Today marks the first anniversary of the passing of John McCain.
By the virtue of going to college in Arizona, I met Senator McCain several times. When I told him that I grew up in Iran, he took my hand, held it, looked into my eyes, and told me that, one day, there will be a statue in Tehran of Neda Aghasoltan, the woman whose footage of being shot in the throat during the Green Movement shook the world. There were no cameras. There was nobody else around. It was not a stunt for a campaign video. It was just the old man seeing a political dissident and trying to give me the courage to keep fighting.
He often sought to meet with political dissidents, just so he could give us courage and ask how he could help. And also because he had a soft spot for the underdogs fighting against tyrants. When Russia invaded Georgia while he was running for president, McCain declared, “Today, we’re all Georgians!” This wasn’t a campaign stunt either, even though he was in the middle of a campaign. He would have stood with the Georgians no matter what he’d been doing at the time.
Following the breakout of the Syrian Civil War, while Republicans were scoring partisan points against Obama administration’s idleness, McCain sneaked into Syria to talk to the rebels and ask how he could help. A true believer in the cause of liberty, he was one of the last Republicans in the tradition of Reagan, or really the tradition of Diodotus, who still believed that justice and interest were compatible.
He also was a champion for respect. I remember seeing him at a defense conference once, before I’d gotten to meet him. He was on a panel with a dovish Democratic congressman as his foil. I was an idiot college kid and during the Q&A session, I asked a question and took a cheap shot at the Democrat, thinking it might please my hero, John McCain. The crowd cheered me. But McCain scolded me and defended his colleague. To this day, that remains one of the most humbling—and important—experiences of my life. I will forever be indebted to him for it. In that one moment, he made me a better man and taught me how to be a better American.
John McCain was never interested in appeasing the crowd. I saw him speaking at a town hall where he was taking questions about the threat of the Islamic State. One woman attacked Islam, in general, and McCain gave her a talking to.
But while he wasn’t an appeaser, he certainly was a pleaser. He loved making self-deprecating jokes. At a private reception for his reelection, he took a shot at the Congress’s approval ratings: “I used to say that only paid staffers and family members approve of the job we are doing. Right before I came here, my mom called me. My friends, we’re down to paid staffers.” One attendee responded that he thought that Congress was actually doing a pretty fair job, McCain responded, “Sir, please don’t drive back home. You are a danger to yourself and others.”
While he didn’t take himself too seriously, he was deadly serious about the responsibilities of the office he held and the place that America occupies in the world. He saw America as the shining city on a hill and spoke proudly of the immigrant coalitions who supported his campaigns (he was especially proud of winning the support of Vietnamese-Americans).
As Thomas Paine said, the cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all mankind. John McCain lived and led his life to serve America, and so in service to all of mankind.
We could use a few John McCains today who take themselves less, and their jobs more, seriously.