“I have been amusing myself latterly with reading the voluminous letters of Cicero. [T]hey certainly breathe the present effusions of an exalted patriot, while the parricide Caesar is left in odious contrast.” Those words were written by Thomas Jefferson on Dec. 10, 1819, in a letter to John Adams, himself a great Cicero scholar. America’s second president even modeled himself on the great Roman orator and politician: “All the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher,” Adams once wrote.
Adams and Jefferson were not alone. In the centuries that have passed since his death in 43 BC, many statesmen and many philosophers have emulated Marcus Tullius Cicero, celebrating his defense of the Roman Republic against the populism and tyranny of Caesar. And yet – in his own time, in his own political world, and by his own terms – Cicero lost. His writing was eloquent, but his ideas did not prevail. The Roman Republic collapsed; the advocates of dictatorship won. Cicero himself was murdered on the orders of Mark Antony, who went on to create an autocracy.
I thought about Cicero a few weeks ago when I was in Sedona, Ariz., at the annual forum of the McCain Institute. By modern American political standards, this was an extraordinary event. Republicans and Democrats were in attendance, including senators from both sides of the aisle. A couple of senior administration figures were there too, including both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Yet most of the conversations and panels were bipartisan, even apolitical: the conversation was about American foreign policy and, more specifically, about what Americans can do to make the world better.
Throughout the two days, the president’s name was barely mentioned. But although John McCain was not at the meeting – he had just been hospitalized for complications related to his inoperable cancer – his name came up over and over. More to the point, the entire event was infused with McCain’s worldview: the belief that it is possible for public-spirited officials to act in the interests of America and America’s allies, and not themselves; that democracy remains a political system worth supporting and spreading; that there are some things all Americans share, no matter what their political orientation.
Like Cicero, McCain now stands for a set of ideals, expressed in his action and his words. His refusal to use his status as an admiral’s son to get out of a POW camp during the Vietnam War; his principled opposition to the use of torture; his efforts to reach a bipartisan agreement on immigration; his efforts, more generally, to forge bipartisan consensus around foreign policy; his famous refusal, during his failed 2008 campaign for president, to attack Barack Obama as a “Muslim” or a traitor, as many in his party demanded. All these are things one might very well describe as “the effusions of an exalted patriot.”
McCain would be the first to say that he didn’t always live up to all of his ideals, but his lifelong attempt to live them helps explain why, as he is dying, there is a sudden flurry of interest in McCain, a glut of commentary about McCain, a plethora of short anecdotes about McCain circulating on social media. This is also why people close to the White House cannot stop themselves from making vulgar comments or vile jokes about McCain: They know that McCain embodies not just a form of patriotism but a kind of courage and honor that Trump will simply never have.
The “odious contrast” is particularly stark because, for the moment, Trump’s vision of America has won. The White House is dominated by a completely different worldview: mean-spirited and partisan, self-serving and corrupt, transactional rather than idealistic, more favorable to dictatorship than democracy. Cicero also lost. But his ideas continued to resonate long after his death, even inspiring America’s founding fathers. We have to hope that McCain’s vision of America and its place in the world will outlast him too – even if his ideals appear right now to be in rapid retreat.