produced. Over the years, however, recognizing that fact has presented as much of a challenge to those within his party as it has to those in the opposite party. If this weren’t so, a man who famously contested McCain’s status as a war hero on the despicable grounds that he was captured in combat would never have become the standard-bearer of the Republican party.
While the center of gravity of today’s Republican party has shifted to the South, McCain never claimed any association more insular than being an American, which stands to reason given that he was born in the Panama Canal Zone into a tradition of military service. His grandfather and father, John Sidney McCain Sr. and Jr., respectively, served with distinction in the United States Navy, one as a naval aviator and the other as a submariner, each rising to the rank of admiral. In his affecting family memoir, Faith of My Fathers, McCain tells of their last meeting aboard a submarine tender, the USS Proteus, in Tokyo Bay a few hours after the Second World War had ended. Decades later, near the end of his life, McCain’s father recalled those precious final moments together: “My father said to me, ‘Son, there is no greater thing than to die for the principles — for the country and the principles that you believe in.’”
Even before this message was passed on to McCain, he had rendered imperishable service on its behalf. On October 26, 1967, McCain was engaged in his 23rd bombing run over North Vietnam. Within seconds of releasing its bombs on Hanoi, McCain’s A-4 aircraft was struck by a surface-to-air missile that brought it spiraling to earth at over 500 miles an hour. After ejecting, McCain plunged into Truc Bach Lake in the heart of the enemy’s capital. Fading in and out of consciousness, he was taken to the infamous prison Hoa Lo, which American POWs had named “the Hanoi Hilton,” where his mangled body would remain under duress for more than five years.