A toy soldier fires a rocket launcher in front of an explosion. Photo: iStock
A toy soldier fires a rocket launcher in front of an explosion. Photo: iStock

A hero is rather like an elephant, difficult to describe but you know one when you see one. By reference to the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a hero as a person who is admired for his or her courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities, the late US senator John McCain matched each criterion, though, typically, he objected to being called one.

Shot down and captured during the Vietnam War, the naval pilot was imprisoned and tortured, part of which involved suspending him by the arms almost daily, which left him physically crippled. Offered the chance of early release by his captors (they knew his father was an American admiral), he refused, insisting on sharing the privations of fellow prisoners of war. There is no limit to one’s admiration for such selfless devotion to the men with whom he served, and his was matchless honor.

By contrast, Drumpf – that is the current US president’s family name – evaded serving his country, claiming deferment for education four times (he was studying business at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) and finally on the basis of alleged “spurs” on his heels, even though he had previously been deemed fit by the military. His assertion that McCain was no hero because he was captured illustrates the depths to which Drumpf sinks.

What John McCain brought back to America was a dogged pursuit of truth and principle, hugely influenced by his willingness to collaborate with Democrats on issues that they recognized as being in the national interest

But what McCain brought back to America was a dogged pursuit of truth and principle, hugely influenced by his willingness to collaborate with Democrats on issues that they recognized as being in the national interest.

Like the best of heroes and all those who are honest with themselves, he was flawed. Picking Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 US presidential campaign was an uncharacteristic genuflection to the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. We all make mistakes but this misjudgment fatally wounded his bid.

I must declare an interest: I wrote two satirical verses at that time to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” one of which ran:

“She was rooting for Obama all along
And she knew where John McCain he had gone wrong
When he recruited Sarah Palin
His campaign started failin’
‘Cos a pig is still a pig with lipstick on.”

But the characteristics that shine through and the legacy that he leaves are his indomitable fight for human dignity and decency.

When sycophantic Republicans were falling over themselves to suck up to the belligerent, malign popinjay who currently dishonors the position of president of the United States, McCain told it as he saw it and spoke truth to power.

How reassuring it was to hear measured criticism of a cosmetically modified bully who surrounded himself with people with a fondness for “alternative facts” and hired a personal lawyer  who asserts that “truth isn’t truth.”

The English language is replete with words to capture the essence of “Drumpf speak”: hogwash, balderdash, piffle, flimflam, baloney. At least P T Barnum, the master showman, only sought to entertain.

John McCain described the Helsinki meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory” and added that “the damage inflicted by President Trump’s naïveté, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.” He summarized the so-called Helsinki “Summit” last July as “a tragic mistake.”

No wonder the world is going through a disturbing phase of disorientation when the individual holding the office that, for more than a century, was looked upon as the leader of the free world cozies up to an autocrat who invades his neighbors and seizes their territory just as Adolf Hitler did, imprisons those opponents unwise enough to live within his purview, and has those who flee killed by fatal nerve toxins developed in his laboratories.

The Donald and Vladimir love-in was the only edition of The Apprentice where, metaphorically, Trump was fired.

One used to assume that whatever their political affiliations, US senators must have had some substance to have achieved their distinctive position in life. But so desperate are they to hang on to their seats that they endorse the infantile, narcissistic tweets by means of which their president governs the country. Moral turncoats all.

Surely, if any of these senators’ children behaved in a similar fashion they would be sent to bed without supper until they mended their ways (whoops! That would be classed as child abuse today. Initially the word “spanked” sprang to mind, but that is a diamond-class no-no, unless Stormy Daniels tells us otherwise).

In this mass cult worship of bloated self-centeredness, for what else can one describe it as, the immediate victims are the citizens of the United States and by extension the rest of the civilized world.

Can any right-minded parent point to this personification of self-idolatry as a role model? His propensity for breaking agreements, fabricating, blackguarding his critics, rounding like a rat on his own intelligence services and labeling truth as a lie, all run diametrically in opposition to the values that were enshrined in the original US Declaration of Independence and pursued by generations of Americans.

Drumpf’s is a zero-sum world: In his mind he always wins, no matter the cost.

People who have served in the armed forces of their country are acutely aware of the primacy of honor and duty; military service forges those qualities and binds them in an intangible but fierce bond. Some, like John McCain, channel those characteristics into public service, and their special quality gives them an invisible luster.

Those ex-service personnel who enter public life know the value of human beings. It colors their attitude to others and of others to them. They know what it means to ask, as John F Kennedy did, “not what my country can do for me but what I can do for my country.”

In England, to name just a few, Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan, Dennis Healey, and Paddy Ashdown carried their principles of military service and honor into Parliament just as John McCain did in the US Senate.

If we are to be governed by those who are ignorant of the guiding principles by which such as these managed their public offices, truly our civilization is going to hell in a hand basket, a phrase that, notably, originated in the United States in the 19th century.

But if John McCain’s example reaches into the hearts and minds of sufficient Republicans to effect a metamorphosis in their attitude to their titular leader so that they remember that they are vertebrates and stand firm on their duty to uphold those tenets of civilized behavior that were once the hallmarks of a principled, humane and mature democracy, his legacy will live for ever.

RIP John McCain, a latter-day Horatius: You held the bridge.

Neville Sarony

Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.

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