Halfway through the comedy City Slickers, Curly – the irascible, tougher-than-leather cowboy played by tough guy Jack Palance – unexpectedly dies on the trail. At his burial, the cook offers this short admonition to the Almighty:
“Lord, we give you Curly. Try not to piss him off.”
Given Senator John McCain’s somewhat regular bouts of anger, the Almighty would be wise to heed those words, again.
However, while McCain, who recently succumbed to brain cancer, was remembered for his occasional volatile language, he was also celebrated for an extraordinary, unremitting career of service and sacrifice to the country he loved.
Listening to McCain’s speeches and reading his books, I feel I have come to know him as a statesman who worked tirelessly to put the country before party agenda. In fact, his 2008 campaign slogan was “Country First.”
It was said that McCain’s favorite author was Hemingway, his favorite book, For Whom the Bell Tolls. And he could not have picked a more vigorous role model than the pragmatic American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, Robert Jordan – a character whose inner monologues are somewhat analogous to McCain in that both men were always questioning, looking for a better answer, a more just solution.
McCain’s final words – to all Americans – speak loudly about the character of a man who worked hard to live up to those words. It’s also his final spark of hope for these troubling times.
“My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for 60 years, and especially my fellow Arizonians, thank you for the privilege of serving you, and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead.
“I’ve tried to serve our country honorably. I’ve made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them. I’ve often observed that I am the luckiest person on Earth. I feel that way even now, as I prepare for the end of my life. I’ve loved my life, all of it. I’ve had experiences, adventures, friendships, enough for 10 satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life in good or bad times for the best day of anybody else’s.
“I owe this satisfaction to the love of my family. One man has never had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine. And I owe it to America 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.
“Fellow Americans, that association has meant more to me than any other. 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.
“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the 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.
“We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before, we always do.
“Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening. I feel it powerfully still.
“Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history. We make history. Farewell fellow Americans, God bless you, and God bless America.”
In a 1993 commencement address McCain delivered to the graduates of Annapolis Naval Academy, McCain concisely summarized the meaning and urgency of responsibility:
“My time is slipping by. Yours is fast approaching. You will know where your duty lies. You will know.”
Integrity, Responsibility, Respect, Compassion, Courage and yes, Humor, too. Those were the values of John McCain. Those were the values he revisited in his final year in the Senate as the last man standing tall against dysfunction and hyperpartisanship in Congress, rightly deserving of the title, the conscience of the Senate.
Who will stand in his place?