Lessons in Integrity, Service and Patriotism at Year’s End

By JOHN M. IMPERIALE | Dec 19, 2018

You might think that this year, 2018, was an awful year for America. Virtually every issue that we faced divided us. All three branches of our government reached levels of dysfunction unseen since before the Civil War. Political campaigns reached new lows. Gun violence and civil unrest created a fear that permeated our daily lives. The stock market left many Americans dizzy and worried. Wildfires and storms ravaged cities and towns across the country as the Environmental Protection Agency committed itself to not protecting the environment. And on and on …

A terrible year? No. Two weeks this year overshadowed everything else, two weeks in which we were given clear lessons on how to live, how to die, and how to be an American. We were shown this country’s true greatness: courage, integrity, honesty, service. These were the qualities that were ushered in front and center, in an instructive way, in 2018. We all learned what is best about America and how Americans can be at their best.

This year we got to reflect on the lives of two men who taught us that character counts. They showed us that America produces greatness and great people. We were reminded that we had leaders of whom we could be proud, whether we agreed with them or not.

Time magazine just chose “Guardians of Truth” as their Persons of the Year, honoring journalists who fought to report honestly and fairly in a world where lying and deception by our leaders have become commonplace and accepted. That is a noble and worthy choice. We simply cannot allow our leaders to lie. Integrity matters.

However, in that same vein, my choice would have been John McCain and George H.W. Bush as Persons of the Year. The two weeks of their funerals gave us a vivid picture of the best of America.

From these two men, we learned that bravery and honesty are integral parts of American history. We were reminded how a president could put the interests of the country ahead of his own political future. We saw how a candidate could run for the presidency with dignity, even if it meant losing. We learned what kind of country America is.

From the eulogy given by Meghan McCain for her father: “The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold. She’s resourceful, confident, secure. She meets her responsibilities. She speaks quietly because she’s strong. America does not boast because she has no need to.”

From the eulogy given by George W. Bush for his father: “He showed me what it means to be a president who serves with integrity, leads with courage and acts with love in his heart for the citizens of our country.”

President George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain fought for America. One in World War II, one in Vietnam. One was shot down over the Pacific; one became a prisoner of war for over five years. Neither complained. Their strength of character was not in being captured and tortured, or shot down into the sea while on a dangerous mission. It was in how they acted in those times.

They each thought of their fellow warriors. John McCain refused release until those captured before him were released. George H.W. Bush regretted his survival because his fellow airmen were either killed or captured. His remorse cemented his commitment to serve his country when he asked himself, “What did God have in store for me?”

John McCain was the maverick of the Senate, from his work on campaign finance reform to his principled “thumbs down” on the repeal of Obamacare. In this age of untruths, he lived the “Straight Talk Express.”

George H.W. Bush, celebrating the kind of journalists that Time is honoring, said, “We need an independent media to hold people like me to account.” Honoring journalists who seek and report on the truth is fitting. Having politicians who put honesty and country above personal ambition is worth celebrating.

Presidential candidate John McCain famously corrected a woman, on national TV, when she questioned Barack Obama’s faith and patriotism, even though he knew he had a better chance of winning if he had just smiled and let her ignorance stand.

Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush promised “No new taxes,” and then raised taxes because it was necessary at the time, even though he knew it would probably doom his re-election. 

Integrity. Character. Neither was perfect. Both admitted so.

Sen. McCain allowed himself to get caught up in the political influence-peddling Keating Five scandal, tarnishing his reputation in spite of his ultimately being cleared. He then made campaign finance reform a personal mission. He failed to properly vet his vice presidential pick, probably costing him the White House.

Presidential candidate Bush allowed his campaign supporters to run the vile Willie Horton ad. As president, his domestic agenda never matched his foreign policy accomplishments, leading to a sluggish economy and his re-election defeat.

Both recognized their failings and the strength of humility. John McCain: “Among its other virtues, humility makes for more productive politics.” George H.W. Bush on being asked by Colin Powell to go to the ticker-tape parade in New York City to honor the Desert Storm victory said, “This is something that belongs to the troops, to you, the other members of the Joints Chiefs of Staffs, Secretary Cheney and Gen. Schwarzkopf. I don’t want to go. I’m not going to go.”

I could never adequately describe their lives of service in one essay, and it is not necessary. Their deaths made us all reflect on their lives. If each of us would take one lesson from these great men, any lesson that we can personally relate to, then America would be a better country. And we would be better people.

Each orchestrated his own funeral. Each made sure that the services sought to enlighten and inspire us. Love was the central theme in each. Family and friendship were on full display. No one who saw Meghan McCain or George W. Bush speak could ever forget that in a lifetime of total commitment to their country, these two men never neglected to love, honor and serve their family.

Let their lives be what we remember about the year 2018 and what we use to guide us in the future.

John M. Imperiale of Harvey Cedars can be reached at



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