The excessive spectacle surrounding our recently passed statesman and war martyr, Senator John McCain, came as little surprise. To the disinterested observer, that the vast and broad anti-McCain rhetoric questioned his status as a hero and his credentials as a statesman was nothing if not predictable. To an observer who’d lived on a planet outside of our galaxy since 2016, the epithets and animus coming from John McCain’s own party might have been shocking. For the rest of us who’ve observed the takeover of that party by an unprincipled impostor—a POW belittler and recent Democrat himself—nothing remains that can shock us. The most visceral post-mortem disdain was shoveled out from a hole deeper than the Everglades-is-wide by folks who’ve overtaken a Grand Old Party that once nominated McCain for the Presidency. Liberal institutionalists came to his defense alongside institutional Reagan-Bush conservatives. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
We need moments of somber reflection to remind us that we share a humanity—an Americanness. Even more, we need to see our political institutions coalesce around an idea that may be wrapped in the body of a dearly deceased friend. We need to witness gestures like the passing of a butterscotch down a pew between retired First Ladies. We need to remember, and hold tight to the re-insurgent perpetuity of McCain’s brand of compassionate, common-ground, country-first conservatism and that it can intersect with compassionate, common-ground, country-first Democrats.
In a time in which factionalism was at its zenith—and which ultimately led to Civil War—Walt Whitman, America’s greatest poetic voice, imparted:
I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the
night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread.
For the LGBTQ community, our relationship with Whitman sings cantatas for how we approach our bed-fellows. We, Leaves-of-Grassers, are inclined to lead with love and with a celebration of our similar tendencies (literally and romantically). Fear may seek to separate us, but if we can’t find common verse then the song of Whitman has fallen upon deaf ears.
Whitman’s song of America remains truer than ever.
What was, in his day, a surreptitious type of relationship founded in the beauty of human form and hidden behind multi-entendre, survives today with pride: dance, laugh, sing.
We are the progeny of strange bedfellows.
Just as World War II drew American democratic idealists into brave perseverance alongside communist puppets against Nazism:
Just as 9-11 pulled Americans of various political persuasions together into a common cause against violent, radical, religious terrorism:
Just as John McCain’s passing reminded us that many constitutionalists for whom the fundamental institutions of American culture cut across parties to resist insular, authoritarian populism:
We find opportunity to celebrate—to assert—that we are invigorated by hugging and loving bedfellows, because of—if not in spite of—their surface strangeness.
Rational Republicans and bleeding heart Democrats—I’ve taken to calling us “Radical Centrists”— have more in common with each other than populist upstarts within our own parties. John McCain reminded us that, from this historically justified, institutional vein of American polity, we may disagree on policy solutions even as we largely agree on the core values—and issues—that we must address. We join in a communion that the rule of law is at the core of justice; we are in agreement that we are equal and that systemic impediments to the equitable distribution of opportunity should be rooted out; we, together, value civil rights and social responsibilities and the tensions inherent in our Constitution.
Yet, we spend too much time resisting and mourning—as if these are our only callings-together—instead of building and celebrating. If Republicans and Democrats can come together for a day to send off a bedfellow and to shun a cancer on the Politick, there is precedent to empower the overlooked, to welcome dreamers, to dignify otherness, to serenade America.
During the Civil War, Whitman spent time tending military hospitals: honoring the broken bodies and validating the sacrifices young men made in the name of union and freedom and love. For the balance of his life, he honed his celebration of America—from its individuals and heroes to its collective promise. We are at a point in our history when our living bedfellows are more consequential than those we’ve buried. Let’s re-cast the loss of a single individual—at an Army hospital in 1862, at a theater in 1865, at a razor-wired beachhead in 1944, in the collapsed ruins of an American metropolis in 2001, to brain cancer in 2018, in the wake of violent storm-ravaging yesterday–to remind us that, like America,
I am large, I contain multitudes
and also individually,
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
We are America: bedfellows remembering heroes, reaching out to brothers and sisters beside us and dreaming forward with much yet to see, dance, laugh, sing. If we can’t be the Whitmans, let’s at least be the McCains. If we can’t be the poets, let’s at least be the poem.
Read this piece as published at WatermarkOnline
Read more of my poetry and essays at Momentitiousness