(Cover of one of John McCain’s books)
Tributes are pouring in as the nation mourns the death of Senator John McCain from brain cancer. Senator McCain was a true American hero, a Vietnam veteran who suffered gravely during his captivity for five years in Hanoi, a member of Congress in both the House and Senate for nearly forty years, a two-time presidential candidate. His resume of achievements and positions is well known and will be recounted often in the days to come as citizens gather to salute his great life in his home state of Arizona, in Washington where he served for so long, and at the Naval Academy in Annapolis where he will be laid to rest.
But as I listened to all the tributes today, I found myself pondering this question: why does John McCain matter to Trinity? What lessons can the students, faculty and staff of Trinity learn from this life that, in many ways, may seem so unlike our own lives? He was a privileged man in many ways, the son and grandson of admirals, a navy pilot, a celebrity in politics — most of us have little experience with those identities. Some among us may have had occasion to disagree with many of his political positions. But Senator McCain’s story is a great example of the need to look beyond the simple titles on a resume or personal characteristics or political disagreements to see the powerful lessons we can draw from a life so well lived.
Five particular lessons seem important for all of us at Trinity to think about this week as we start a new academic year:
1. Character is Destiny
The title of one of his books of reflections illustrated above, John McCain’s life was a great example of the importance of character, a deep moral centering that leads to sound choices and respect for others in spite of disagreements or the temptation to take the easy route out. Character is a quality sadly lacking in too many politicians today who sacrifice all of their integrity to pander for votes. McCain was someone who was willing to risk his comfort and security for the sake of conscience, to do what was right despite many pressures to choose otherwise. Our Honor Code at Trinity is all about developing character, respect for truth and integrity in all matters.
2. Not Taking the Easy Route to Save Yourself
As the most prominent illustration of his character, John McCain could have had a comfortable life during the Vietnam War. He was the son and grandson of admirals, and probably could have had a safe assignment after graduating from Annapolis. Instead, he volunteered to be a fighter pilot. He was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese and imprisoned in a horrible hellhole known in legend as the “Hanoi Hilton.” When his captors learned of his famous and powerful father, they tried to strike a bargain to release him for concessions. He would have none of that, instead choosing to remain with the other POWs in the most terrible place imaginable. He sacrificed his own comfort, and risked his life, in a heroic act of loyalty to his brother soldiers and his country. While none of us will ever face such circumstances, we all face moments in our lives when we have choices about serving others or just taking for ourselves. These are moral choices, all about character, and our Trinity education tries to help every student learn how to make good and courageous choices.
3. Service to the United States
At a time when the idea of public service seems highly stressed, John McCain’s life is a reminder of the critical importance of having talented, principled people in public office and throughout government. Public service has been a long tradition of Trinity graduates, and we have been so proud of those Trinity alumnae who have held high office in Congress and the Cabinet, elected leaders like Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi ’62 (the first and still only woman to be Speaker of the House!); our very own Distinguished Professor Barbara Kennelly ’58 who was our first Trinity Woman in Congress (9 terms!) and the first woman ever elected to leadership as the Democratic Deputy Whip, paving the way for Leader Pelosi’s later success; two-term Kansas Governor (first woman!) and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius ’70; and so many other elected, appointed and career public officials at the federal, state and local levels. We continue to educate Trinity students who will become the future public officials and leaders of our city, states and nation, and places throughout the global village.
4. Ability to Compromise and Work Across the Aisle
Many commentators today are saying that John McCain’s death ends an era in which Senators and Congressional Representatives knew how to work “across the aisle” to forge compromises and achieve great results for the American people. I surely hope not! But it is certainly true that we are in a political moment in which political parties have drawn hard and fast lines that few members of either party seem able or willing to breach. The result is gridlock in Congress, and subservience to the current administration whose behaviors and policies are offensive to so many citizens who have a right to expect more courageous and honest leadership. Effective leadership — whether in the White House and Congress, or at work, or in a university or even around the family dinner table — is all about compromise, hearing each other out, finding ways to get to “yes” in spite of different preferences and desires. Trinity seeks to teach our students how to be effective leaders with the ability to lead communities to that collective “Yes!” that is essential for peaceful life together.
5. Fearlessly Taking a Stand for Justice
While the art of compromise is essential for great leadership, equally important is the strength of character necessary to stand apart from the crowd and take a fearless stand for justice and equity despite pressure to cave into special interests. John McCain earned the title “maverick” because of his willingness to take stands that separated him from his party — notably his last vote to defeat his party’s bill to kill the Affordable Care Act, but in many other instances as well. Compromise, mentioned above, does not mean giving in, and sometimes taking a stand and letting the chips fall where they may is essential to move forward. Leaders sometimes stand ahead of the pack, and sometimes follow, but always they must be thoughtful about what is the right thing to do — not for personal gain or political favor, but because the choice is right for the people they serve, to achieve justice. This is a leadership lesson that we can learn from Senator McCain’s example.
Do you have other thoughts on Senator McCain? Share them in the comments section below. Thanks!