On National Service, McCain’s Mea Culpa Changed the United States

John McCain, who was laid to final rest Saturday after losing his year-long battle with brain cancer, was a singular statesman, and someone who was at his best when, and because, he conceded his worst.

Ours is a country and discourse ravaged by ego and venom, where hamfisted belligerence is rewarded with popularity and where impenitence is a virtue, but the legacy of McCain was the courage to apologize and the wisdom to know a life isn’t punctuated by its failings but instead our actions to correct them.

McCain, who was once his party’s presidential nominee and later its bane when he foiled Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, had the uncanny capacity to be regarded in popular opinion as both villain and hero, often simultaneously, by bucking expectations and ideology. But never — not in the five years he suffered as a prisoner of war, nor equally in the nearly four decades he served in Congress — could you question his fidelity to his country.

His life was spent in service to something higher, and he was nothing if not an untiring champion for those who shared in that duty. That’s why those in the national service community were so bewildered he initially opposed efforts to expand opportunities for Americans to devote a year of service to their country and communities.

In 1993, McCain voted against the National and Community Service Trust Act, which created the Corporation for National and Community Service and AmeriCorps, and later supported efforts to eliminate the agency’s funding.

To those who understood the patriotism of national service and those who dedicate themselves to it, the senator’s position seemed wholly inconsistent with the values he so publicly espoused.

National service–like the AmeriCorps members who literally dredged submerged Gulf Coast communities after Hurricane Katrina, or those who develop and care for public lands, or those who give impoverished children an honest chance at success with a good education–is service to our country. Eventually, John McCain came to understand that.

“I initially opposed the AmeriCorps bill,” McCain said at a 2003 City Year conference. “And I am happy to tell you that over the years, due to my close contact with and exposure to AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and many other volunteer organizations around this nation, I’ve come to believe that it’s the very essence of patriotism because I believe the essence of patriotism  is service to a cause greater than one’s self-interests.”

It’s love of country that compels someone to devote a year of the life in service to that country,  just as it might compel their neighbor to enlist in the Armed Forces. Whether civilian or military, service is a pathway to a better, more prosperous nation, because it develops a deeper sense of citizenship and strengthens communities.

It may have taken McCain a few years to embrace civilian national service, but he eventually became one of AmeriCorps’ greatest champions.

Less than ten years after he opposed the program’s creation, he introduced legislation in 2001 with Sen. Evan Bayh to dramatically expand AmeriCorps to meet critical homeland needs in public safety, health, and education. The pair, along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, introduced a similar proposal two years later, and McCain separately joined Sen. Michael Bennett in 2015 to introduce the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act, which would have dramatically expanded opportunities for young people and returning veterans to serve by protecting, restoring, and enhancing our country’s natural landscape.

War hero, titan of the United States Senate, two times presidential candidate — McCain carved his rightful place in the story of America. But the history books will never be large enough to tell how the life of a veteran, or child, or opioid addict was changed. Changed by national service. Changed because McCain had the courage to admit he was wrong.

That’s the legacy McCain leaves behind, and it’s one to which we should all aspire.

AnnMaura Connolly is the president of Voices for National Service and the chief strategy officer of City Year Inc.

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