John McCain was a war hero; that’s undeniable. Still, he never liked the label. No true hero ever does. But the truth is, it didn’t begin do him justice.
To me, John wasn't only a hero in war. He was also a hero in politics. Over the years, we disagreed on many issues, but I always admired his determination to do what he believed was right, even if it carried a political cost — as it so often did. The strong independent streak he demonstrated time and again, and his willingness to pay the price for it, defined his political career.
John never sacrificed his integrity or honor — or the interests of America — for personal or political gain. He truly understood what it meant to put America first, and he did it throughout his life: as a naval pilot, prisoner of war, senator and presidential candidate.
When I visited John in Arizona in May, I gave him a copy of the commencement address I would be giving the next day at Rice University in Houston. The speech was about how hyper-partisanship is driving an epidemic of dishonesty in politics, and how we need more John McCains to stop it: people who have the courage to defend facts and truth, even when — especially when — it requires standing up to members of their own party. John did that throughout his career, and I urged the graduates to follow his example.
I was lucky to have John in my corner when I first ran for mayor of New York City in 2001. I didn't get many endorsements in that race from local politicians, let alone national ones. But John came to New York and campaigned for me on the streets of Brooklyn.
In 2008, when he became the Republican nominee for president, my heart told me to endorse him. But that would’ve required endorsing the whole ticket, and I couldn’t do that. So out of deep respect for John, I made no endorsement.
He could have called me to complain. He could have said, “You owe me.” And after it was over, he could have held a grudge. But no. He never did any of that. It would’ve been beneath him. He was a fierce competitor — but he would compete with honor, or not at all.
Over the past year, as the values that John always stood for were attacked and undermined by leading figures in his own party, he spoke out in ways that reminded us once again of the integrity of his character: “I was raised in the concept and belief that ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ is the lodestar for behavior that we have to exhibit every single day.”
He always strove to live up to that ideal, and when he failed — as we all do from time to time — he had the courage to own up to it.
In his final months, John warned us against the “decline in civility and cooperation, and increased obstructionism” that threaten our nation’s future. Like a latter-day Paul Revere, John McCain sounded the patriot’s alarm. It’s now up to us to heed it.
When I spent some time in Hanoi a couple of years ago, it was clear how much respect the people of Vietnam have for the name McCain. They are in good company. America has lost more than a great patriot and a war hero. We have lost a model for the kind of honest and independent leadership our country needs now more than ever.
Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. He is the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for climate action.