There was a photo going around the internet Wednesday of Cindy McCain with her face pressed against the coffin of her late husband, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
It’s a touching, private moment of a wife saying goodbye to her husband of more than 30 years, as he was lying in state in the Arizona State Capitol.
As the senator is being lionized for his bravery, his commitment to his country – and derided even in death by political enemies on both sides of the aisle – the picture was an interesting way to see that he wasn’t just a figure, and that some were able to see him as a man.
The tributes poured in over the weekend, although some were cautious. It’s tough when a man is embroiled in contentious, bitter political battles until his final days to give him the respite necessary to elevate him from politician to statesman. His vote against the “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act made him a new hero to some and a new enemy to others less than a year ago.
But all of that will eventually fade. The battles he fought will be settled, and their magnitude diminished by the passage of time, and the conclusions will be seen as inevitable.
McCain was more than a politician, and in a generation or two, he will enter the American pantheon. Perhaps he’ll join that list of presidential candidates that lost, but we feel would have done a great job as well, such as Adlai Stevenson, William Jennings Bryan or Henry Wallace.
It’s how we make out heroes. America has no mythical past, shrouded in mist and legend. Our Founding Fathers were all real people, in many cases their actual descendants walk among us. No one pulled a sword from a stone or defeated Grendel to form our country.
The problem with heroes being real people is they come with real flaws. It’s possible to place King Arthur on a higher plane because any flaws of his were a plot device in that particular story, and they are gone in the next.
The real heroes in our history all have dark pasts. Some are as egregious as being slave owners, but others are more complicated. When they are senators and presidents, it’s possible for them to do what they think is right at the time, with malice the furthest thought from their mind, and to still make the wrong decision in the eyes of history.
Sometimes, it works out in their favor. Sometimes it doesn’t. Some of those controversial votes McCain made in the last years of his life will need some time to shake out to see where they fall in history.
Those photos of the McCain family Wednesday also were a reminder for us that, even those that occupied the most rarefied of air, are people like the rest of us. We may see them exclusively on the grand stages, with all of history as set pieces, but to their families and friends they also are the guy they talk sports with at a barbecue or who tells the dirty joke in a hushed voice when no one else is looking.
Stories like this are one of the things that make reading biographies about eminent Americans more interesting than those of people from the distant past. We have no humorous anecdotes about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. Two millennia of rampant illiteracy and ruthlessly efficient propaganda has turned those of the distant past into two-dimensional portraits, more the personification of a writer’s ideals than people.
It also hammers home the democratic nature of our society. Although McCain came from if not American royalty then certainly American nobility, there was no claim of great decent necessary for his actions in Vietnam that made him a hero. Barack Obama, who squared up opposite so often during his eight years as president and in the 2008 campaign, was born to a single mother. Humble origins do not preclude us from doing big things.
Lastly, those photos remind us of some of the most important relationships we have. No matter how high we go, or how low we go, we always have a core group around us – friends, family – that see everything about us.
All of our vices and virtues, failures and successes. And they don’t care. They love us until the end unconditionally.