FEATURED:

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: One legacy of Franklin and McCain is up to us

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: One legacy of Franklin and McCain is up to us
© Getty Images

Standing at attention, we waited solemnly on the Naval Academy Chapel steps for the casket bearing the remains of Senator John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLive coverage: McSally clashes with Sinema in Arizona Senate debate Is there difference between good and bad online election targeting? Murkowski not worried about a Palin challenge MORE to emerge. I gazed out over the waiting horse-drawn caisson and across the Academy grounds toward the Severn River and its tranquil banks where the Senator would be laid to rest. As I did, the terrible sadness was accompanied by many warm thoughts and remembrances of him. They passed randomly through my mind, only to be interrupted by a recurring thought that had troubled me over the previous three days.

John, I knew, would have been more than touched by the outpouring of affection at his passing; but, in one aspect, I believe that he would have been intensely disappointed. The idea that his passing and memorial would have, in any way, distracted the nation’s full attention from Aretha Franklin and her remarkable contribution to the country’s culture would have upset him greatly. He would have been particularly saddened that their respective services were pointed to as a reflection of national racial divide. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Reflecting on this, my focus snapped back to the proceedings as the strains of the final hymn echoed from the chapel and faded to silence. Then came the call to attention and salute, and the Senator’s flag-draped remains were borne down the steps in slow cadence by the Navy honor guard to the caisson upon which the casket was affixed with enormous care and precision. After various observances in the military tradition, the caisson began its solemn trek. Along with the other pallbearers I filed in behind for a final journey to the riverside.

Occasionally during the procession, I couldn’t help stealing a glance at the Midshipmen standing in formation on both sides of the lane along the route; servicemembers, male and female, of every race, color, creed, and ethnicity standing at attention dressed in their perfectly starched Class A uniforms – each saluting slowly in turn as the hero passed. Every one of them had voluntarily sacrificed precious weekend leave to perform the solemn duty. I thought about how much John would have admired that; not because what it said about him but what it said about them.

In the eyes of each Midshipmen I saw so many virtues; above all, however, I saw pure, unadulterated respect – for country, service, and honor. Trying to fight back the lump in my throat, my mind wandered back to Aretha Franklin. Her signature song played in my mind. It was then that the link between the two icons revealed itself.

The full meaning wasn’t clear until the interment ceremony at the gravesite and its aftermath. The readings and other proceedings were followed by a nineteen-gun salute and three rifle volleys that echoed across the river. These honors were followed by the flyover of Navy jets in the missing man formation in which a single jet breaks ranks and soars straight up to the sky and out of sight. 

After the quiet was restored, the stillness took hold again, and was eventually joined by the mournful, soulful rendering of Taps. I thought about the contrast between the two services – one energetic, raucous, and joyous; the other solemn and staid. Different, yes, beautifully and gloriously so. But, Aretha’s song and John’s Taps, it turns out, were on the very same sheet of music. Perhaps their passing so close to one another wasn’t just coincidence but providential. They shared a clear message about a simple fading virtue the ennobles and unites us – respect. 

Their lives and their passing brought into terrible focus that respect, r-e-s-p-e-c-t, is the missing man in our national life, and how destructive its absence is. 

Respect for one another socially, politically, and economically.

Respect for diversity and difference of opinion.

Respect for facts and fairness, and truth.

Respect for the co-dependence of rights and responsibilities.

Respect for the quality of public discourse, particularly in the digital commons.

Respect for the dignity and responsibilities of public office.

Respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Respect for the necessity of principled compromise.

Respect for ourselves and our nation, and its unique role in the world.

We are losing them — each of them and more. I think that among the reasons why the passing of John McCain and Aretha Franklin were such impactful national events is that the country knows this. It hungers for the simple virtues – above all the ennobling, beautiful, humane virtue of respect and being respectable. Franklin and McCain knew all about that.

Both American icons leave historic legacies. Among their greatest would be if their passing helps rekindle in our nation the indispensable quality of respect. That, of course, is totally up to us.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! 

John Raidt is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as legislative director for Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) and chief of staff to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.