(This is the way an American hero acts.)
Some people become heroes once.
John McCain was a hero four different ways, by my count.
He was a hero in wartime and he was a hero during the stench of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.
That is why I am celebrating the news that he has posthumously been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The medal is going to deserving people like
--Sandra Lindsay, a nurse who lives in the same town I do, who became the first American to be inoculated against Covid.
--Simone Biles, the Olympic champion who excelled despite being assaulted in one form or another by a rogue doctor, the gymnastics federation, and the FBI
-- Megan Rapinoe, who caught my eye with her brazen sorties as a star soccer player, and then caught the eye of the world with her support of female athletes and LGBTQ causes.
---And so many others.
John McCain touches my heart in a special way because he was a perpetual hero, and also a very human public figure.
I met him once in his office in 1999, when we talked so easily during a break in a Senate investigation of the Olympic movement. (He had just savaged an American Olympic official who sounded too vague to the senator.)
I began with a question about something else: my wife had sat next to one of McCain’s service buddies on a long flight to Asia. The man told her how the senator was quietly leading some vets to raise money and goods and shipping them to, yes, Vietnam – the same country that had broken his arms during a long and cruel captivity.
In his office in 1999, I asked McCain why he helped Vietnam. His answer was an eloquent shrug with his damaged shoulders -- a gesture of modesty.
John McCain was also a hero during his doomed campaign in 2008 when Republican voters vilified Sen. Barack Obama as “an Arab.” John McCain snatched the microphone back with the response that his fellow senator was a good man, a family man. McCain asserted that he would make a better president, but he told his own people that they need not worry about the loyalties of his opponent. That is the instinctive act of an American political hero. Or used to be.
The fourth time John McCain was a hero was in 2017 when it was apparent he was dying of cancer. With a post-operative scar on his head, John McCain strode, military-like, to the floor of the Senate, where his colleagues were voting whether to scuttle much of the health-care program known as Obamacare.
At 1:39 AM, John McCain faced the twisted Mitch McConnell and jabbed his right thumb downward, in a decisive gesture straight from the Roman Colosseum. No repeal. Ongoing health care for millions.
That, for me, is the act of a hero.
The recipients of the Medal of Freedom are always varied. I became interested in the medal in 2011 when Stan Musial, whose biography I was writing, was among the honorees. Through a Washington insider friend, I received a special guest pass, (more access than a journalist) and mingled with the guests and the recipients, including a fading Stan the Man.
I watched President Obama appear, so knowing and enthused about each of the recipients and their fields. I got to chat with Bill Russell, still fierce-looking, and tell Yo-Yo Ma how much I admired his diverse cello repertoire
On the way in, a Washington lawyer pal of mine was showing me a photo of himself with a very young President n 1961, and a handsome lady spotted the photo and said, “That’s my brother” – meaning President Kennedy. She was Jean Kennedy Smith, another recipient that day.
After the ceremony, Yo-Yo Ma sat in with a Marine string quartet in the lobby, and his pal President Obama stood near him, and on the way out, “back to work.” the President extended his hand to people nearby, and one of them was me -- an act of grace I will never forget.
So, yes, I count the Presidential Medal of Freedom as one of those great American honors.
Now the medal is going to other deserving recipients.
There is no A List and B List.
But I will say, in my heart, the recipient who thrills me the most this time around is John McCain, four-time hero.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.