On a hot summer’s day in 2007, presidential candidate John McCain found himself in a bit of pickle: He was stuck at Reagan National airport hoping to catch a flight that would get him to a meet and greet on time.
There he was with a simple overnight bag in hand and a pensive look on his face as I approached him at the airline counter. After a few pleasantries I asked him how things were going and he gave that McCain smile and said “Terrific! Now if I can only make this flight.” He was flying standby.
When I heard of the passing of Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.), I immediately thought back to that moment when the man who would become the Republican nominee for president was waiting in line hoping he’d make it off the airline standby list. There was no staffer or handler to insist the senator got on that plane; no press person or body guy to keep people at a distance. Just John McCain.
For me, that moment embodied his life of service — exemplified by his patience, perseverance and sense of hope. Imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam War for 5 years, a man can become bitter — even angry at himself and his country. But as McCain noted, “In prison, I fell in love with my country. I had loved her before then, but like most young people, my affection was little more than a simple appreciation for the comforts and privileges most Americans enjoyed and took for granted. It wasn’t until I had lost America for a time that I realized how much I loved her. ”
For John McCain, that sense of losing America was frightening; personal, character forming, humbling, even cathartic. It no doubt clarified for the prisoner of war something that would become foundational for the United States Senator — leadership.
Yes, he was flawed (we all are); and true he could get prickly (blame it on the Washington heat), but he genuinely had great hope for us. It was reflected in the big and small things he did every day to make a difference through his leadership.
While the Senator understood governing was hard (or maybe even “complicated”), especially given the highly-charged partisan environment on Capitol Hill and the often times temperamental tweets of the president, he recognized that it was also about the integrity, accountability and values of our leaders. For Sen. McCain, leadership required something extra, something deep from within oneself: sacrifice.
Of his legacy much will be written, but it is the man who will continue to challenge us to remember what we should value most,“The moral values and integrity of our nation, and the long, difficult, fraught history of our efforts to uphold them at home and abroad, are the test of every American generation. Will we act in this world with respect for our founding conviction that all people have equal dignity in the eyes of God and should be accorded the same respect by the laws and governments of men? That is the most important question history ever asks of us.”
From generation to generation, America has learned through the blood of its fallen the price of freedom and the burden of leadership. Sometimes, it is true, we become caught up in things less important and do not remember, nor care to know of the price paid for the freedom to protest, the freedom to vote, or the freedom to live as one nation under God, indivisible with justice for all. But Sen. John McCain never forgot and for that we are grateful.
Well done, good and faithful servant, now rest in peace.
Michael Steele is the former Republican National Committee chairman and former lieutenant governor of Maryland.