John McCain was 11 or 12 when he found a four-leaf clover in the yard of his family’s home in northern Virginia, rushed into his father’s library to press it in a book, and pulled the Hemingway novel set during the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, off a shelf. The book fell open to an account of a war atrocity, and it grabbed his attention. He started reading and didn’t stop until he’d finished. He would read it again many times over his life. When I asked him once for a list of his childhood heroes, Robert Jordan, the novel’s protagonist, who gives his life to save the lives of his comrades, was one of the first names he mentioned. “He’s fictional,” I observed. “I know,” he replied, “but he’s important to me.”
His hero’s courage, which McCain described as “beautiful fatalism,” appealed to that quality in McCain that made him a romantic about his causes and a cynic about the world. He understood the world as it was, with all its corruption and cruelty. But he thought it a moral failure to accept injustice as the inescapable tragedy of our fallen nature.
He believed that human beings redeemed themselves from their flaws and failures through their courage and self-sacrifice in the service of others, and that the greatest of human achievements was to not lose hope when experience had taught you hope is for fools. Hemingway’s odes to those qualities made him McCain’s favorite writer.
McCain’s last filmed interview was for a documentary on the life and works of Hemingway, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. I attended a screening of the unfinished film a year after John died. He had been noticeably frail when the interview was filmed. But you couldn’t tell that from his appearance onscreen. There he was again, lively and engaging, forthright, expressing himself in the way he had of seeming wry and earnest at the same time. Though I knew it was coming, when he appeared in the film, it took me a little by surprise. There you are, old man. It’s good to see you.
McCain’s moments onscreen are moving. He pays tribute to his role model, Jordan. Near the end, commenting on Hemingway’s suicide and the life of the troubled soul who could be selfish and cruel, McCain was generous. “He was a human being,” he said, by which he meant someone who, for all his “many vices,” had used his art to understand mankind, and represent mankind, and take the side of mankind in battles against injustice. “And that, my friend, erases a whole lot of other what may be failings in life.” Just hearing him say “my friend” again, that old, familiar salutation, brought a lump to the throat.
The film reminded me of an experience more than a decade before, in October 2008, near the end of the presidential campaign he knew he was losing. We were a small party, gathered in his hotel suite in La Crosse, Wisconsin: the candidate and his wife, a few aides and traveling companions. It was an unusually early end to the afternoon. There was nothing more on his schedule until a town-hall meeting in a Twin Cities suburb later that evening, which would prove memorable when some of his supporters booed him as he defended Barack Obama from their attacks on his patriotism.
I picture us almost out of sorts, as if none of us knew exactly what to do with the time other than check BlackBerrys and cellphones. It was kind of a gloomy moment, despite the room’s cheerful view of the fall foliage along the Mississippi, which reminded me of the river town where I grew up. Ruminating about old times isn’t an activity much indulged in the last weeks of a national election, nor is feeling gloomy or unexpectedly idle or nostalgic. It’s all frenetic energy, bad diets, and stress. But I do remember the moment that way, a touch of autumn melancholy, an idle few hours, each of us occupied with our own thoughts.
Should we get something to eat? someone asked. Why not? “See what they have for room service,” the candidate instructed. I located a menu, which had photographs of the fare on offer. I started flipping through it and stopped when I came to the dessert page, and marveled at the confections pictured, pastries heaped with ice cream and whipped cream. “Oh, the short, happy lives of midwesterners,” I remarked, playing on Hemingway’s story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” McCain smiled as he caught the reference.
“That’s a great story,” he said, “one of his best.” I agreed. “Not his very best, though,” he added. “Not ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro.’ Did you ever read it?” I told him I had, but not since high school. He reached into his battered briefcase, stuffed with books and magazines and memos he meant to read later, and extracted a paperback volume of Hemingway stories. “Listen to this,” he ordered, and he began to read the story. This is how it begins:
Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.
He read the entire story aloud. It’s long for a short story, more than 9,000 words. It took him longer than an hour to read, and he was hoarse when he finished. For those who have never had the pleasure, it’s the story of a writer on an African safari, dying of gangrene, aware of his predicament, and reflecting back on his life’s choices. I had always considered it a story of heartbreaking regret. An odd choice, or maybe not, for a candidate in a presidential election. But I don’t think McCain’s impulse to read it had a thing to do with his present circumstances. I don’t think that for him, the story was about regret. It was a story of aspiration. At the end of it, in his delirium as death approaches, the protagonist believes he is aloft in an airplane, flying through a violent storm until he sees the “square top of Kilimanjaro,” looking “as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun.”
McCain struggled to finish the story’s last paragraphs as his small audience, frozen and silent, shot furtive glances at one another. He had read the story a hundred times, by his account. And on the 101st time, he cried at the end. “It’s beautiful,” he explained, “beautiful.”
What was the leopard seeking at that altitude? To leave below the regrets of a life. To make up for its failings. To ascend by courage and good work and sacrifice until its conscience was quiet in appreciation of the steep climb. What was the leopard seeking at that altitude? Its best self. Its honor.