The Noblest Roman

This was the noblest Roman of them all… Say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

Julius Caesar, Act V, scene 5


It will perhaps come to no surprise to the readers of this blog that I really, really disagree with Senator John McCain on a whole array of positions he has taken, especially in the last few years.  He seems to believe in trickle down tax cuts, he is no fan of Roe v. Wade, he favors tax credits to fund health care over universal coverage, and he supports mandatory sentencing.  I admire his stand against CIA torture, but I wish he’d lighten up about lighting up the American flag.  His decision to elevate Sarah Palin to the level of Vice Presidential candidate remains mystifyingly bonkers to your humble correspondent.

And yet, despite all this, I have a grudging respect for Senator McCain.  Yes, he’s everyone’s grumpy grandpa, but he’s a grumpy grandpa who has made enormous sacrifices to his country.  He spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton, enduring torture, illness, and serious injuries that resulted in permanent physical disabilities.  What’s even more incredible, he could have been released early, on the “Dad is the Commander of the Pacific Fleet” ticket—but he refused.  A fundamental sense of fairness and (dare I say it in this age of hyper-irony?) innate nobility prevented him from accepting the unexpected offer of immediate release—and he paid for it with five years of misery.

So, yeah.  I have a soft spot for Senator McCain.  Sue me.

But even if he weren’t such a bona fide war hero, I would still muster more than a grudging respect for him because he has a deep and profound love for the Senate, as both an institution and as a bulwark against tyranny.  One of the theories about why the Roman Republic fell is that the Senate’s increasing irrelevancy made it too weak to stand up to the tyrannies of Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar.  I have no idea whether this is true (who do I look like? Mary Beard?), but I’m pretty sure that the Founding Fathers thought it was true, which is why they structured the Senate the way that they did.  The Senate is the wise old man of the government (in fact, “Senate” even comes from the Latin “senux”—“old man.”)  It isn’t hasty in its judgments.  It likes to mull things over, chew the fat, think things through.  It gives advice and consent.  It has dignity.  Subsequent rule makers in the Senate took up the cause:  the Senate, unlike the more boisterous House of Representatives, has a body of rules and procedures that are designed to promote deliberation and bipartisan collaboration.  Now, design and reality often do not meet, but until recently, the Senate committee system of hearings, debate, and compromise chuntered along fairly well.

And John McCain loves it.  He gets off on the deliberative nature of the Senate.  And frankly, so do I.  Yes, I’m a wild-eyed liberal, but I’m also a lawyer, and as such, I have a natural predilection towards deliberation and process.  How we arrive at a solution is often just as important as the solution itself. Dialogue and compromise are not dirty words to me.   I like the whole Hegelian system of dialectics:  you know, the clash of thesis and antithesis arriving at a stronger synthesis.   So I get John McCain.  I really do.

In fact, I was totally unsurprised by the literal thumbs-down Senator McCain delivered to TrumpCare on the 28th of July.  McCain might not agree with the Affordable Care Act, but the process through which Mitch McConnell tried to ram its replacement down the Senate’s throat—the result of occult meetings among a few chosen GOP senators, with no meaningful opportunity for debate or amendment—was repugnant to him.  So McCain chose loyalty to the institution over loyalty to party, and killed the bill with a single gesture, both wordless and eloquent.

We thought that the zombie was dead.  The hero had killed it, and we were safe.  But like a particularly dreadful horror film franchise, the sequel was even worse than the original.  Same process, same false urgency, same animus directed against the poor, the ill, and the vulnerable.  This time, however, there was a key difference.  This time, the legislation was co-sponsored by Lindsey Graham, Senator McCain’s closest and dearest friend in the Senate.  Commentators debated whether McCain would side with his friend and forsake the Senate rules and procedures that had animated him for thirty years.

And today, 22 September 2017, Senator McCain delivered his answer:  he chose the Senate.  And again, I am not surprised.

Senator McCain has terminal cancer and he is very likely to die soon. As it happens, I have had more than the average amount of experience with the dying.  I was a hospice volunteer for many years, and I’ve cared for both a dying mother and a dying sister.   As a result, I’ve had lots of opportunity to observe the dying, and the most striking observation I’ve made is that the process of dying rarely causes great changes in character.  Instead, it strengthens and emphasizes who you actually are.  If you are a selfish bastard in life, then you are quite unlikely to become a deathbed philanthropist.  On the other hand, if you are a loving wife and mother, then you will also be a loving hospice patient.  So, if you have spent your life devoted to a particular institution, chances are you’re not going to say, “Oh, to heck with it.”

I’m sure that this was a painful decision for the Senator.  He strikes me as the kind of guy who takes friendships and loyalty seriously.  But he’s also the kind of guy who takes oaths to the Constitution and service to country very, very seriously.  He’s the kind of guy who thinks the ideals of the Founding Fathers are important not because they are empty rhetoric but because they enable sound government.  He’s the kind of guy who cares about how this crazy old country is governed, both now and in the future.  This is perhaps the greatest distinction between Senators McCain and McConnell:  McConnell subverts the Senate and its procedures in order to exercise power, while McCain upholds them in order to govern.

So, in honor of Senator McCain, I offer no sarcasm or irony.  Just respect.  And gratitude.

©2017 D. R. Miller



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