Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Among the events of John McCain’s 5 1/2 years of imprisonment and torture in North Vietnam, probably the most heroic, and surely the most celebrated, was his refusal to accept an early release from his captors.
“I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admiral’s son had gone home early, a lucky beneficiary of America’s class-conscious society,” McCain recalled in “Faith of My Fathers,” his 1999 memoir. “I knew that my release would add to the suffering of men who were already straining to keep faith with their country.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that line, “straining to keep faith with their country,” in the days since McCain died. Few Americans will ever have the misfortune — McCain would have called it the honor — of keeping faith in circumstances as dire as the ones he faced.
Yet many people, at home and abroad, are straining nonetheless.
They strain to keep faith with America when the attorney general weaponizes the terror of children and the desperation of parents in order to pursue his vision of immigration policy.
They strain to keep faith when the president rains scorn on our closest allies at summits in Canada and Belgium, and follows each performance with epic displays of obsequiousness toward a North Korean mass murderer and a Russian assassin.
They strain to keep faith when the vice president publicly walks out of a football stadium because players bend a knee in silent protest of racial injustice just two months after the president loudly defended white nationalists at Charlottesville, Va., as “some very fine people.”
Nor is the straining just a function of the current administration, or the sole domain of those opposed to it.
Tens of millions of Americans also strain to keep faith with America when opinions that until recently were commonplace, traditional or innocuous are now denounced as racist, sexist, micro-aggressive and attach-your-prefix-phobic.
They strain to keep faith when racial discrimination is always hideously wrong — except when it’s the not-so-secret admissions policy of Harvard.
They strain to keep faith when the arbiters of moral and cultural acceptability, all of them self-appointed, insist both on their right to offend nearly anyone and take offense at nearly anything.
These examples don’t exhaust the list. Nearly everyone I know seems to have a well-developed theory as to why this country is past redemption, or almost, and every theory seems almost right. There is a great deal of ruin in a nation. A great deal of malice and misadventure, too.
McCain knew this. On his last visit to the Munich Security Conference in 2017, shortly before his cancer diagnosis, he spoke of his own mounting sense of alarm. Alarm, he said, at “the hardening of resentment we see toward immigrants” and “the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies.” Alarm that “more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.” Alarm, above all, “that many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the West.”
It was no mystery to anyone in his audience that day where the real source of his alarm lay: an American president who, in matters of both character and conviction, was low and vapid and mean-spirited and bottomlessly dishonorable — McCain’s opposite in every respect.
But everyone in that audience would also have known that McCain had enough sense of history, and enough confidence in the future, not to mistake evidence of decay for proof of decline. In the scale of American blunders — from the Dred Scott decision to the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s to the tragedy of Vietnam — is the Trump presidency really unique? And in the long, upward arc of American history, will its consequences be so dire or decisive?
It happens that in the years when McCain and his fellow POWs were straining to keep faith with America, much of America had lost faith with them. It didn’t matter. The America they were keeping faith with was not so much a people, or even a country, as it was a set of ideas that elevated and transcended both.
Those ideas, about human liberty, dignity and possibility, lie beyond the reach of President Donald Trump to traduce, or Jeff Sessions to betray, or any English department in the country to deconstruct. They are the ideas to which McCain held fast in his torment, to which billions worldwide aspire, and to which every American implicitly subscribes, even those who pretend otherwise. They are the ideas that will see us through this presidency.
“Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here,” wrote McCain in his farewell message.
Words to live by in our time of mourning and strain.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.