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John McCain's return speech was a fantastic civics lesson

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McCain has always seemed to operate according to an internal logical consistency whose existence few could doubt but even fewer could fully fathom. (C-SPAN2 via AP)

Sen. John McCain on Tuesday in the Senate gave one of the great speeches of American history. Its content was an almost perfect distillation of the career-long themes of this remarkable, infuriating, courageous, temperamental, wise, headstrong, indefatigable patriot.

McCain has always seemed to operate according to an internal logical consistency whose existence few could doubt but even fewer could fully fathom. The logic's premises all seem to reside in a five-dimensional Rubik's Cube, its colored tiles always shifting around, inside McCain's mind and psyche.

What is discernible in this enigma, indeed obvious, is that the logic's lodestar, the lodestar of McCain's very existence, is an almost heart-breakingly deep love of his particular country – not because it is his country, but because it is a noble one. But beyond that, an observer could guess wrong a thousand straight times as to which combination of love and anger, canniness and openness, momentary passion and far-sighted sagacity would manifest itself in his behavior.

But this speech, this raw but contemplative message to colleagues and countrymen, contained the clearest and most accessible exposition of McCainism imaginable.

It is a "privilege," he said, "to play a small role in the history of the country I love." He paid homage to senators "who played much more than a small role in our history, true statesmen, giants of American politics."

Men and women like these often had disputes that were "sharp and heartfelt," but "they had an obligation to work collaboratively to ensure the Senate discharged its constitutional responsibilities effectively."

Assuming an underlying commitment to principle, McCain rightly identified the two keys to such statesmanship as 1) willingness to compromise on means and lesser ends in order to... 2) make "incremental progress."

With that enlightened esteem for incrementalism, McCain revealed himself as a true Madisonian, deeply imbued with the founding insight that our system is designed not for radical or rapid change but for carefully painstaking policy experimentation.

In words every high school civics student should memorize, McCain elaborated:

Just plain muddling through to chip away at problems and keep our enemies from doing their worst isn't glamorous or exciting. It doesn't feel like a political triumph. But it's usually the most we can expect from our system of government, operating in a country as diverse and quarrelsome and free as ours.

But that's perfectly okay: "Considering the injustice and cruelties inflicted by autocratic governments, and how corruptible human nature can be, the problem solving our system does make possible, the fitful progress it produces, and the liberty and justice it preserves, is a magnificent achievement."

The Republican Arizona senator is absolutely correct.

The next part of his speech, a peroration of magnificently plain-spoken eloquence, was a plea for his colleagues to return to those understandings and to the practices stemming from them. It was a plea aimed at "agreements that don't require abandonment of core principles, agreements made in good faith that help improve lives and protect the American people. The Senate is capable of that."

McCain also rightly reminded a national audience that Congress is decidedly "not the President's subordinates; we are his equal!" (And yes, the exclamation mark was included, quite appropriately, in the written version of his speech.) Would-be statesmen of both parties should remember that, and act accordingly.

The final passages of McCain's civic homily came straight from the very soul of a man who, though self-admittedly flawed, has served this nation with a steadfastness and grit beyond most imagining. He served it because, with every fiber of his being, he believes it, believes us, to be morally worthy of selfless service.

He is right about that, too. To wit:

America has made a greater contribution than any other nation to an international order that has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have been the greatest example, the greatest supporter and the greatest defender of that order. We aren't afraid. We don't covet other people's land and wealth. We don't hide behind walls. We breach them. We are a blessing to humanity.

Yes, we Americans are a blessing to humanity, no matter how many academics and agitators mendaciously say the opposite. And for some 60 adult years of sharp-elbowed, sharp-tongued dedication to what he likes to call "a cause greater than self," John McCain has been a sometimes cantankerous, more-often captivating, blessing to America – and thus a blessing to a whole world made better by America's presence in it.

And he's not finished serving -- no, not yet.

Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner.

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