McCain’s life a lesson in public service

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The funeral of Sen. John McCain in the National Cathedral on Saturday, the third service in three days following memorials in Arizona and then the U.S. Capitol, was an awesome display of American grief and affection for one individual, the massive tributes ranking proudly among the pomp and ceremony usually reserved for presidents and royalty.

Three former presidents and most of the political leaders, past and present, from both parties were among the hundreds of invited guests who filled the gigantic and soaring cathedral. Two of the presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, were among the eulogists Saturday. But over the three services they were joined by equally memorable tributes by other powerful friends and the loving family of the Arizona senator who had died at the age of 81 the week before from brain cancer.

I had largely tuned out the weeklong televised tributes and retrospectives of McCain that filled the airwaves prior to the funerals. I knew the man’s history as a Vietnam war hero who was captured but resisted torture by the North Vietnamese in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” I didn’t need to be reminded of his long political career in Congress and his two runs for the presidency, once as the Republican nominee.

As a political junkie and journalist, I have long followed McCain’s various votes and fights on the issues of the moment. As a Democrat, I didn’t agree with many of them, but I had admired his dogged honesty, his salty spunk in standing up for what he thought was right, his willingness to speak up when others hid behind silence and his fierce refusal to demonize his opponents or put partisanship before his principles.

Right or wrong, McCain on his own was authentic, an old-time politician who actually believed and practiced the values he espoused.

I didn’t watch the funerals live, either. I was busy Saturday. But that night into the early morning, I sat up alone and watched a recording of the whole ceremony. I used YouTube to sample the eulogies from Thursday and Friday as well.

And as I sat there, to my surprise, I cried.

Some tears were because I identified with McCain’s family. My father was a career naval officer who rose to the rank of captain and shared many of McCain’s values and personality. After a 30-year career, he even ran for the U.S. Senate in his home state of Montana, a heady experience but an expensive lesson in how not to run a campaign. I cried for him, 20 years after his death.

I choked down sympathetic sobs as I watched Meghan McCain tearfully present her sharp but oh-so-loving eulogy to her father, barely able to speak at times through her tears. I was touched as I remembered how hard it was for me to stand and eulogize my own father through deep pain that, as Joe Biden told the McCain family, never really goes away but does soften at its edges over time. He promised them their grief would ease for them as well, when their thought of him would bring a smile before it brought the tears.

And I cried while Renee Fleming sang “Danny Boy” because, well, doesn’t everybody cry for “Danny Boy,” at least a little bit?

But most of all, my chest felt full as I listened and pondered why the death of one man would rise to the level of a state funeral shared by a whole nation. And I wondered, then and now, if the answer didn’t come with the repetition of so many words used to describe McCain that our current political climate and leaders don’t use or demonstrate much today — duty, honor, respect, truth, fairness, forgiveness, integrity, faith, love.

“The strength of democracy is renewed by reaffirming the principles on which it was founded,” President Bush said. “And America has somehow always found leaders who were up to that task, particularly at times of greatest need. John was born to meet that kind of challenge, to defend and demonstrate the defining ideals of our nation. If we’re ever tempted to forget who we are, grow weary of our cause, John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder: We are better than this. America is better than this.”

America didn’t just mourn a man last Saturday. Perhaps Americans are also mourning the increasing disregard and disappearance of the national and moral values John McCain defended and represented.

Perhaps, between the tweets, our nation’s future and historic greatness now depends upon our remembering, “We are better than this. America is better than this.”

Ken Ripley is editor and publisher emeritus of The Enterprise, a Wilson Times Co. newspaper.