The death of American hero John McCain has spurred a fresh wave of national soul-searching, at least on the part of those who acknowledge that over the past few years a deep and ugly strain within our country has been exposed, deeper and uglier than many of us had imagined. The grief over McCain’s passing has been worsened by the grief triggered by the realization that what we have always assumed were certain core American values are considerably less certain.
Historians looking back at these painful days, searching for moments that illustrate how things went south, may pause on one point in the last presidential campaign, when the eventual victor, Donald Trump, perfectly demonstrated what he was about. “He’s not a war hero,” said the draft-dodger about John McCain, an epic war hero who spent years being tortured in a North Vietnamese cell for fighting in the war that Trump successfully avoided. “I like people who weren’t captured.” What would have been regarded as a disqualifying obscenity in the past was shrugged off, even embraced, by tens of millions of Americans who, untroubled by this attack on a genuine American patriot by an obvious con artist, elected the obvious con artist anyway.
In the wake of McCain’s death and in an election year of historic consequence, attention turns inevitably to seeds of hope, and they do exist — including Americans who have followed McCain’s lead when it comes to personal courage and national service. This year has featured some 300 military veterans who have run for Congress, including numbers of veterans running as Democrats not seen in decades.
One who has received national attention is Max Rose, a 31-year-old Army veteran who trounced his primary opponents to become the Democratic nominee in New York’s 11th Congressional District, encompassing Staten Island and a sliver of Brooklyn. Easily the most conservative in New York City, the district voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 10 percent margin in 2016, and is presently represented by a Trump loyalist. But Rose, described by Politico as a “5-foot-6 power pack,” stands a strong chance of swinging the seat into the Democratic column — and a background that fits neatly into the McCain mold is not hurting his chances.
After graduating from Wesleyan University and earning a master’s degree in public policy from the London School of Economics, Rose veered sharply in an unusual direction, enlisting at Fort Benning, Ga. “I wanted to be in the trenches, proverbial and otherwise,” he says. He served in active duty for five years, deploying in Afghanistan and rising to combat platoon leader, receiving a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He rejects — strenuously — the notion that he deserves any credit for his life choice. “The military gave me far more than I could ever give it,” Rose says. And it left him profoundly affected by the men and women with whom he served. “It was stunning what they did,” he says of his fellow soldiers. “I was in awe.” He is also passionate about the inadequate appreciation Americans have of those whose days are spent protecting them, and about what veterans mean to this society. “I’d like us to move beyond the culture of just thanking (soldiers) for their service,” Rose says. “I’d like us to start saying not only ‘Thanks for your service, buddy’ but ‘How do I get you to join my company, my organization?’ ”
Rose’s combination of decorated military service, policy chops and sheer physical energy is giving Republicans fits and national Democrats reasons for optimism. But win or lose, Rose’s most important role may be as a reminder that John McCain’s credo of putting oneself on the line for country, and putting country before self, has not been buried with him, and lives on in the generations he leaves behind.
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