Tom Daschle: McCain was a model to be emulated, not criticized

In recent days, senators from both sides of the aisle have offered comments to restate their admiration and high regard for a true American statesman, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainIf you don't think illegal immigrants are voting for president, think again 10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era Earth Day founder's daughter: Most Republican leaders believe in climate change in private MORE. And while our redundant praise is in response to yet more criticism of him from the president of the United States, the repetition actually may be just the antidote to the toxic political environment and repugnant discourse that regularly emanates from Washington and elsewhere today.

In January, the Gallup organization conducted a poll to determine the level of trust that Americans have in the federal government. Well over half of those who responded indicated that they now had little or no trust in government to address either domestic or international affairs.

This sad realization begs the question: How do we turn this troubling sentiment around? How do we restore trust and greater confidence in government?

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Perhaps part of the answer to that question can be answered simply: John McCain.

Almost seven months after his death, John retains an unusual ability to influence his former colleagues while inspiring them — and us — to reach higher ground. It has been gratifying to see senators on both sides of the aisle come to his defense by recalling his extraordinary qualities.

At a time when political inspiration may be hard to come by, one need go no further than the life and times of John McCain. Who could possibly not be inspired by the horrific details of his time as a prisoner of war and his insistence that he not be released before all of his fellow prisoners were given the same opportunity?

At a time when political courage seems in short supply, whether one agrees with him or not, we are hard-pressed to find another political leader more willing to take on the hard issues — issues like torture, campaign finance reform, health care or immigration — even when it required being at odds with his own party.

At a time when bipartisanship and civility appear to have reached an all-time low, do we need to go any further than John McCain’s defense of his opponent in a presidential campaign in front of his own ardent supporters, and with scores of cameras recording every word? 

At a time when interest in public service is waning, John McCain’s 60 years of service to his country as a military officer, a prisoner of war, a congressman, a senator and a presidential candidate may be the highest standard of patriotism and commitment to country.

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During his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination for president in 2008, he may have captured the essence of what it means to devote oneself to this country.

“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s,” he said. “I loved it for its decency, for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.”

How badly we need others to personify that sentiment now.

So perhaps being reminded, as we have been again in recent days, of John McCain’s example, of the standard he set for the rest of us and of the way we ought to conduct our lives, politically and personally, is a good thing.

Archibald MacLeish, the famous poet and once Librarian of Congress, wrote a poem in 1941, having witnessed the burial of a soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. It is titled, “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak.” It is a haunting poem, and it is as relevant today as it was when it was written. 

Three lines in particular seem especially pertinent:

“They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours, they will mean what you make them. … We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.”

After more than a half-century of public service, John McCain’s death was not only his but ours. To honor him, to give his life and death real meaning, we could do no better than to emulate him — not only when he is criticized, but each and every day as we strive to remember the importance of not only being of ourselves, but of our country.

Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is a former United States Senate majority leader and founder and CEO of The Daschle Group, a public policy advisory of Baker Donelson. He is the co-chairman of the Bipartisan Policy Center Future of Health Care Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @TomDaschle.