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John McCain’s Legacy of Service Calls Us to Enter the Arena
A participant in the Bush Institute's Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program reflects on the legacy of Senator McCain and continued leadership.
Every history lover has a favorite U.S. president. When I taught high school history in Washington, D.C., my students knew where I stood on the issue. On my desk, a Theodore Roosevelt bobble head guarded a stack of ungraded papers. And a few feet above my chair hung a poster with Roosevelt’s portrait and a quote from his “Citizenship in a Republic” speech: “It is not the critic who counts...The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
Throughout my adult life, I’ve done my best to serve my country in the arena of action -- defending the nation as a soldier, educating the next generation as a teacher, and supporting my fellow veterans as a civil servant. I love this country, but serving it has become difficult in these trying times of division where the tribal nature of today’s politics is the ruling philosophy.
Service to others, a core part of my identity, has been replaced with a militaristic creed of attacking, shaming, and shunning citizens on social media. For individuals working hard in the arena, there are times when you want to walk away when all you hear is the critics shouting vitriol from the sidelines.
For individuals working hard in the arena, there are times when you want to walk away when all you hear is the critics shouting vitriol from the sidelines. But I am reminded to stay the course from a man who also considered Theodore Roosevelt a personal hero.
But I am reminded to stay the course from a man who also considered Theodore Roosevelt a personal hero. In his last speech before the Senate, John McCain spoke to his fellow senators about the need to serve others by working together: “I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good.”
John McCain may no longer be with us but his legacy of service to this nation lives on in the men and women who continue to fight and sacrifice for this country. Countless citizens across this nation are stepping into various arenas -- food pantries, homeless shelters, hospitals, places of worship, schools, veterans’ homes and in the halls of government -- to care for their fellow citizens while the chattering class found on cable news and talk radio speak loudly and do nothing.
John McCain’s lifetime of public service started with the military, but it did not end when he took off the uniform. When veterans return to civilian life, the desire to serve does not subside.
According to the 2016 Veterans Health Civic Index, “veterans are more likely than non-veterans to vote, contact public officials, volunteer, give to charity, work with neighbors to fix problems in the community, and attend public meetings.” Veterans are critical assets to the country and communities because they are men and women of action, playing “a crucial role in revitalizing civic engagement and strengthening communities nationwide.”
The George W. Bush Institute’s Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program has tapped into this strategic resource of leaders who will not only work together to improve outcomes for veterans but who are also working to bridge the growing military-civilian divide in this country . The inaugural class includes 33 members, who are not critics, but men and women willing to engage in daring and difficult action that have spent the majority of their professional lives in the arena helping veterans.
We may come from different backgrounds and political persuasions but we are united by a desire to serve and a common purpose -- to improve outcomes for veterans in areas of education, employment, and well-being. Each of us has a unique story of why we continue to serve.
After returning from Afghanistan I found my way into the classroom through Teach For America, an organization that believes – as I do – that all children are capable of high levels of academic achievement when given access to an excellent education. I saw this while deployed to Afghanistan too.
I remember entering a village on patrol, where the Taliban had attacked the village as a means to intimidate the local populace from teaching female students. The community resisted and continued to teach both boys and girls. I will always remember that scene: nothing stands in the way with individuals reaching their true potential.
And nothing can stand in the way of the promise and potential of America when its citizens come together. For all those working in the arena, this is not a time to retreat. The history teacher reminds me that this current crisis is not as challenging as other moments in our nation’s history -- 1776, 1861, 1941, and 1968. We may stumble but we will persevere like we always do and move forward as a nation. What will it take?
It will take John McCain’s example of charging forward into the arena and serving this country until his last breath. And I know my fellow Stand-To colleagues will carry on his mission.
We are all learning how to make a positive impact, and one of the key things I’ve learned from this program is that leaders must elevate the debate and stay focused on the mission at hand when the critics are making noise. John McCain always managed to do this, even in the middle of a heated campaign for president.
We are all learning how to make a positive impact, and one of the key things I’ve learned from this program is that leaders must elevate the debate and stay focused on the mission at hand when the critics are making noise.
I look forward to paying my respects to John McCain, as he will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. As I mourn the loss of this true patriot, I think back to his interview last year with 60 Minutes when he discussed the ways he wanted to be remembered.
"I want ... when I leave, that the ceremony is at the Naval Academy," he said. "And we just have a couple of people that stand up and say, 'This guy, he served his country."
Senator McCain, you did more than serve this country. You truly are Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena.”
Brian Thompson, who leads the U.S. Department of Education’s Military Affairs Team, is a member of the inaugural class of the George W. Bush Institute’s Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program.