It feels like a lifetime ago that I wrote a song about John McCain, who died on Saturday at the age of 81. The song, which I wrote in 2002 and put on my first album, actually envisions his inevitable death as a way to question whether it would be worth giving up his essential decency to join the ranks of presidents of the United States. Was his soul worth having his tiny portrait included on a thin horizontal poster over an elementary school blackboard?
At the time I wrote the song, his challenge to George W. Bush in the 2000 primary was a distant memory, and the 2008 campaign and its associated storyline had not yet occurred. I was actually thinking, for some reason, about Jimmy Carter, and how he lost his reelection campaign in part because of his distaste for the jugular, and his own essential decency.
Over and over, we’ve seen men willing to sacrifice their dignity to get elected. Even George H.W. Bush, who in some ways is equally beloved, had his lowest moment not when he lost reelection, but when he won by working with Lee Atwater to smear Michael Dukakis with the Willie Horton ads during the 1988 campaign. His son won election twice by using Karl Rove’s base tactics to great effect, even taking a nation to war in the process. And of course, the current occupant of the Oval Office needs no introduction. They will be included on that classroom poster, and Senator McCain will not.
But in John McCain, I saw a man who put his country first, who understood that this nation’s power comes from an ability to listen to each other, to agree to disagree, and to find common ground where possible. He didn’t always live up to that, but he did often enough that he will be remembered as a great American. Not every president will be able to say that.
They can have their libraries. You, senator, will always have this song.