Not for self, but country: The heroic life of John Sidney McCain III

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Senator John McCain addresses the Brigade of Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. 

Editor’s note: John McCain died Aug. 25 at the age of 81 after his battle with brain cancer.

(Joshua McKerrow)

Inscribed over the chapel doors of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis where John Paul Jones is interred is a phrase in Latin: “Non sibi sed patriae.” It translates to “not for self, but country.” Those are big words. They can often be found chiseled into older war memorials around the world. In the 21st century, they might seem old-fashioned, difficult to take seriously, or at least more suited for an age when patriotism wasn’t cynically used as a political weapon by those who have sacrificed nothing for country and for whom self-interest is paramount. Yet those words suited John Sidney McCain III perfectly.

Senator McCain died Saturday from brain cancer. He will be remembered for many things — his failed presidential bids, his five and a half years in the “Hanoi Hilton” as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, his three and a half decades in Congress and, of course, his “straight talk” style that caused him to be seen as a political maverick who spoke his mind. He was a booster of the military, an opponent of torture, a reformer of government. He was by any measure a political conservative whose policy views would be antithetical to most Marylanders. His lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union was a hefty 80.91 on a scale that pegs both Maryland’s senators at less than 4.3.


But what he will be remembered for most — what he should be lauded for as loudly and as forcefully as possible — was his love of country, his sense of duty and, above all else, his honor. John McCain was an honorable man. There simply isn’t any other word more suited for the 81-year-old warrior. That’s not to suggest he was perfect. He was also human. Robert R. Timberg, The Baltimore Sun reporter and editor and McCain biographer who died two years ago, wrote in great detail about his lackluster performance in school, his rebellious nature, his disrespect for rules. And in more recent years, the senator expressed regret over some of his choices, including selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate a decade ago. His career was filled with significant policy flip-flops.

Yet the moment that defines the 1958 U.S. Naval Academy graduate to many Americans was the time during a rally for his 2008 presidential bid when a supporter in Minnesota stood up to question Barack Obama’s faith and background, accusing the Democratic nominee of being untrustworthy and an Arab. But before she could finish her rant, Senator McCain had taken the mike to deny the false “birther” conspiracy theories that had gained traction that year. “No, ma’m,” he explained. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that just, I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].” The Republican candidate was behind in the polls. It would have been easy for him to say something non-committal in response. Or worse, suggest it may be true and requires further investigation. He would have none of it. He would not go down the path of racial division.


Ideally, we would offer these words of tribute without mentioning the name of the current president who is, by many measures, John McCain’s polar opposite. President Donald Trump has been a key figure in stoking the birther movement for personal gain. Had he been in Senator McCain’s shoes, we all know what he would have said. A man who repudiates John McCain by announcing “I like people who weren’t captured,” as Mr. Trump did in 2015, and then never expresses remorse about such an attack on American POW’s is not an honorable man. Yes, Senator McCain has been a critic of the president, and he was the swing vote on his party’s high-profile effort to overturn Obamacare outright, but he never stooped so low.

In many ways, Senator McCain was a man out of his time, having more in common with his ancestors and their the U.S. Navy careers and the ideals espoused at the Naval Academy then in the milieu of modern politics, of pollsters and focus groups, of dog-whistle racism, of fretting more over the pre-game posture of NFL football players or vilifying Mexican immigrants than the needs of the working poor. How fitting that his final resting place will be on the grounds of the academy where a life of service to country, not to profit or fame or TV ratings, is viewed as the highest achievement of all. John McCain, the nation salutes you. We fear we may not see your like again.