Coming at the end of his elegant posthumous valedictory to the country, these parting lines by John McCain could be dismissed as more akin to boilerplate political stump-speak. But it is the context that gives it impact, building on earlier references to a political climate that threatens what McCain treasured as American ideals. The sentence works because it begins as a warning and admonition, which sets up a short but powerful parting reassurance: “…because nothing is inevitable here.” Those are five dense-packed words, rich with history, comforting in their certitude and challenging in their dare.
It is impossible not to consider the greater context of McCain’s life and wonder if this philosophy was born of his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, or predated and bore him through it.
It is also worth noting that McCain framed his words as a “final letter to the public.” Sincere letters, even when sent to the masses or used as the approach to a journalistic piece, can have a clarity that comes with the desire to communicate directly with someone the writer cares about. Who better for a journalist – or politician – to care about than the public? The notion of this letter as a speech also offers lessons: Speeches are written for the ear, as is most good writing.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: I offer a needed acknowledgement: McCain’s life record is far from unblemished, and some critics have argued he should not be lionized without question in death. This however, is about the mysterious power of a phrase that can elevate beyond the individual and the moment. Winston Churchill was far from beloved by all; neither John F. Kennedy nor Martin Luther King were perfect husbands. But lines from their stirring speeches at crucial moments became signatures that endure. I find it valuable to contemplate how the use of language gives them that loft.)