What a life. What a legacy. Sen. John S. McCain was irascible and unruly, a man who aspired to greatness long after he’d already achieved it. Mr. McCain, who died Saturday just short of his 82nd birthday, will go down in American history as a hero and inspiration for his devotion to public service and self-sacrifice.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Mr. McCain’s impressive life is the outpouring of praise from across the political spectrum and from leaders around the world, including Vietnam.
Mr. McCain conducted himself with grace and courage under some of the most arduous circumstances of captivity that any American service member has ever survived. A Navy aviator, his plane was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, resulting in severe injuries that would leave him with lifelong disabilities.
His Vietnamese captors tortured him throughout his more than five years in captivity. His fellow American prisoners of war recalled overhearing his torture sessions, when he shouted defiantly and repeatedly refused to betray his country. The status of his four-star admiral father could have won Mr. McCain early release, but he refused.
Despite Vietnam’s good reasons to harbor resentment, tributes are pouring forth. Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh wrote in a U.S. Embassy condolence book praising Mr. McCain for taking “the lead in significantly healing the wounds of war” and normalizing U.S.-Vietnamese relations.
“At that time, I liked him personally for his toughness and strong stance,” former Col. Tran Trong Duyet, Mr. McCain’s jailor, told Vietnam News.
Terry A. Anderson, a Vietnam veteran and former Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut, drew particular inspiration from Mr. McCain’s conduct in captivity.
“He showed his true character not in the Senate, but in a Vietnamese prison camp, where he was tortured beyond bearing …,” Anderson wrote on Facebook. “This was a man of great courage, a level of bravery most of us can only hope we would achieve if, God forbid, we faced his test.” Anderson should know, having himself spent more than six years as a hostage in Lebanon.
Mr. McCain was known for his hot temper but also for his keen sense of right and wrong, even when it meant defying his Republican Party. Obamacare survives today because Mr. McCain used his single vote to block a GOP bid to kill it. He championed comprehensive immigration reform.
He also acknowledged making some enormous mistakes. His choice of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his presidential running mate in 2008 often is credited with unleashing the populist wave that led to the election of his nemesis, President Donald Trump.
Most of Mr. McCain’s foes, including the Vietnamese, have found ways to forgive and forget. But Trump, who once mocked Mr. McCain’s POW experience, apparently cannot. He restored the flag to full staff over the White House on Monday, later re-lowering it to half-staff amid heavy criticism. He also reportedly withheld a statement honoring America’s fallen hero. For some, greatness is merely a campaign slogan. John McCain lived it.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.