It’s always upsetting when a long-familiar and broadly admired figure is suddenly forced to come face to face with his mortality, even at the age of 80. Sen. John McCain is, for a second time, in a fight for his life. This time the enemy is internal.
The Arizona senator, who was hospitalized last Friday for treatment of a blood clot, was diagnosed this week with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor. It’s the same unforgiving cancer that in 2009 took the life of another highly regarded senator, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
To call this diagnosis unfortunate is to fall short of the moment. It’s devastating for McCain and his family, friends and colleagues. At times such as these, rancor falls away. Some Republicans wept at the news of Kennedy’s illness and, we suspect, many Democrats are similarly distraught about a man they have come to know well and for whom they hold great affection.
Among those expressing admiration and encouraging him in his battle are President Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats, too, are rallying to McCain; among them are his 2008 opponent, former President Barack Obama, former Vice President and Sen. Joe Biden and, separately, Bill and Hillary Clinton.
But everyday Americans also have reason to wish this aging fighter the best in the struggle he now faces. Many of them also respect and admire a man who refused ever to take the easy way out or to go with the flow when he thought the flow was unwise. That’s called character.
But it’s more than that. At a time when terrible divisions are fraying the nation’s fabric, Americans might also fear for the Senate and, with it, the country. Rarely has Congress been more in need of members such as McCain. The highest reaches of public life are parched for statesmen who value patriotism over partisanship – who will fight for their causes but, understanding the nature of our democracy, are also willing to listen and even to compromise with opponents they actually respect. Demonization has never been his approach.
To no one’s surprise, McCain is determined to fight. This, after all, is the man who outlasted torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, who survived and succeeded in the Washington meat grinder since his election to the House of Representatives in 1982, who ran an aggressive 2008 presidential campaign but, true to his sense of honor, repeatedly refused to vilify Obama. This is a man who knows his own mind and who doesn’t give in.
If determination makes a difference, McCain has an edge in what awaits. Indeed, he made clear on Thursday that he retains both his pugnacity and his sense of humor. “I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support – unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand-by!” he wrote on Twitter.
Americans of all political persuasions have reason to wish him well as he, once again, plays the hand he was dealt, and does so without showing an ounce of self-pity. Whatever happens, McCain is once again demonstrating why he is so valuable and why, after so many years and so many fights, he retains the admiration of Americans.