George Washington published his farewell address (with its famous admonition to “steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world’’) in 1796 and died three years later. Dwight Eisenhower delivered his farewell address (with its fateful warning about the “military-industrial complex’’) in 1961 but lived another eight years. Both shaped American values and the country’s view of its role in the world.
Now comes a third remarkable farewell, this one not a printed message or delivered speech but a book-length meditation on what it means to face the hard challenges of long life and the sobering likelihood of imminent death. John McCain’s valedictory message, at the booksellers under the title “The Restless Wave,’’ is a 400-page reflection on hardship, a homily on purpose, a celebration of life — and a challenge to Americans to live up to their values and founding principles at a time when both are in jeopardy. On its last page sits Robert Louis Stevenson’s spare verse with a stirring line (“Glad did I live and gladly die’’) from an eight-line poem with a poignant title: “Requiem.’’
The recent days of McCain — rebellious flyboy, Hanoi prisoner of war, classic senator, Republican rebel, and yet quiet pastor of patriotism — have been full of drama. Suffering from glioblastoma tumors in the brain, he cast the deciding vote to preserve the health care plan of the man who defeated him in the 2008 presidential election. He spoke up for immigrants when all his party allies demonized them. And as a peculiarly tone-deaf White House official dismissed McCain’s views because “he’s dying anyway,’’ the Arizona senator, first elected to Congress in 1982, opposed torture when colleagues who did not share his experience with ruthless beatings and remorseless solitary confinement prepared to support a CIA nominee who herself had prosecuted torture.
McCain memoirs are a sturdy perennial on American bookshelves — his name appears on the spine of a handful — but this one is different, not least because both he and his outlook (once fairly conventional Republican fare but now described as “maverick’’ because those views no longer are conventional) are in rapid decline. This book is clearly intended to be his last testimony and last political will and testament.
In truth, the words, thoughts, and impulses that comprise the McCain testimony once were well-worn cliches, unremarkable boilerplate from graveside Memorial Day speeches and Fourth of July stemwinders on the town green. “We are citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to preface the tribal enmities that tormented the old one,’’ he writes, adding: “[W]e share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it. Whether we think each other right or wrong in our views on the issues of the day, we owe each other our respect . . . ’’
Today those words, and many others between the covers of “The Restless Wave,’’ are frontal challenges to the current zeitgeist, to his colleagues on Capitol Hill, to that man in the White House (the locution Republicans used when they didn’t want to utter Franklin Roosevelt’s name). For McCain’s days right now — and his book — are aimed at getting Americans to reconsider, and to reclaim, the principles and even the rhetoric that are our ancient heritage and not, to his mind, antiquarian, obsolete banalities.
He begins the paragraph quoted above with this introductory passage, proof that a topic sentence — that hoary memory from grammar school lessons! — can give power to a vital topic: “Before I leave I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations.’’ There is no transition phrase quite like the words “Before I leave . . . ’’ from a man coming to terms with taking leave of this life.
McCain’s book brings the reader of those earlier memoirs up to date on his last years in the Senate, particularly on his involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan debates, but, really, all of that is mostly ballast to fill out a book sharply critical of that man in the White House (“He has declined to distinguish the actions of our government from the crimes of despotic ones’’ and “Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity’’) and disparaging of Americans’ current tendency to seek comfort in their own views and to shield themselves from others’ (“We are secluding ourselves in ideological ghettos. We don’t have to debate rationally or even be exposed to ideas that contradict ours’’).
It is difficult at this passage to repress the impulse to apply to McCain the verdict of Malcolm in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth’’ at the execution of Cawdor, and to argue that nothing in his life became him like the leaving it. But unlike Cawdor, McCain was quite the opposite of a traitor, and instead of a final confession that marks a return to honor he offers a guide for others who have lost their way:
“The right to life and liberty, to be governed by consent and ruled by laws, to have equal justice and protection of property, these values are the core of our national identity. And it is fidelity to them — not ethnicity or religion, culture or class — that makes one an American.’’
When McCain was in high school at age 17 in 1954, that passage — like so much of the content of the book he would write at age 81 in 2018 — would have been considered insipid. More than six decades later, that message is incendiary. In the two-thirds-of-a-century gap between the insipid and the incendiary, we have departed from what led generations of the McCain family to wear the country’s uniform in war and, presumably, eventually to rest in peace.
THE RESTLESS WAVE:
Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations
By John McCain and Mark Salter
Simon and Schuster, 402 pp., $30
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