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Parker: Sen. McCain's death provides a compass

Kathleen Parker

The world seems already a lesser place with the passing of Sen. John McCain.

The ensuing deluge of accolades and tributes has revealed a level of reverence we don't see often. Despite traits and qualities that sometimes earned McCain enemies among friends, the past few days have been filled with a sense that we've lost something more than the man; we've lost one of the few remaining remnants of the American honor code.

A stalwart patriot who gave nearly his all to the country he so loved, McCain reminded us of the values that formed a nation—hard work, self-sacrifice, bravery, strength and goodness of intention and spirit.

His courage, primarily, seems to have set him apart from most other late notables. That, and his toughness, which was recognized even by the former director of the North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp where McCain spent more than five years. Retired Col. Tran Trong Duyet remarked on his former captive's death by recalling how much he liked him personally "for his toughness and strong stance," and grew fond of him later for his efforts to build relations between Vietnam and the U.S.

McCain fared less well with the president of the United States, who has behaved like a vengeful brat the past few days. Perhaps he is aiming for consistency rather than compassion, or maybe he's simply undone by the inevitable contrasts—a larger-than-life hero vs. the trite bully whom even pulpits find distasteful.

It was just three years ago that Donald Trump cast doubt on McCain's heroism, telling a Family Leadership Council summit in Iowa that he was a hero only because he was captured: "I like people that weren't captured," said the future president.

And this is our commander in chief, who this week couldn't cough up a kind word for McCain—nor maintain the White House flag at half-staff for more than a day—until, apparently, he could no longer bear the torture of harsh critics shoving condemnation under his thin skin.

What made McCain a hero isn't that he endured immense suffering. The definition of a hero is someone who supersedes the ordinary call of duty and puts his or her own life in peril, or takes a dangerous risk, for the sake of another.

McCain was a hero because he refused early release when it was offered as a propaganda strategy once his captors learned that his father was a Navy admiral. McCain repeatedly declined, saying he would go only if those captured before him were also released.

Strangely, toward the end, McCain was viewed by many as part of the establishment swamp that Trump came to drain. He was a hawkish, pro-immigration centrist when the GOP base was increasingly becoming a hard-right, isolationist bulwark against civility, dignity and the reality of globalization. Thus, McCain and Trump were full-throated foes, each standing his ground on opposing shores of American rectitude.

It is a tragedy that McCain, the warrior-hero, should exit the stage just when his model of citizenship is so needed. But perhaps by his leaving and the eulogies to follow, more Americans will recognize what it really takes to make America great again.

Parker writes for the Washington Post

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