“My father is gone, John Sidney McCain III was many things. He was a sailor, he was an aviator, he was a husband, he was a warrior, he was a prisoner, he was a hero, he was a congressman, he was a senator, he was nominee for President of the United States. These are all of the titles and roles of a life that’s been well lived. They’re not the greatest of his titles nor the most important of his roles.”
That was a moving paragraph in Meghan McCain’s final salute to her stellar father who was buried on Saturday. I watched the funeral service on the CNN and I wondered if money and ambition allowed Nigerian politicians to watch it. If they did, how many of them wished they also would end their earthly journey so gloriously? But is ending well not a function of living well? Mud, they say, does not float a boat. Or can a man enjoy the rose of heaven without dying?
At the core of a successful and meaningful life is character. The Yoruba call it Iwa. It is what determines whether one fulfills one’s destiny or one squanders it; whether one’s water flows or it remains stagnant. I invite the attention of the Nigerian politician to the life of this American politician.
Humanity is one strong chain of connected connectors. A passage abroad tells lessons here. McCain did not get that paradise of passage by selling his principles to cheap power. He had no loyalty to sell to evil men, even in his own party. He was loud and bold in rebuking and rejecting what he saw as evil. He never used his afternoon to abuse Donald Trump and, at night, sneak into the White House to dine with him. He did not defect from the Pacific to the Atlantic to appease the small gods of money and power.
He was at the naval academy like his father and grandfather who both died as admirals. His academy grades “were good in subjects he enjoyed, such as literature and history.” He retired as a captain after a life of military service that made him a prisoner of war for about six years. He moved through life as a true maverick, standing up for others against high school bullies and capping it with standing up for himself against the arch bully himself, Donald Trump.
His voyage in politics, especially in the senate, was breathtaking. He was always willing to fight his own party on issues of patriotism. He made himself count when it mattered most. We also have decorated ex-military officers in the Nigerian senate. They are remarkable in making money and making power deals. Full stop.
Two former presidents who contested with McCain “at the highest levels of politics” said having him as a rival made them better. Another national figure said he was “a gift of destiny.” You would understand what they meant when you look deep into his politics. He was in the very thick of campaigns for the 2008 presidential election against Barack Obama. Party supporters commonly see opponents as enemies. And so, this woman told McCain what she thought of his opponent: “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, um, he’s an Arab,” the woman said to McCain at a town hall meeting in Lakeville, Minnesota on October 10, 2008. McCain grabbed the microphone from her, cutting her off. “No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”
McCain was the Republican presidential candidate in that election. Obama was his opponent. Were he in this country, he would ram that Arab nail straight into the skull of his opponent. He would label him Boko Haram or a common thief or a mindless terrorist. He would do more.
Rev Edward Reese’s Homily at his funeral speaks to the strength of his character: “We could see God in his life. For him, every human being deserved to be treated justly. He had special affection for all.” Many others said many more.
President George W. Bush said the deceased respected the dignity and honour in every life, had the instinct to “stand up for the little guy” and disdain for abuse of power. “John was, above all, a man with a code. He lived by a set of public virtues that brought strength and purpose to his life and to his country,” said Bush.
President Obama added that his life taught a lesson: “ that there are some things bigger than party or ambition or money or fame or power, that there are some things that are worth risking everything for — principles that are eternal; truths that are abiding.”
McCain’s daughter proudly said that her dad “was defined by love.” So much to learn from those words. The Nigerian politician will become noble the day he stops seeing party and ambition and money and power as the reasons for his politics.
Nigeria worships false heroes and thus reels in the vortex of unwellness. A life of vile insouciance is stagnant water, a diseased pond of polluted water. The redemption is in going back ‘home’ for renewal of character. Dishonest politicians are polluted waters; they are faithless lovers who manipulate destinies wearing the costume of ancestral angels. They are here, everywhere now that the election cycle is here. You cannot put a bet on their promise of fidelity. They infect the one who opens up to them with moral syphilis. Yet, they all demand love and trust and warmth. They want to die well and be remembered for goodness.
America stood still on Saturday for a man who twice tried to be president, twice failed but in death won the prize. McCain was not president of the United States, but he got a presidential funeral. The manner of his exit tells us that death is a necessary part of living. Living, too, is embedded in death. It is a conundrum.
Courage is leadership. Or should I say courage and truth frame quality leadership? You don’t shoot down the rule of law before Nigerian lawyers on Monday and, on Thursday, pledge to a foreign leader that you are committed to the rule of law. You confuse the world. Stand with and for something.
In March 2015, there was a storm over an open letter to Iranian leaders on the Obama US-Iran deal. That letter was signed by 47 senators. McCain was one of them. At a time it was almost a scandal to be associated with that letter, McCain told a journalist: “I saw the letter. I saw that it looked reasonable to me and I signed it. That’s all. I sign lots of letters.”
Nigerian politicians see nothing wrong denying anything and everything they did if it hurts their politics. They routinely deny their manhood even when they suffer political captivus where they stick it. They say Yes when they mean to say No. And you wonder whether their primary school teacher forgot to teach them or they forgot they were taught the song about never saying Yes when they meant No. And you can chalk up several instances.
Was McCain an American hero because he was just and courageous? Many had said so before he died and many more since he died. But Donald Trump and his cult of followers will not agree that he was. The dead man was against their reign; therefore, he could not have been a good man. We have them too in Nigeria. They are the only good thing that ever happened to the country. Did they watch the funeral programme of the American on Saturday? The man prepared his own funeral. He dictated who would speak there. He wrote his own obituary. He invited political rivals, foes and friends. His list of invited guests opened a wide window into the life he lived. Nigerian politicians should give us advance guest lists and copies of the oration they want at their funeral. We may have to start demanding these as part of the social contract. What we see or read from them may warn us of the leadership they portend.
There are several other takeaways in that solemn McCain life. Fulfillment in political life isn’t about being president or governor or local government chairman. You can make that little difference that matters anywhere — and we saw it in this American senator and in his ways. Would he have felt better fulfilled if he had been president? Would America have benefited more from his existence if he had won the White House? Would his family have been that proud of him if he had done what the Nigerian politician routinely does in the face of tyranny — defection to where power and influence and money reign?
In the end, what matters is not the power or money or position but what the Yoruba call atubotan. It is rather difficult to translate atubotan but you would understand it when you look at the end of a man and the vibrations that see him off.
Only leaders who stand on God’s side die well and are celebrated. The very spiritual Yoruba would argue that life has meaning only when it is lived well; that life is lived well when it is lived in truth and in selflessness. I do not think anyone dies well when all he lived for were money and power and their fleeting benefits. When a king rules with justice, the town knows peace and lives in abundance. The deeply spiritual tells us that every woman is fertile and that there is none who cannot give birth to the wisest of all creations; that there is no childbearing woman who cannot give birth to a king. The only condition is character which determines how the water of life flows. Omi l’eniyan (man is river). Man flows away and flows back in ceaseless cycle. You live well, you die well; then you come back to live well and long and die to live well. For this we are told:
“Our father, if he fully brings us into being,
Eventually we will bring him into being.
Our Mother, if she fully gives birth to us,
Eventually, we will give birth to her…”
The one with character is the only one who lives forever.