Friday, August 29, 2008

Heroes, Kings, and Old Men

I must admit I feel sorry for John McCain. It's not because he may lose the election for president. It has to do with something else, something that will remain with him whether he loses or wins. The problem I see is one that is writ large in his life, but appears also in the lives of many men who do not appear in the news.

McCain refers very often to his military service and to his time as a prisoner of war. Lots of other people talk about this time in his life, and even his opponents refer to him as a hero. His later decades, including several terms in the Senate, appear almost as an anti-climax.

Perhaps the young McCain was a hero. Certainly on behalf of his country he suffered in ways that no one should have to suffer. But heroism is for young men, perhaps also for those in middle age. McCain is now past seventy, and as Aaron Kipnis has said, "There are no old heroes--only wise or foolish old men." Someone McCain's age can be a credible senator or president. But by that point in life, heroism needs to give place to something greater. The hero must become the wise old man. If not, then he turns into the foolish old man, somebody stuck in the past.

John McCain is the third of that name. His grandfather was an admiral, and his father was also. The current John McCain never became an admiral. I wonder how much he is haunted by this. I wonder also how much he is haunted by having served his country inside an enemy prison rather than in a position of high command. That was a hell of a hard way to become a hero.

If these are McCain's preoccupations, then he has company. Many men have difficulty letting go of heroic expectations about themselves or even heroic realities. When I was in college, I met a World War II veteran, a relative of one of my friends. Within the first ten minutes of our acquaintance, he was reciting with gusto stories of the dangers he had faced in that war thirty years earlier. It was as though nothing had happened since then. Whether a man is acknowledged as a hero or not, he may not learn that there is life afterward, and that his final decades are inevitably characterized by either foolishness or wisdom.

Another stage can occur between the young hero and the old man. That is the stage of the king. Kings can reign well or poorly. They can preside over territories large or small: not only entire nations, but businesses, classrooms, and families. Richard Rohr has said that a man is rarely in touch with his king energy before the age of fifty. When there's a true king in the room, you know it. He's robust, confident but not arrogant, and embodies a zest for life. The true king makes others feel safe and appreciated.

I've learned a lot about John McCain in recent months, as many Americans have, and I find little or no evidence of positive king energy in what he does. People who know him well, even some who share his political perspective, find him hard to get along with. The greatest leaders add luster even to high office. Others fulfill their roles with dignity and competence. The record suggests that McCain does not belong to either of these groups.

Barack Obama is still in his forties, yet he strikes me as a man moving from hero to king. His mother, his father, his stepfather, and his grandfather are all gone, and he has separated himself from his spiritual father, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Becoming a good king often involves saying farewell to parental figures and leaving mentors behind. The end of these relationships brings grief and sometimes conflict. Obama's words and actions demonstrate that he has negotiated these transitions in a thoughtful way. He lives in the present moment, not the past.

I feel sorry for John McCain, but I will not vote for him. On the other hand, Barack Obama makes me hopeful. Whether or not he's elected president, Obama will serve our country with positive king energy and in time become an old man of uncommon wisdom.

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