Fred's Take - McCain's "Causes Greater than Ourselves"



Dear Friend,

History will recall this week’s passing of Senator John McCain, freedom fighter and democracy defender, as either the passing of an era or the rekindling of American purpose.
McCain himself would humorously dismiss much of the lionizing of his life’s contributions in the few days since his passing, culminating in this weekend’s memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral. Yet he would also concede there’s dramatic timing to his death, coinciding as it does with new threats to US global leadership and the principles for which it should stand: democratic rule, protection of individual rights and equal justice before law.
McCain in his last years witnessed new dangers emerge from within Western democracies from self-centered populism, nationalism and protectionism. He saw the perils grow externally from authoritarianism, extremism and terrorism. Most of all, Senator McCain understood that the cancer of US political polarization and self-centered myopia was as hazardous in a larger sense as brain cancer had been to him personally.
At a time when Americans are questioning their global purpose, when the threat of major power conflict has returned, when rapid technological change has introduced new economic uncertainties, and when the future of the post-World War II global system itself is in question, what Senator McCain understood most was the urgent necessity of principled US leadership.
In that spirit, he wrote his own parting message to the American people. Thomas O. Melia compared it to the baseball player Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell before passing from his eponymous disease in 1941, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address of 1863 or, going back even further, Pericles' funeral oration in 430 B.C.E., after the first year of the Peloponnesian War.
Wrote McCain, “I owe it to American to be connected to America’s causes: Liberty, equal justice, and respect for the dignity of all people brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth were not circumscribed but are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.”
The enduring nature of such values, and consistent threats over the centuries to their survival, is captured in Thucydides recounting of Pericles oration, the most famous speech in antiquity which Melia notes had articulated “the ideas of democratic citizenship that distinguished Athens from its neighbors and rivals.”
Pericles notes Athens weaknesses and “present difficulties,” and expresses magnanimity toward those who don’t share Athens’ ideals. “We throw open our city to the world,” he says, “and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality.”
Most inspiring to mere mortals in the McCain story is the authenticity of this great man of considerable flaws and failures, of legendary humor but also frequent temper.
He showed remarkable courage as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, where he refused to abandon his fellow POWs. He also stood behind President George W. Bush’s decision to surge troops in the Iraq War and then his presidential campaign imploded in the summer of 2007 due to conservative reaction toward his support for immigration reform.
At the same time, political courage escaped him when he failed to stand with those who called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina state capitol or during his 2008 presidential race when he selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his political running mate. He chose political expediency over his preference to run alongside his friend Senator Joe Lieberman, Democratic turned Independent, who he knew was better equipped for the Vice President’s office.
Common cause often brought us together, both when I worked at the Wall Street Journal and then later at the Atlantic Council. We shared a passion for NATO’s enduring purpose and its enlargement to embrace and provide security to new European democracies, and we shared a suspicion over Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s revanchist intentions and underlying ambitions.
When the Atlantic Council honored Senator McCain in 2011 with its Freedom Award in Poland, following a moving introduction by Estonian President Toomas Ilves, McCain said:
“There is always the temptation to see in the dreams of others for democracy all of the particular reasons why their struggles are different from ours…But if I leave you with one thought tonight, my friends, let it be this: It is our obligation, as free peoples, to look beyond these divisions. To disregard all the arguments that counsel passivity in the fight for human dignity, and to reaffirm that core idea united us all, and: solidarity with the universal longings of the human soul, for basic rights and equality, for liberty under the law, for tolerance and opportunity.”
Of the many voices saluting McCain this week, the Atlantic Council’s own John Raidt – who knew the Senator for 36 years and staffed him for 16 – best articulated McCain’s “rules for living” in a must-read reflection published by Politico Magazine.
Among them: duty first, respect the democratic process, protect the minority, engage the opposition, take risks, clean up the role of money in politics, honor the office, curate freedom’s comparative advantage, recognize that America’s economic and military power are products of its values and ideals, lead from the front, gain peace through strength, show candor with allies and adversaries, modernize strategies and alliances and know your history.
It’s a long list of “rules,” but the power of Senator McCain’s life grew out of the consistency by which he lived by them.
Raidt closes his piece by honing in on the McCain attribute that the Senator so often demonstrated, including in his final words, and that was gratitude “for the people, experiences and causes that have filled his meaningful life.” 
McCain would be the first to say on this memorial weekend that the best way to signal gratitude for his own contributions would be not to view his passing as the end of an era but rather as a time for American renewal around the passion and purpose for the ideal to which he devoted his life.  
For that reason, Inflection Points this week devotes all its space to Senator McCain and his life’s meaning.

