In cities thousands of miles apart, people from all walks of life are braving record heat to express their final feelings of R-E-S-P-E-C-T for two American icons – the great singer and musician Aretha Franklin and the great patriot and war hero Sen. John McCain.
At first glance, these two had little in common: a black woman who came from the Deep South and lost her mother before she turned 10; and a white man who was the son and grandson of Navy admirals.
Franklin was the daughter of a poor preacher. Despite becoming a mother at age 12, she used her God-given talents as a singer to reach the rarified status of music royalty. McCain endured unspeakable torture at the hands of a vicious enemy in North Vietnam, only to rise to the highest levels of government service, nearly becoming president of the United States.
Their paths to greatness were very different, but their stories are uniquely American. Both were motivated by the desire to give something to society and to America.
Franklin joyfully sang praises of the Lord in church as a girl and later brought audiences to their feet with stirring renditions of some of the most enduring soul songs in American history. Her song “Respect” – with the chorus R-E-S-P-E-C-T – was one of her biggest hits.
McCain went on after his release from North Vietnamese captivity as a prisoner of war to serve in the House and Senate as a leading advocate of policies that would keep our country strong and prosperous.
Both achieved the means to retire to very comfortable private lives, yet neither chose to. Until practically their last breaths, one stayed on stage sharing her gift of bringing people to tears of joy through song, and the other fought vigorously for the principles in which he so passionately believed.
Both touched the lives of millions, most of whom neither ever met. That’s why both will be eulogized by former presidents.
That people are lining up and waiting for hours to have just a moment to honor these two extraordinary individuals speaks well not only of them, but of us as a society. It says that we value talent, the celebration of life, courage, candor and sacrifice.
Some people come to honor Aretha Franklin and Sen. McCain because they actually had a relationship with them. Others feel like they did, or just admired what this great woman and great man contributed.
Some even brought or will bring their children for a teaching moment to point to an individual who did something great, and hopefully draw attention to the fact that limitless possibilities remain the promise of America.
At a time when people on both sides of the aisle are saying some pretty tough things, it is a nice respite to see what is happening in Phoenix and Detroit.
Yet it is a sad irony that both of these great Americans were felled by the same insidious disease: cancer. As much progress as has been made in beating many types of cancer, the fact remains that glioblastoma and pancreatic cancer are still among the most deadly and most vexing.
Rather than renaming a building or street to memorialize these two celebrated Americans, wouldn’t a more fitting tribute be the redoubling of our efforts – including through increased government funding – to finally beat the cancers that ended their lives?
It’s not that two are mutually exclusive, of course, but we should think beyond mere symbolic gestures and actually do something concrete to honor Franklin and McCain. Does anyone doubt that’s what they would want?
As America says goodbye to two individuals whose impact will last for generations, it is worth noting that in our country, anyone from anywhere can overcome any adversity and reach the top of his or her profession. In America, success is not reserved for the privileged few.
We wish Aretha Franklin and John McCain could have been with us longer, but we should all be grateful for their presence in this world and all they accomplished to make it a better place.