Last of the Cold War Warriors

Senator John McCain, 1936-2018. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Even the tempests of Caliban’s island must pause at the passing of John McCain.

Writing about the three great Liberators of the Americas—Bolívar from Venezuela, San Martín from Río de La Plata, Hidalgo from México—José Martí once taught us:

Men cannot be more perfect than the sun. The sun burns with the same light with which it heats. The sun has spots. Ingrates talk only about its spots; grateful ones talk about the light.[1]

As a resident of Arizona, I have had occasion to witness John McCain’s services to his constituency with punctilious efficiency and graciousness. The tag of “maverick”—an unfortunate banality that often diminished the complexity of the man—has led commentators in the last few days to praise his memory as follows: “I disagreed with him on many issues, but …,” usually followed by a lengthy encomium. I will add my voice to this chorus of praise and condemnation. I will write, reducing “a person’s entire life to two or three scenes,” not only about my disagreements with John McCain, but also about the good that should not be interred with his bones.[2]

Seen from the perspective of an ordinary citizen, McCain could be arrogant, ornery and prideful. His service to his country and his adoration for America was vast as well as reductive—the service he mostly admired was government and military service, and one never quite knew who and what belonged in the America he loved so much. Early in his career he voted against the establishment of the Martin Luther King holiday (he later changed his position), and no one in Arizona can forget the sad pilgrimage of his 2016 senatorial campaign, in which he staved off a political assault from the right by his slogan: “Complete the danged fence!”

McCain never outgrew the Cold War. His geopolitical framework dated back to the last century, and he possessed an unwavering faith in the effectiveness of military action as a solution to the world’s problems. His support for the long, infamous Iraq War has proved a dreadful (unrepentant) mistake, and his call to “bomb, bomb, Iran” during his presidential campaign was—at best—a dangerous, egregious stunt. Never joke about the rope in the hanged man’s house.

McCain’s grievous decision to insert Sarah Palin in our presidential politics resulted, in my estimation, in the present unfortunate moment with Donald Trump.

And yet there are several moments in John McCain’s career that stand for me as the warmth of the sun on a cold day, or as the light of dawn after a gloomy night wrestling with demons and darkness:

  1. His service in Vietnam, and his five years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton, will remain a shining legend of courage and principle—undefiled by shame—for as long as the United States exists.
  2. His astonishing eloquence, during the 2008 presidential campaign, while Sarah Palin was riling up vociferous crowds, when he silenced a partisan at one of his rallies who claimed Barack Obama was an “Arab.” The incident may have cost McCain the election.
  3. Suffering from the cancer that would take his life, he advanced to the Senate floor, and in opposition to his own party, killed the attempt—with a gesture reminiscent of a Roman Consul—to destroy the health care program fashioned for all Americans by the man who defeated him for the presidency.
  4. Lastly, and most gloriously. When John McCain approaches the gates of Heaven, his passport to eternity will be this: his indefatigable, unwavering opposition to the torture of enemy combatants.

In Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileo, Brecht’s scientist is recriminated by his disciples for having recanted his theories before the Inquisition. “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero,” says the assistant Andrea to his master Galileo. In these days and days to follow, we will celebrate the heroic acts with which John McCain showered his country and his people, and we shall mourn his passing.

It would do us well to remember Galileo’s reply to his disciple: “No, Andrea: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’”



The [United States] Naval Academy — Side View, a wood engraving after a drawing by W. R. Miller (Miller, William Rickarby, 1818-1893), published in Illustrated News, New York, New York, in 1858. This shows the U.S. Naval Academy at Fort Severn in Annapolis, Maryland. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

[1] José Martí, “Tres héroes” in La edad de oro (1889; México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995), 33. Translated by Oscar Giner.

[2] Jorge Luis Borges, A Universal History of Iniquity (1935; New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 1935.

One comment

  1. Thank you , Oscar, for this eloquent response to the passing of John McCain. To employ the language of Jose Martí in this essay, made my day.
    Donald Hall, the former poet laureate of the United States wrote, “Contradiction is the cellular structure of life.” McCain was a paragon of this
    observation and made him beloved and disliked by equal measure.


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