he bus that carried John McCain and his team along the campaign trail when he ran against Barack Obama in 2008 was known as the Straight Talk Express.
There are many ways to pay tribute to the former Arizona senator, but that moniker is perhaps one of the most fitting.
John McCain was, of course, a war hero, a distinguished politician, a loving father and a dear friend to many. He served honorably in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, where he developed a reputation as a principled conservative who was not afraid to depart from party orthodoxy when he felt it necessary.
McCain was a straight talker when he disagreed with his Democratic colleagues, which was a relatively easy role for him to play. But he was also a straight talker when his views were at odds with those of his fellow Republicans, which was a far more difficult and admirable undertaking.
Even at the eleventh hour when his health was deteriorating from a malignant brain tumor, McCain still made a point to appear in person in the Senate to vote against the Republican Party’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
He maintained the fighting spirit that animated him as a young Naval man even in his last moments, and he will be remembered fondly for it.
Like any good politician, McCain always thought of his work as part of a larger project. He was acutely aware that his accomplishments — while undoubtedly significant and laudable — could only be properly understood if they were placed within the context of his broader vision and goals for the country that he loved.
“Liberty, equal justice and respect for the dignity of all people brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures,” he wrote in his final public letter to the American people. “Our identities and sense of worth,” he added, “are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.”
There are many people on the political left (including this author) who strenuously objected to McCain’s brazen and at times hot-tempered approach to politics. While there is surely no problem with being candid and honest, there is a big problem when that “frankness” morphs into vile ad hominem attacks, as it did more than a few times for Senator McCain.
“Like most people, I have regrets,” he acknowledged in his final letter. “I’ve made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.”
McCain did indeed love this country deeply, a trait that his allies and adversaries alike continually saw in him.
In a heartfelt note, former President Barack Obama remarked that he and Senator McCain, “for all our differences … saw this country as a place where anything is possible — and citizenship as our patriotic obligation to ensure it forever remains that way.”
Political scientist David Runciman described this devotion to improving one’s nation beautifully in a recent review of The World as It Is for the London Review of Books, where he observed that Obama was “always looking for ways to make politics something more than it is.”
The same could be said for Senator McCain, who debated fiercely with his opponents but who always knew that such vehement disagreements stemmed not from any kind of hatred or ill will, but rather from an abiding love for his country and for those whom he served.
McCain’s legacy, just like that of any other career politician, is a complex one. But he stands apart from many other politicians for his capacity to admit his shortcomings and explain how he learned from them.
“Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history,” McCain wrote in the closing lines of his letter.
McCain was no quitter. He was a brave man both at home and on the battlefield, serving honorably in devotion to his cherished homeland.
His implicit critique of President Trump in his farewell letter (“We weaken our greatness when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down”) illustrates that the leader of the Straight Talk Express told it like it was all the way to the end.
Though he has now passed away, John McCain’s ideals and boundless optimism will remain in the hearts of many Americans for years to come.