On Responsibility: John McCain & Henry Bugbee

Some readers will puzzle over this title. We’re familiar with John McCain, so we ask, “Who is this Henry Bugbee fellow?” The next question: “Why are their names connected here?”

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The Two Men

Henry Bugbee (1915-1999) was an American philosopher, whose scholarship was interrupted when he was called to serve in the Navy aboard a minesweeper in the Pacific theatre of World War II. Yes, that’s also where John McCain’s father and grandfather served. But they were experiencing this as military leaders, conscious of their role and tradition. Bugbee was just another civilian recruit. 

Henry volunteered to serve his country. He was a Harvard educated philosopher, and that made no difference at all aboard ship. He was not a war hero, nor was he the risk-taker and man of action that John McCain was. Bugbee was a thinker, and McCain would become a thinker. Their names came to mind as I considered the meaning of responsibility, destiny, and what it is to live an authentic life. 

If anything, McCain was the more complex man. He was as much influenced by Ernest Hemmingway as by Thomas Jefferson, as much by Somerset Maugham as by Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. He was a man who had to live it to know it. A man of action? Yes, but a man of engagement too. He relied on seeing, smelling, and tasting other cultures and his natural surrounds to understand them. 

Both men liked to walk and would think as they walked.

Meghan’s Eulogy

In her moving eulogy of her father, Meghan McCain spoke from the heart, with passion, a true reflection of their shared gene pool and values. She said he was not defined in her mind by the shaping effects of the Navy or the Senate, but by his love. She knew the person behind his roles. 

She knew that he was a tough-minded, quarrelsome man whose fight to do the right thing could bruise egos and strain friendships along the way. But what lay beneath it all was love. Nothing would spark his outrage more than bullies, tyrants, and oppressors – people incapable of love or empathy. 

Where McCain & Bugbee Align

Both men were set on a career path through associations with prestigious institutions in the East. For McCain it was the Naval Academy, the Pentagon, and in the halls of the U.S. Capital. For Bugbee it was Princeton and Harvard. But both would resist a total surrender to urban spheres of life in the East. 

McCain found the restorative beauty of nature in Sedona, and for Bugbee (raised in New York City) it was the mountain streams of Montana. The role of place, its physical and spiritual nature, grounded them. This reflects their attunement to the value of propriety as Wendell Berry[1] spoke of it:

“Its value is in its reference to the fact that we are not alone. The idea of propriety makes an issue of the fittingness of our conduct to our place or circumstances, or even to our hopes.” And this “fittingness” is “measured by a standard we did not make and cannot destroy.” 

Their lives were disrupted by war. These experiences gave them reason to care even more about life’s most basic values. Both acted as mavericks in their respective careers; McCain’s ways are well known, but Bugbee, in turning away from a traditional academic life, was also a maverick.  

On Destiny, Responsibility, and Freedom

Here’s what Bugbee had to say about fate vs. destiny,[2] freedom vs. bondage, and their implications for responsibility: The idea of fate invites us to think from “a certain inner paralysis.” But the idea of “having a destiny to fulfill” invites us to act from “the standpoint of responsibility,” as one who is responding to a call with fidelity to the intrinsic value of cause. 

Bugbee continues: It’s a “call clarifying itself in its constancy as we respond” to it. The challenges to preserve our freedom are ongoing. The challenges to make philosophy an authentic search for meaning and truth are perennial. Both build character as they’re realizing virtue. As we respond, we come to identify with “a vocational significance which is at the heart of not acting in vain.” 

So, whether it’s the call of public service (McCain) or the call of teaching young adults to think freely and responsibly (Bugbee), it is (as Meghan points out) love of the cause and the people it serves that kept him “in the game.” Giving up (embracing “fate”) is “human bondage.” It’s not responding at all, at least it’s not responding to a call to do good, to create a good or serve a purpose bigger than yourself.  

Notes:

[1] I quote from Life is Miracle by Wendell Berry, an American essayist and poet whose connection to place was his farm in Kentucky.

[2] Bugbee believed that we find our destiny by paying attention to what moves us and by responding to it with curiosity and openness, by seeking to appreciate what kind of claim this object of interest makes on us. It’s a tradition that dates back to Henry David Thoreau.