<Originally published September 1, 2018.> The poetic title of the seventh and last volume of Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, beginning with his campaign and election to the Presidency November 1860, the resulting political outrage and secession votes, concluded one by one, like loud footsteps in the march to war, of eleven state legislatures over the winter 1860-61, Lincoln’s inauguration March, 1861, his vow to preserve the nation, and then, beginning with South Carolina’s attack on Fort Sumter, April, 1861, four years of increasingly brutal, mass warfare, ending finally at Appomattox, following shortly Lincoln’s second inaugural March, 1865, his address, considered one of the great political speeches in all history, delivered from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, its newly constructed, much higher dome financed and built straight through the war, at Lincoln’s insistence, to symbolize the power and endurance of the Union, and finally, Lincoln’s assassination just a few weeks later. The storm, gathering gradually from the very inception of the nation, seemed to finally pass, so that, from Lincoln’s words, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish form the earth”.
But the storm, always just over the horizon, is gathering again . . .
With almost biblical symbolism, as John McCain’s funeral cortege approached the U.S. capitol this morning, the skies greyed, and just as his honor guard began removing the casket from the hearse, a light sprinkle of rain began, then the skies darkened, and a hard driving rain continued, as the honor guard carried McCain’s casket, slowly, ceremoniously, up the long capitol steps, bringing it to rest at the center of the rotunda, beneath Lincoln’s great dome, built to represent the durability of this institution of the people.
Everyone knows McCain’s story. Son and grandson of four-star U.S. Navy admirals, Naval Academy, near flunk-out, fighter pilot, shot down over North Vietnam, enduring torture for five years, refusing release ahead of his fellow prisoners.
As a young Congressman, McCain was caught up in the “Keating Five” scandal in the midst of the collapse of the S&L system in the late eighties, the result of the insidious influence of campaign contributions on the government’s deregulation of this part of the financial system, which had then failed systemically, after a half-century of flawless stability. Determined to correct this cancer in the political system, McCain lobbied for years, and finally co-sponsored, with liberal Democrat Russ Feingold, the most aggressive campaign finance reform ever enacted, legislation made moot by the Supreme Court’s delusional decision in Citizens United, which asserts that corporations are “the people” referenced in America’s founding documents, possessing inherently their political freedoms, and for which, per Lincoln, both America’s Revolution and Civil wars were fought and won.
McCain was a staunch, vocal critic of the formal, post-9/11 legitimization of torture of terror suspects as a violation of U.S. law, morals and values; a view later reinforced through legislation and reform of CIA practices. McCain lost two U.S. Presidential elections, famously losing the South Carolina primary in 2000 to George Bush after an insidious, personalized attack on his family featuring his adopted, Indonesian daughter as an illegiitmate black “love child”, breaking his electoral momentum. Then, in 2008, criticized on the right for his interruption and correction of a supporter at a campaign rally who claimed that Obama was an “Arab” who she “could not trust”. Later in that campaign, just two weeks before the election, knowing he would lose at the ignominious end of the Bush administration, the economy and foreign affairs in tatters, reflecting a disastrous selection of a vice-presidential running mate, McCain spoke at the Alfred Smith Dinner in NYC, beginning his remarks by noting “it was not long ago that inviting an African-American to the White House for dinner incited political and popular outrage” (this was Teddy Roosevelt with Frederick Douglas), then going on to express his admiration for Obama as an honorable and capable man of high intellect, capable of leading the nation. McCain was preparing the nation for the inevitable electoral result, helping to tame the base instincts of a society, his own party, that he knew remained substantially racist.
As we await the next phase of the Trump presidency, sure to involve a grotesque, last assault on our democratic institutions, we will wish this good man’s voice were still with us.