John McCain still has something to say, even if a White House press aide doesn’t think a dying man’s thoughts matter. “I don’t remember another time in my life when so many Americans considered someone’s partisan affiliation a test of whether that person is entitled to respect,” the Arizona senator writes in a new book. He fears we have lost our way. “Principled compromises that move the country forward,” he says, are essential to a functioning democracy. Most unauthorized immigrants “are decent people working hard to make better lives,” not the rapists or drug dealers depicted by demagogues. Torture, which he personally endured as a POW, is a moral abomination that always debases both the tortured and the torturer. Our nation is diminished by “a half-baked, spurious nationalism” that has traded true global leadership for self-interest and isolation. America’s “devotion to human rights is our truest heritage,” he reminds us. “We are a country with a conscience.”
In his 35 years in politics, McCain, 81, was no saint; he could be petty and vindictive, and sometimes parked his principles to win elections. But I always sensed he looked hard at the man in the mirror and judged himself for his failings. Honor matters to this old-school politician and patriot, and for that alone he deserves respect. Now McCain is showing us how to die. A good death is a rare and invaluable gift, especially in our medicalized culture. McCain recently left the hospital where he was being treated for brain cancer and went home to his ranch, where he is saying goodbye to his family and a steady procession of friends from both parties; in quiet moments, he finds peace in watching the hawks and hummingbirds and listening to a burbling stream and the wind in the trees. (See Talking Points.) John McCain is flawed, like all of us. But he has led a life of meaning, service, and decency. We should all be so fortunate to live and die with such dignity and courage.