There’s a saying meant to convey ultimate respect, which is, “They don’t make them like that anymore.” We use this phrase about great people, old cars, favorite pets and even songs. Today we are expressing our esteem for John S. McCain III, the war hero and U.S. Congressional leader who died last Saturday at age 81.
But we ask our question in a different, more urgent way. What if they really didn’t make them like that anymore? What if our country will no longer have battle-tested warriors turned statesmen and leaders like McCain, Grant, Washington, Eisenhower or Kennedy? What if all we can hope for is a lesser version or fake model?
We dread that the passing of Sen. John McCain might also be the passing of the last statesman senator who served his country above his political party or self-interest. The man who ran for the U.S. presidency aboard his “Straight Talk Express,” who reached across the aisle to Democrats to preserve the Affordable Care Act and, who called down our current president as a tyrant who attacks our free press — that man has no apparent heir or replacement.
This is not the loss of one great man; this is a loss for a wayward nation in need of courageous, intelligent and compassionate leadership.
It is true: our America does not make them like John McCain anymore. What has happened? Where have we gone wrong?
Schoolchildren used to be taught the story of George Washington who could not tell a lie after cutting down his father’s cherry tree. Or “Honest Abe” Lincoln, P.T. 109’s young Lt. John F. Kennedy, D-Day’s Eisenhower and Harvard Law Review’s Barack Obama.
If they don’t make them like that anymore, what lessons are today’s school children being told? That it’s OK to call people ugly names and brag about molesting women? That leaders don’t have to be heroic anymore; they just have to win, even if it means cheating? Isn’t that true about too many current members of Congress that McCain tried to set straight?
Look ahead to our possible choices for presidential candidates in 2020. There is a former reality TV personality, a democratic socialist who claims no party affiliation, a Wall Street basher, a mix of underwhelming U.S. Senators, maybe a radio talk show host or a movie actor.
Our nation could be made great again with a straight-talking maverick who doesn’t care who’s across the table from him, just so long as they work together to get things done. Reagan did that, and so did McCain.
It takes a whole nation or society to make great leaders. High ethics, standards of excellence and moral character must be clearly defined and saluted. A nation gets the leadership it deserves, not always the leadership it needs.
Right now, we may be a society that has no sense of public interest or a common good. In the void left by McCain and other past leaders, we only see men and women driven by self-interest, unanchored values and flimsy standards.
John S. McCain fought in a war many Americans opposed. He was known for an explosive temper and a few terrible, mean jokes. He cussed like the Navy man that he was and he barely graduated from his Naval Academy class. (He was fifth from the bottom.)
Yet the tributes upon his death hailed him as an American hero and model statesman. Former president Obama said McCain, his rival in the 2008 election, “fought, marched, and sacrificed to put the greater good above our own. We are all in his debt.”
Indeed. We can repay his debt by renewing our children’s lesson plans about leadership. And we can insist on more straight talk and less lies and name calling from our elected leaders now left eclipsed by McCain’s shadow.