Senator John McCain will be missed for many reasons, but I want to offer a personal reason, which I think we will all come to understand more deeply as time goes on. The Senator was a giant of American politics, first and foremost because he was willing to put aside his own comfort and convenience in order to meet a higher standard of service.
This allowed him to act with the uncommon grace required to invite the two men who beat him in his attempts to win the US Presidency to deliver eulogies at his funeral. John McCain understood that service to a democratic society is a challenge far richer and more transcendent than the question of who wins which argument on which day.
It has been said even his rivals loved him for this.
I knew John McCain as most people did — through his public persona, through his acts of service, through the incomparable history of valor and sacrifice that ensured his words would always carry weight. But I also had the good fortune to meet him, and to share with him the gratitude of tens of thousands of citizen volunteers, who work to make our democracy more human, more thoughtful, and more forthright in solving big problems, like climate change.
Sen. McCain looked me in the eye, thanked me for passing along that spirit of gratitude, and — as if it were a conversation he was always ready to have — said:
I know your group; your volunteers are doing remarkable and necessary work. They do the hardest thing there is in a democracy, which is to sit down with people they disagree with, listen, share, trust, and have serious conversations, where people like each other afterward.
He laughed at this, noting how rare it is in politics, then added “That kind of advocacy keeps us all going. We need that more and more.”
He listened briefly to my story about learning from my grandfather what civics, and public service, can and should be.
Then, Sen. McCain told me about his own motivation, and to keep this in mind, and to share it whenever I thought it would be helpful. He said:
Our democracy depends on the good will of citizens who serve in small ways, every day, so I have always worked to honor the service of all of those people. That is the highest honor, to be in a position to do that. I am not perfect; I’m the first to say so, but there is nothing more important than engaging our civic process with principle and good will. Tell your friends to keep up the good work!
I know I am not alone in saying that Sen. John McCain proved himself even more remarkable in this kind of face to face meeting. He offered his wisdom, his support, his good will, and the authority of his long life of service, and yet somehow, spoke to well-meaning people as friends and equals.
He was generous in moments like this, and I know from people who knew him far better than I that he would stick his neck out for good people in need of help.
He understood the liberating power of solidarity.
As President Obama said of him: “When all was said and done, we were on the same team. We never doubted we were on the same team.”
What we will miss most, I think, is John McCain’s uncommon determination that it be known that if your intentions are genuinely good, if you are working for a better future, if you will sacrifice comfort and convenience to ensure all people have the right to be free people in a free country, then you are part of his team.
We need that more and more.