The Triumph in John McCain’s Losses

Unlike Trump, McCain understood that there could be virtue in defeat. His memorial services honored that.

The casket of John McCain, carried out by a Military Honor Guard.
The casket of the late Sen. John McCain is carried out by a Military Honor Guard after the National Memorial Service at the Washington National Cathedral on Saturday. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Three years ago, Donald Trump mocked John McCain for losing the 2008 presidential election. “I don’t like losers,” said Trump. When an interviewer pointed out that McCain was a war hero, Trump shot back: “He’s a ‘war hero’ because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

To Trump, that’s the story of McCain’s life: McCain was a loser. He lost the war in Vietnam. He was captured and humiliated. He lost five years of his life. He lost the ability to raise his arms. He lost the presidential election to George W. Bush. He lost in 2008 to Barack Obama. McCain never got to gloat, as Trump did against his critics on Thursday, that “I’m president, and they’re not.”

McCain never spoke that way. He was never so mean, self-absorbed, or obsessed with scorekeeping. That’s not because McCain was a loser. It’s because he understood that some things were more important than winning. For those things, McCain was willing to endure defeat and pain. His life was a lesson in what can be accomplished through loss.

McCain suffered losses because he took risks. Sometimes, as in Iraq, he supported wars that went bad. Sometimes, as in Syria, he labored in vain to get the United States to intervene. At home, he failed to pass immigration reform and legislation to reduce carbon emissions, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. And early in his life, when he could have used family connections to stay out of danger in Vietnam, he put himself on the line instead.

Trump, having concocted a medical excuse to avoid the Vietnam draft, spent the war years carousing, making money, and bedding women, which he called his “personal Vietnam.” McCain’s personal Vietnam was Vietnam. Flying wasn’t the most dangerous job in that war, but McCain did it repeatedly. At a memorial service on Friday, Vice President Pence noted that McCain was shot down not on his first bombing run, but on his 23rd.

To McCain, loss was worth risking to achieve something more important. That philosophy went beyond war. “He loved to win, but he also loved a good fight for a just cause, even if it didn’t succeed,” former Sen. Joe Lieberman said on Saturday in a memorial service at the National Cathedral. Obama, at the same service, recalled that McCain’s idol, Theodore Roosevelt, spoke of “those who strive, who dare to do great things, who sometimes win and sometimes come up short, but always relish a good fight—a contrast to cold, timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

In risking and enduring loss, McCain gave what no winner could. The ultimate test of values, he reminded us, isn’t what you’re willing to kill for. It’s what you’re willing to die for. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at a memorial service in Arizona on Thursday, said McCain’s years in Vietnam taught Americans that “that there are principles and ideals greater than ourselves that are worth suffering, sacrificing for, and if necessary, dying for.” At Saturday’s service, Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke for less than 30 seconds, quoting Jesus’ words: “No greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

McCain’s losses made him stronger. At Saturday’s service, his daughter, Meghan, described his suffering in Vietnam: “He was crippled, he was beaten, he was starved, he was tortured, and he was humiliated.” But out of that defeat, she explained, “he triumphed.” When Meghan, as a girl, was thrown from a horse, her father instructed her to get back on it, telling her, “Nothing is going to break you.”

To Trump, McCain’s capture was the end of his Vietnam story. But to McCain, it was the beginning. “Captivity did not diminish John’s sense of calling or his commitment to mission,” said Pence. At Saturday’s service, Bush argued that in the end, McCain prevailed through “a courage that frightened his captors and inspired his countrymen.” In Obama’s words, “It forced even the most cynical to consider: What were we doing for our country? What might we risk everything for?”

When McCain returned from war, his losses had changed him. He remained a warrior and continued to support military interventions. But his ordeal made him think less about himself and more about what he could do for others who suffered as he had suffered. At this week’s memorial services, colleagues recalled how, on congressional trips abroad, McCain insisted on meeting with dissidents and human rights activists. “He loved freedom with the passion of a man who knew its absence,” said Bush, and his “firsthand experience of cruelty” inspired him to treat others better than he had been treated. Bush didn’t mention that this led McCain to oppose Bush’s own policy of permitting torture of detainees.

To Trump, the only difference between his presidential candidacy and McCain’s is that McCain lost. But McCain showed the country that in politics, as in war, sometimes you honor principles best by refusing to betray them for victory. Obama recalled that at a forum during the 2008 campaign, when a woman impugned Obama’s patriotism, McCain defended his Democratic opponent. Obama didn’t contrast this with Trump’s behavior. He didn’t have to.

McCain didn’t ridicule people, as Trump does, for having less money or going to lesser schools. At the memorial services, friends noted that McCain, by his own account, finished near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy. They recalled the anger he often displayed at ill treatment of ordinary people. To McCain, life’s only true losers were those who deserted their values. At Saturday’s service, Henry Kissinger quoted McCain’s words: “No one of us, if they have character, leaves behind a wasted life.”

It was striking to hear those words from Kissinger, who notoriously preached realism, not idealism, in foreign policy. It was even more striking to hear Kissinger repeat McCain’s most radical pronouncement: “We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.” If McCain can teach his party and his country that lesson—that victory without principles is worthless—his losses will be worth it. It will be his greatest triumph.

Read more in Slate about John McCain.