(CNN) — There’s a great tradition of farewell addresses in American life, usually written by departing presidents saying goodbye to our nation after their terms in office.
But Sen. John McCain, a man whose patriotic stature rivals and even exceeds many presidents, issued his farewell address in a letter read two days after his death by his long-time aide Rick Davis. As emotional as it was for Davis to read, it was equally poignant for those of us who admired McCain to listen to.
As with all farewell addresses, it offered a distillation of hard-won wisdom from his life in war and peace.
George Washington’s Farewell Address is the first and perhaps still most iconic leave-taking in American history and established a tradition that McCain followed by instinct.
Washington’s Farewell begins with an expression of gratitude to his “friends and fellow citizens” for a lifetime of service, an admission of having made mistakes and an expression of hope that those mistakes are outweighed by his attempt to serve our nation with honor.
McCain did just that at the outset of his address to his “Fellow Americans,” writing: “I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.”
Farewell addresses also define core principles of our country, as McCain’s did: “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world.”
But the other great tradition of farewell addresses is that they offer a warning to future generations. Washington warned about the forces that could destroy our democratic republic, drawing on the lessons of his life and understanding of history, a subject I covered extensively in my book, “Washington’s Farewell.” Andrew Jackson’s farewell warned against the siren song of secession. Dwight David Eisenhower famously warned against the rise of the “military industrial complex.” And in January 2017, Barack Obama warned against threats to our democracy at home and abroad.
McCain warned against departing from our deepest ideals, which are the cornerstone of American exceptionalism: “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
It is hard not to hear in those words an implicit diss to President Donald Trump and the divisive politics he has come to symbolize. But the fact that those sentiments have an urgent edge in the current environment is one way to gauge how far we have lurched from traditional American terms of debate. After all, “us and against them” is the opposite of our national motto, e pluribus unum: Out of many, one.
But farewell addresses always offer a redeeming hope, a renewable source of strength we can draw upon to get through hard times. McCain’s did the same, reminding Americans that for all our differences and sometimes “vociferous” debates, “we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”
McCain’s final advice was to tap into the wellspring of defiant optimism that has always defined us as Americans: “Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”
It was an eloquent final statement from a great man who is part of an even greater American tradition. His powerful example in life — and now in death — can continue to inspire and guide us through stormy skies.
Godspeed John McCain, from your fellow Americans.