I met a personal hero in my early 30s. A dim recording of our 40-year-old 40-minutes still exists.
My life has been lucky, in part, because of unexpected encounters such as this, and for other reasons, too. I grew up in a time when the world of little boys overflowed with heroic TV and movie figures. Most displayed physical bravery, but there was right in what they stood for: as the Superman television series told it, “truth, justice, and the American Way.”
I’m not the only serious kid who took the message seriously. Our fathers fought in World War II and Korea. Duty and sacrifice were expected of us, as well. The boundaries of acceptable behavior were clearer then. Now exhibitionism and self-congratulations — characteristics once frowned upon — squirm and twist themselves into chest-beating greatness. Meaningful apology is absent in much of public life.
We choose our heroes uncritically as kids. Most parents bask for a while in the admiring gaze of their children. Adulthood brings a more nuanced view. Today’s media offer few people with the purity of The Rifleman, Paladin, and The Lone Ranger — the principled Westerners my generation of boys watched in the ’50s and ’60s.
That world, as it enlarged, compromised us all and we compromised ourselves. Some of this is inescapable and doesn’t involve the loss of your soul. Still, there are things I wish I hadn’t done, adult times when I wasn’t my best self. Regarding other actions and inactions, I’ve made a quiet peace; grateful for the knowledge, humility, and experience the shortfalls brought me. Not to excuse moments of cruelty, failing resolve, or license, but as I look around the globe I notice some company. So it is that I try to do better.
I wonder if we are poorer for the missing simplicity of the remarkable characters TV paraded past the mid-twentieth-century optic nerves of my generation, as we search today’s narrow daily world for models in matters of living.
Who was the hero who greeted me on March 18, 1978? A gorgeous man and a great one. Not outsized, as POW John McCain was, because of refusing a chance to free himself from continuing torture. Preferential treatment and desertion of his comrades meant cowardice, and the airman suffered for his steadfast valor.
Carlo Maria Giulini, instead, was a symphony conductor/hero, who also knew what mattered. He exemplified virtue in action and his art. Unlike Giulini, few of us are both good and great, a combination irresistible to his admirers.
Integrity is a always a pricey thing. The Italian musician said no to rather different opportunities than the combat pilot: promotion of his career and financial gain because he convinced himself full readiness to honor men like Bach and Tchaikovsky was more important.
The Maestro believed love for the music was not sufficient, but required understanding of the intention of every note on the page. Only upon fulfillment of both demands did he permit his private search for beauty to become public in performance. Years would go by even if it meant — as it did — never leading compositions he loved. “I’d rather be three years too late, than three minutes too soon,” he said. Here was a gentle man made of steel.
We lost an extraordinary person in John McCain on August 25, 2018, a statesman saluted by sham mourners whose expensive clothing disguises a lack of character, and others who recognize what they lost and attempt to improve themselves because of his example.
Late in life, McCain might have uttered the words Tennyson put in the mouth of the aged Ulysses to his surviving companions of the Trojan War, before they embarked on their final voyage:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
John McCain’s daughter Meghan gave a distinguished eulogy. Such sadness is common enough at funerals, but not by itself a reason to view it. Listen to her devotion and private knowledge of the Senator who was her dad, her eloquence in describing what made him special and necessary. Those qualities compel our attention and respect as a kind of civic duty.
Such men as the congressman lift us by the standard they set. Imperfect, but noble. They reach beyond themselves in service of a greater cause. The best among us do not rate self-interest as the dominating value in their lives.
Here is her speech. I hope you will watch and try to do better, as we all must if our world and that of our children and grandchildren is to be better:
The top photo is of Carlo Maria Giulini. The second image is from an Interview with John McCain done on April 24, 1973. Thomas J. O’Halloran was the photographer. It comes from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.