In 1995, my Freshman year at Annapolis, Robert Timberg’s book, A Nightengale’s Song, was published. It was a chronicle of the lives of five Annapolis graduates, John Poindexter, Bob McFarland, Oliver North, Jim Webb and John McCain. Timberg wove a narrative of their experiences at Annapolis, their time in Vietnam and their lives in government. It was unofficial, mandatory reading for us; the type of book that one day, someone will write about my class, our time in this war and the lives after we are all about to start.
“They are secret sharers, men whose experiences at Annapolis and during the Vietnam War and its aftermath illuminate a generation, or a portion of a generation – those who went. They shared a seemingly unassailable certainty. They believed in America.”
The coming of age. And the tragedy of war. The consistent story of man.
There’s something about the specificity of a likeness in someone distinguished that draws you to them. A place like Annapolis is sharp with detail and consistency. We wore the same uniforms. We went to the same classes. We lived in the same building.
We put up with the same crap. We felt the same cycle of emotional torment, boredom and longing. And so, in some not insignificant way, we became a part of each other. Whether we wanted to or not.
That’s the point of a place like Annapolis. To cut down on human variance. To hold a standard.
McCain and I were more alike than most. At least that’s the narrative I told myself. I lived in his room in Bancroft Hall. His roommate, Chuck Larson served as Superintendent of the Academy when I was there. He wandered up to our deck one afternoon, found my roommates and I screwing off and told us who once lived there.
We shared more than a room though. We’d both gotten in to Annapolis because of our fathers. We were also both screw-ups, finishing near the bottom of our respective classes. I told myself that John McCain probably felt just like I did. That somewhere deep inside he knew he didn’t deserve to be where he was. Or that he didn’t belong because he was lousy at following the rules. But when people told him time and time again that he wasn’t fit to serve, or lead men, it lit a fire in him that’s never stopped burning.
John McCain gave me a story to tell myself. Not just me, but generations of “screw-ups” that dared to take on a place like Annapolis, despite the lifetime of people telling us we couldn’t or shouldn’t. Screw-up is the name for people who can’t follow the rules and fail. Maverick is the one they give you when you succeed. There was enough shared space and mind between the two of us to give me reason to believe in myself at a time when perhaps that was the only thing standing between one life and another.
Over the last year, since he was diagnosed with brain cancer, John McCain has given Americans a story to tell themselves too. In the face of a recession of western liberal values and a surge in isolationist, ethnocentric nationalism, McCain has reminded us of what we once were. And what we could be again.
81, dying of cancer, McCain explained in his acceptance speech when he received the Liberty Medal last November.
“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”
Like he did for me, 20 years ago, I pray his example is enough to give Americans reason to believe in ourselves at a time when perhaps belief is the only thing standing between one America and another. Yesterday, John McCain announced that he will forgo any further treatment for his illness. Today he passed. He’d had enough. It’s time for those who remember what he stood for to carry on from here.
We have the watch.