As a nation, we are shaped by what and who we remember. It matters that Americans remember the life, the sacrifice, and the legacy of the late Arizona Senator John McCain. He devoted his entire adult life to serving his country and fighting for its ideals.
America isn’t about a flag, or an anthem, or a territory within fortress walls. It’s about America’s beliefs and the truths about humanity that we hold to be self-evident. Our nation is not about the differences that drive us apart — it’s about the values that have bound us together through every test. Throughout his career and until his last breath, Senator McCain understood that and gave it life. His leadership was grounded in a deep sense of duty. His life was a model of public service and America was better for it.
Senator McCain would be the first to admit he did not always live up to his own ideals. When I lived in Arizona he was my senator, and I did not agree with many of his policy positions. Against this complicated backdrop, his many acts of courage and moral clarity stand in stark contrast to other leaders. Imagine how much good the fundamentally bipartisan Senator McCain could have done if America’s social and economic landscape were not the prize in an endless contest between rival political tribes.
To me, the defining moment of Senator McCain’s remarkable saga came in July 2017, just weeks after surgeons removed an aggressive tumor from his brain. Senator McCain returned to Washington, DC, and cast the deciding vote that blocked a foolish bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act. He derided his Senate colleagues for short-circuiting the legislative process, cutting off public debate, and rushing such an unpopular and consequential bill to a vote. His courageous thumbs down electrified the nation and spared millions of Americans from the untold suffering of losing their health insurance. Senator McCain was known for his valor on the battlefield and for his strength and courage in surviving five brutal years as a prisoner of war. That will always be inspiring, but we can’t forget his heroism in saving countless lives at home with that vote.
At a dark time when Senator McCain’s style of leadership and public service has gone missing from our politics, it’s up to us to remember the ideals that he stood for — and to keep them alive. In the farewell message released after his death, he wrote: “We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But, 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’ll get through these challenging times… Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history, we make history. Farewell fellow Americans.”
Dr. Sandra R. Hernández is president and CEO of the California Health Care Foundation. Prior to joining CHCF, Sandra was CEO of The San Francisco Foundation, which she led for 16 years. She previously served as director of public health for the City and County of San Francisco. She also co-chaired San Francisco’s Universal Healthcare Council, which designed Healthy San Francisco, an innovative health access program for the uninsured.
Sandra is an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. She practiced at San Francisco General Hospital in the AIDS clinic from 1984 to 2016. She was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the Covered California board of directors in February 2018. She currently serves on the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing Advisory Council at UC Davis and the UC Regents Committee on Health Services. Sandra served on the External Advisory Committee at the Stanford Center for Population Health Sciences in 2016. Sandra is a graduate of Yale University, the Tufts School of Medicine, and the certificate program for senior executives in state and local government at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.