This week’s Courier Herald column:
There was a time, only a generation or two ago, when words were currency. There was no social media. There were three major TV networks. Every city had at least one major newspaper that was widely read seven days per week.
There were rules, written and unwritten, for those that produced and reported news as well as for those that were the subjects of the stories. For politicians, the larger the stage, the more homogenous their statements and behavior.
Being spontaneous or “off the cuff” ran too much of a risk of being misinterpreted or offending many people at once. Politicians that could break out of uptight Washington Speak were of increasing value, as news organizations began to chase ratings and the dollars that followed.
Along the way, Ted Turner decided to give us 24-hour news which brought us more immediacy to what was covered. Late night talk shows became more political and more numerous. The internet brought us blogs and then social media, giving anyone with a keyboard or smart phone the ability to report news and opinion.
The quantity of words rapidly proliferated. The value of their currency changed as well.
I got to spend a little time around Senator John McCain at a time when cable news was firmly established as a permanent presence, but the internet had not yet unleased the power of the individual opinion. The value of network attention was still real, but the ability to stand out and capture alternative news mediums was growing.
Senator McCain was everything in person that his numerous profiles would suggest. In private, his language was what one would imagine of a Naval officer. In public, he enjoyed being politically incorrect when the phrase meant being plain spoken and irreverent.
He also loved to call advance staffers and other event volunteers “jerks”, if he liked them. If he really liked them…the language became more colorful. His refusal to conform to the uptight, made for network news telecasts made him a media favorite. He was “in on the joke”.
He came to Georgia a few times on behalf of his fellow Senator Bob Dole in 1996. I not only got to hear him call my friends and his friends names, but a few well known Washington pundits as well. His “straight talk” was his brand, but was only a small part of his currency.
McCain was used to praise, but was also hard on himself when he failed to meet his own high standards. McCain knew he was neither perfect nor a saint. He had failings, public and private. None stopped him from demanding better of himself or others. That was also part of his brand, his currency.
Once, as reported by the Weekly Standard, a film crew from Comedy Central decided to try to set up McCain with the question of “who is your favorite poet?”
McCain thought and then said “Robert Service”. Asked to recite some of his poetry, McCain gave them all fourteen stanzas of The Cremation of Sam McGee. Only when they were breaking down their camera equipment did McCain tell them why he had memorized the poem. It had been tapped to him in Morse Code from the person in the cell next to his in Vietnam, where he spent over 5 years as a prisoner of war.
The stanzas of a dark humored ballad were prized currency to an American POW, when words were few and shared only via gentle tapping between cells. McCain himself was currency to the Vietnamese army, who very much desired the PR victory of releasing the son of one of America’s highest ranking military officers.
John McCain had more than half a decade to evaluate the value of words and the value of actions – and the impact of each on the country he served. His conscious decision to remain a POW with those captured before him, to allow his broken bones and other wounds to go without proper treatment, to endure torture on a regular basis when freedom was an option were all personal sacrifices John McCain made for the standing of our country and its role in maintaining freedom in this world.
Even back then, McCain knew the value of the words that the Vietnamese would use if he accepted freedom. He chose not to spend his own currency.
In today’s world, words have lost much of their value. The proliferation of news outlets and the ability for everyone to share their thoughts and opinions with the rest of the world in real time has produced more noise than honest discourse. Words that criticize and show displeasure at the slightest deviation from expectation are common. Cheap, and common.
Leadership isn’t about talking in a way that will please the masses. It’s about making tough choices, often at personal sacrifice, and sometimes paying a personal price for doing so. When words become ubiquitous, people long for action.
John McCain didn’t tell us his value, he lived it. His body remained broken because of it. And we as a nation are a better people because of it, and are grateful for his life and his service.