Onward and upward,

As always, I welcome your feedback. Your Feedback




John McCain's Final Letter to America

John McCain Speaks to the Ages

If you read nothing else this weekend on McCain’s life and passing, do the Senator the honor of reading his own, carefully chosen words. Aside from those in my reflections above, this is my favorite paragraph: “I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history, and we have acquired great wealth and power in the progress.”
Many read the next paragraph as a slam against Trump. However, McCain would have argued against such a narrow interpretation. “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down; when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.” Read More → 


The Death of Political Courage
Richard Fontaine / THE ATLANTIC

The Passing of John McCain also marks the Passing of an Era

Long-time McCain staffer Richard Fontaine offers up one of the most personal and endearing reflections of the week. He takes us on the road with Senator McCain from a vodka-soaked bit of senatorial revelry in Estonia with Senator Hillary Clinton to a dip in a thermal Blue Lagoon in Iceland, where he convened a steamy press conference.

When confronted with bad news, he would deploy his wicked sense of humor with staff. Never forget “the immortal words of Chairman Mao that it’s always darkest before it’s completely black,” he would wink, knowing the Chinese leader never said any such thing. Read More → 


John McCain and the Meaning of Courage

Lieutenant General HR McMaster, former National Security Advisor to President Trump, challenges Senator McCain’s friends to translate this week’s salute of his many attributes – courage, empathy, pride and determination – “into actions that secure his legacy.”
Writes McMaster, “Will we find the courage to confront those who perpetuate ignorance and foment hatred and deploy it to justify violence against the innocent? Will we exhibit the empathy necessary to understand each other, build partnerships and, when we disagree, do so respectfully? Will Americans rekindle pride in who they are, one nation committed to the principles of liberty, individual rights and rule of law? Will the United States possess the determination not only to defend its way of life but also to strengthen its democratic institutions and promote freedom and prosperity at home and abroad?” Read More → 



Sen. John McCain: Saluting a Champion of Freedom

Transcript: Second Bronislaw Geremek Lecture

Senator McCain, even when being honored himself for his contributions to Freedom, shifted the attention both to the Atlantic Council and, most of all, to the Polish people, for their good works.

“Over the past few years,” he said, “the Atlantic Council has transformed itself into one of the leading voices on Euro-Atlantic and global policy issues, and I am the constant beneficiary of its wisdom.”
On Poland, he said the country “embodies the very idea that animates our broader transatlantic community – the idea that Euro-Atlantic democracies, the stewards of Enlightenment principles, need not and should not tackle our challenges in isolation, the idea, in short, that our individual struggles for liberty are really a shared endeavor, imbued with greater meaning.” Read More → 


John McCain's Rules for Living

The Atlantic Council’s John Raidt provides this week’s must-read, a long-form narrative in Politico Magazine that powerfully draws McCain’s “rules for living.”
“McCain rejoiced in policy scrums that were opinionated, candid and tough – seeing them as the spirited exercise of democracy,” writes Raidt. “But he aspired for the political process to be fundamentally fair and worthy, understanding that democracy is a process, not a war.”
Raidt considered McCain’s “most profound legacy” to be one of character. “Maybe over the years, in the heat of battle, he crossed the rhetorical line a time or two, but he never lost the boxer’s disdain for the low blow.” 
Raidt quotes his message to NATO from last February, read by his wife Cindy, while being honored by the Munich Security Conference. 
“I am counting on you to keep the faith, and never give up – though the true radiance of our world may at times seem obscured, though we will suffer adversity and setbacks and misfortune – never, ever stop fighting for all that is good, and just, and decent about our world, and each other.”
Raidt closes as will this special edition of Inflection Points: “So, to a great man who tried to do something. Thank you.” Read More → 

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