Like many Arizonans, Sen. John McCain was from somewhere else. But the Grand Canyon State has a way of getting its hooks into you, and that is particularly the case with Yavapai County’s Verde Valley, where McCain died on August 25 at his retreat near Cornville.
It’s a place I have my own complicated relationship with: It’s where I’m from, where I thought I’d left behind years ago and where I return to with greater fondness and attachment as I get older, but not necessarily wiser. (I would like to think McCain would approve of such self-deprecation, being a master practitioner himself.)
As McCain spent more time there after his cancer diagnosis last year, there were more photos, particularly on social media, capturing just a small part of a place of outsize beauty, whether it was him looking into the horizon with his daughter Meghan or wading in Oak Creek, which runs through his property.
My dad’s family came to the area shortly after World War II. My grandfather owned a barbershop and was active in the area’s barber union. My grandmother was the managing editor at the Verde Independent, a local paper still going strong, and still operating out of its Cottonwood Main Street headquarters that are made out of rocks from the Verde River and a World War II-surplus Quonset hut. More than any other media appearance by the senator over the years, I wish I could have been there when McCain sat for an interview with the paper in 2016, even if it was mostly the standard fare of his re-election race that year: strong national security, fixing a broken immigration system, etc.
Like McCain’s place, my own family home is hard to dateline. McCain’s retreat has been listed variously as Sedona, Cottonwood, Cornville, Page Springs, Oak Creek. It wasn’t any of those places per se, but somewhere in the last few years, everyone seems to have settled on Cornville, an unincorporated part of the Verde Valley.
My own home is listed as Cottonwood sometimes, other times Verde Village. All told, the house my great uncle built and my dad left to me after he died last year is on unincorporated land wedged among Forest Service and other public areas. It’s right on the Verde River, a few miles downstream from McCain’s retreat.
As a native Arizonan myself, it’s hard to imagine McCain being anything but an Arizonan now, and his legacy will rank up there with its icons: Barry Goldwater, Mo Udall, Sandra Day O’Connor.
One of his favorite turns of phrase was that something — be it renegotiating NAFTA or poison pill amendments to must-pass legislation — didn’t have “a snowball’s chance in Gila Bend.”
Gila Bend, south and west of Phoenix smack dab in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, is one of the hottest places in this hot state. People from Arizona get that reference. It tends to perplex good-intentioned people in Washington, including a reporter I once had to inform that it’s not spelled “Heelabend.”
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After being elected to the House in 1982 and Senate in 1986, he settled into life in political Washington, a place he had some affection for, having served as the Navy’s top liaison to the Senate.
I’ve put down roots in Washington as well, even though the high-octane atmosphere of achievement in Washington sometimes causes me to yearn for someplace more low-key. At the same time McCain’s stature in Congress rose, he grew more attached to Arizona, most conspicuously in the Verde Valley.
In May, a group of Yavapai County Democrats, spearheaded by Northern Arizona Professor Emeritus Joel Eide and local radio personality Mike Cosentino, sent a letter to McCain praising him for being “an inspiration locally and abroad” and for basically being a good neighbor.
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“This is just a short letter from some of those that live around you in Northern Arizona and have seen you at Starbucks or Walmart or worked at your home,” they wrote. “We just wanted to acknowledge those characteristics of the senator that made him unique among politicians and enabled us to see him out and about here.”
Democrats for years have been on the defensive in heavily Republican Yavapai County, but they felt comfortable enough to thank McCain for his accessibility, traits familiar to those on Capitol Hill.
In Washington, meanwhile, he showed little tolerance for corruption, waste or abuse in government, but he rarely stooped to taking cheap shots at the nation’s capital, as so many in Congress do — and, full disclosure, I have been tempted to do myself before being reminded that I too, make a home here, and with that comes responsibility to try to make it better.
McCain’s own sense of home in Washington, in Arizona, and in Annapolis, Maryland, where he will be buried at his alma mater, the Naval Academy, reflect his own expansive ideals of what it means to be an American and a human being.
“Incremental progress, compromises that each side criticize but also accept, 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,” he said on July 25, 2017 on the Senate floor, just days removed from surgery to address his brain cancer.
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He didn’t pretend any place, least of all Washington, is perfect, but he knew that perfection isn’t necessary to have a meaningful, productive, honorable life, effort, job or home.
His end turn, dying in Cornville, lying in state in both Arizona’s capital of Phoenix and the nation’s capital in Washington, and his final resting place along the Severn River in Annapolis with his naval comrades, speaks to that ideal coming full circle.
You can be at home in more than one place. You can be a good person while having flaws. You can challenge people and institutions to live up to their best potential while acknowledging they are not perfect.
You can love the Verde Valley, and Washington, and it’s not contradictory. It’s American.
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