Of all of John McCain’s admirable qualities, his commitment to public service, in the military and in Congress, is most remarkable — more than 60 of his 81 years devoted to his country. Such an obvious thing would go without saying at most any other time. But McCain’s death and the flood of reflections on his remarkable life come at a time when the notion of public service — that is, selfless toil in the furtherance of good government and a greater good — has been defiled and devalued.
It is not just that President Donald J. Trump constantly condemns and ridicules the law enforcement agents who are investigating him, his family and associates. It is not only his dismissal of U.S. intelligence agencies who found Russian interference in the 2016 election. It goes beyond that, to the rollbacks in regulation that were put in place for the public welfare — for clean air and water, for worker health and safety — to his attacks on the first real effort to provide health insurance to millions of Americans who had gone without it.
I understand and appreciate fiscal responsibility and the idea of holding government in check. I acknowledge that Republicans in the John McCain mold were motivated to bring an informed pragmatism to governance, to keep a hand on liberal efforts to expand government’s reach. But, somewhere along the line — it really started in earnest with the presidency of Ronald Reagan — the government became something to mock. Serving in government in almost any capacity — as teachers, scientists or as regulators — became associated with incompetence or opposition to prosperity.
“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help,” Reagan famously said, mocking the millions of civil servants, from Washington to our state capitals and small towns, who worked in the public interest.
That was 20 years and a million miles from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural admonition: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Exempt from this Reaganesque ridicule was anyone who served in the military. Americans are expected to honor the sacrifice of those in the armed forces because they put their lives on the line in defense of the nation. No politician, except Trump, would dare mock that. ("He's not a war hero,” he said of McCain in 2016. “He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured”)
Also, the military draft ended during the Vietnam War — and probably because of it — and, ever since, those who volunteered for the military have relieved millions of Americans of that duty.
So, between the end of the draft and the constant drumbeat of derision about government, public service became something for somebody else. Certainly, schools and universities have tried to fill in the gap. And the government still supports some public service programs.
But, now that public service has hit rock-bottom in the Trump era, it is time again for Americans to hear a call to it. Anyone who examines John McCain’s life today will see not only a war hero but a veteran who believed his service to the country had not ended with his release from the Hanoi Hilton.
During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I became absorbed in discussions about military service, volunteerism and selflessness, the long-gone draft, and the divide between those who serve and those who don’t.
I advocated closing that divide with two years of national public service — civic, military or foreign — for every American once he or she reaches the age of 18, with deferment optional until the age of 21, when service becomes mandatory. We could name the program for John McCain.
For a few years in their lives, young men and women would serve a greater good and take a lesson from this experience into the rest of their lives, and we would support their continued education or vocational training. From this, the military would get what it needs. More importantly, the nation would get an engaged, vigilant citizenry, and something else we could really use: A new generation of leaders who are competent, compassionate and smart, who believe in the value of good government, and who care as much about the future of this democracy as John McCain did.