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John McCain showed us how to live and how to serve

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Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) passed away on Saturday after a battle with brain cancer. He was 81.

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It is well for Americans to remember, in this epoch of our discontent, that there are good men and women among us, including in politics.

John McCain was a good man. He was cantankerous, to be sure. Hard on new, young senators. And sometimes spectacularly wrong on foreign policy. It was said that he never met a small war he did not like.

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Actually, he never met a freedom fighter he did not like. He loved liberty, and he knew, better than most of us, what it cost. But he thought America should be “a city upon a hill,” that our nation should always lead the world in the cause of human rights and freedom. We should never “lead from behind” or retreat to within. We should always come to the aid of those who wish to speak their minds and live their lives as free people who afford these same rights to others.

Speak his mind John McCain did, sometimes, as he was the first to say, intemperately. He was a Republican to his core. He believed in less government and more personal responsibility. But he was a patriot first and a party man last (except on a few occasions when he was running for president and was his party’s titular leader).

But he wasn’t comfortable as a party leader. He had to go his own way. He really could not help it. He was not a moderate so much as a maverick. He prized independence in others because independence meant so much to him.

For Mr. McCain service in the Navy and in the Vietnam War were but the starting points in a long line of service. He was a skillful politician, certainly, but that skill set upheld something greater and higher — public service.

All his life John McCain served the country. He stayed in the Senate because it had become his home. But more than that, he stayed to serve.

Serve, serve, serve: That is all John McCain knew and all he wanted — to serve the country he loved and that had given him, he felt, more than he could ever repay.

Hence, after he lost the presidency, he went back to the Senate, which most senators who have run for president find hard. They have glimpsed the mountaintop. It was hard for Mr. McCain too. But he redoubled his efforts, and a very fine senator became one of the greats in the history of the institution.

Much will be made of Mr. McCain’s physical courage and much should be made of it. As one wag said, any man who will not leave the war prison until all the Americans have left is my president. He was that rarest of things among human beings — a man whose moral courage matched his physical courage.

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John McCain showed us how to serve. He showed us how to love our country. He showed us how to live and he showed us how to die.

Johannes Brahms ends his noble, human requiem this way: “Blessed are the dead … that they may rest from their labors, for their works follow after them.”

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