John McCain
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

One night in 1936 at Manhattan’s old-Republican Union League Club, Endicott Peabody, rector of the elite Groton School, cautioned a group of its alumni who’d been denouncing fellow-alumnus Franklin D. Roosevelt as a traitor to their class and—they thought—the country. Peabody told them that while he understood their vehemence, he considered Franklin “a gallant gentleman and a friend.”

Peabody had his own disagreements with Roosevelt, but he sincerely believed that Groton’s motto—Cui Servire Est Regnare (“To Serve Is to Rule”) was more than just a gloss for rule by the rich. It reminded him rather more of his own Puritan ancestors’ admonition, expressed by John Winthrop in 1630, to sustain a commonwealth whose members “‘make others’ Condicions our owne…allwayes haveing before our eyes our Commission and Community in the worke.”

As Peabody defended Roosevelt, a still and perfect silence descended upon the room. His listeners were struggling to reconcile their filiopietistic respect for the rector who’d taught them to play hard and fair with their loathing of his friend, a tribune of the downtrodden.

A liberal capitalist republic sometimes hangs in the balance of silences like that. It hung that way last Tuesday night, between plutocracy and democracy, as John McCain admonished his fellow senators to work together for the good of the country.

He urged them to “learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us…Considering the injustice and cruelties inflicted by autocratic governments, and how corruptible human nature can be, the problem solving our system does make possible…and the liberty and justice it preserves, is a magnificent achievement.”

That system “doesn’t depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections, and gives an order to our individual strivings,” he said. “It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than ‘winning.’”

Among McCain’s Republican colleagues, only Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine would vote with him early in the morning of July 28 against yet another of their party leaders’ politically expedient, substantively disastrous efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But I can imagine at least a few other Senate Republicans feeling as small when McCain spoke as Peabody’s old Groton boys had when their rector did.

Other Senators had felt small in 1971, when a young Vietnam veteran, John Kerry, asked them, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” McCain had almost died for that very mistake as a fighter pilot shot down over North Vietnam. He and Kerry had bonded across partisan differences after deciding, painfully, that instead of exhibiting “nobility,” they’d contributed to the mistake itself.

Like Peabody’s Groton boys, Kerry and McCain had been born to American “nobility”—Kerry to old lineage and wealth, McCain to an admiral who’d commanded the Pacific Fleet. But both had been humbled by their imperfections and defeats.

So had Senator Sam Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina, born to white supremacy, if not wealth, who had fought long and hard for another big mistake—the Jim Crow laws of segregation—only to see it rolled back. A few years later, describing himself as only a slow “country lawyer,” he masterfully and fairly chaired the bipartisan committee whose hearings on Watergate would bring down President Nixon.

Also born to American nobility was James Luce, nephew of TIME magazine co-founder and herald of “the American Century” Henry Luce. Early this year he protested Yale’s renaming of its hallowed Commons as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center after the university received a $150 million donation from the billionaire chairman of President Trump’s Business Advisory Council.

In a letter to the Yale Daily News, Luce wrote that “Schwarzman and his company…accumulate vast wealth at the expense of ordinary people and at the risk of renewed market chaos. After the Trump administration crashes and burns in a vast pyre of corruption and incompetence, I wonder how long it will be before there’s a renaming hearing on the Schwarzman Center.”

Taken together, such remonstrances and many others I could cite tell us something about risks of racial and cultural stereotyping. In each case, a wealthy white man who’d grown up with unearned privileges, indefensible biases, and personal imperfections learned from others’ protests and from what was best in his own past to heed John Winthrop’s admonition to “make others’ Condicions our owne . . . allwayes haveing before our eyes our Commission and Community”—even at considerable risk to his bases of popular and pecuniary support.

Terms such as “character” and “civic virtue” are often used and dismissed as excuses for elite breeding. But in these and many less heralded cases, they really meant something to carriers of American republican (small “r”) leadership. McCain and the other old white guys I’ve mentioned have blundered at times. But so have we all, and that’s why we have the Constitution whose frustrations he mentioned. Let’s not be too quick to write off these men’s character and their credibility with most Americans—especially now, when, once again, our liberal capitalist republic hangs in the balance.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.