WASHINGTON — I wept for the senator who showed me, as a rookie reporter, that I might be worth talking to in the marble halls by the Senate floor. The noble gadfly is gone, days short of 82. He'll have full-dress honors, lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. The National Cathedral will be full as the bell tolls.
John Sidney McCain III was right out of that Hemingway novel, his favorite: "For Whom the Bell Tolls." He was an American original. So was another larger-than-life senator, a Democratic lion who died on the same date in 2009 of the same cruel disease: Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
Lightly smiling, McCain tapped in Morse code on the elegant lunch table, to show how he communicated with other prisoners of war in the Hanoi Hilton. I couldn't get over his cheer. I understand now: sweet freedom.
I'm not the only one grieving for the staunch Republican who died Aug. 25 at his home near Sedona, Arizona, of brain cancer.
Journalists relished his wit and zest. The senator called the Fourth Estate his base, exuberance mixed with candor. Believe me, we appreciate him even more now, after the "war" President Trump waged on press freedom since his first day in office.
McCain actually enjoyed our company, with his contrarian streak. His eyes danced as he spoke of one Senate stickler for tradition: "We're so close!" He nursed loves and hates; there wasn't much in between.
Yet I remember, he said to a departing Democrat, "Let's let bygones be bygones."
His last speech on the Senate floor was gallant, given to a full, hushed house. I remember him saying it was an honor to serve with each and every one. Aaron Burr gave an eloquent farewell that made men cry; McCain's will also make the books.
The morning sky seems starker. The August full moon looks reddish, like a late summer elegy. August, die she must, as the folk song goes. The sky reveals flags flying at half-mast, and one that goes grudgingly up and down.
The man inside the White House hates how much this city — and country — loves McCain, the man who saved Obamacare, the signature legacy of the man who defeated him for president. That moment took amazing grace.
Trump's anger at the "activity" honoring McCain may be an inflection point for his haphazard presidency. His legal troubles are rising like a flood, but his sullen refusal to pay respects to a late rival shows him in all his smallness. Is he just a wretch, like the voice in "Amazing Grace"? You tell me.
McCain reached "across the aisle" to a younger Democratic senator, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, to co-author a campaign finance reform law. He was merry about it in an early phone interview, praising Feingold, with whom he went out on the road to pitch the bipartisan bill.
More recently, he took a stand against torture — practiced by the George W. Bush administration — because he had been there, borne the nightmare.
When McCain was wrong, he could be way wrong, as in his nonsensical pick of Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor. And he never met a war he didn't like.
Senator Kennedy, his friend, was a great lawmaker for the ages. Consistently a liberal champion, he sailed straight into the wind, without the zigs and zags of McCain. Kennedy voted against the Iraq War. They saw eye to eye on immigration.
You could hear them a country mile from the floor, especially Kennedy. Republicans feared his roar.
Both McCain and Kennedy had catching joie de vivre. If they entered a room, something was going to happen. Kennedy once climbed the Matterhorn.
Born in the 1930s, each felt destined to be president. They were raised to serve the nation from a young age.
They were American elites, raised on privilege and power. McCain was the son and grandson of admirals. Kennedy was born to the breed. One brother was president. His grandfather was mayor of Boston.
Trump represents a rapacious real estate family empire. He sees government as an extension of himself.
Nine Augusts ago, I wept for Kennedy, too.
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Image courtesy of Marc Muller