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raceAhead: John McCain is Dying And It Matters

Ellen McGirt
raceAhead: John McCain is Dying And It Matters

A nasty remark about Senator John McCain leaked from the White House last Thursday, a controversy which is sure to spill over into this week.

McCain, who is home in Arizona battling a lethal form of brain cancer, broke with the GOP and tweeted his lack of support for President Trump’s CIA director nominee Gina Haspel for “her role in overseeing the use of torture…and her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality.”

White House special assistant Kelly Sadler waved off his dissent in a private meeting with the White House communications team. “[I]t doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” she reportedly said.

While utterly callous, her remark accidentally shines a light on the reality of McCain’s situation: Yes, he’s dying. But that means everything matters even more, including the way he’s choosing to live now.

I interviewed Senator McCain for one of my first stories at Fortune, a straightforward package about how powerful people organize their time called How I Work. It was 2006, and I had just talked my way into a staff writer position from our sister publication, Money. At the time, it felt like being called up to the majors.

I wasn’t known for my political coverage nor had any currency inside the Beltway, but he took the meeting anyway. He was gracious, funny and kind. He even referenced my personal finance stories, which included such riveting fare as How To Choose a Long-Term Care Policy and America’s Best Corporate Benefits. He said it was all “important stuff,” and I believe he meant it.

Although we did talk about how he set priorities, interacted with constituents, and led his staff, we also talked about how he found purpose in the work, his version of “important stuff.”

He teared up several times recalling how much he loved working with Mark Salter, his long-time writing partner and chief of staff, and I believe he meant that too.

“I gave a speech on the floor of the Senate to wrap up the debate on the torture amendment,” he said. “It was the only time when there was total silence on the floor of the Senate. We wrote that together.”

But for a country that’s already squeamish about death and dying, with a health care system that often does a poor job providing effective care for dying people and their families, McCain’s candor is an opportunity to address some of these issues head-on.

Here’s just one example, relevant to this audience: Racial disparities in end-of-life care abound.

One recent study reviewed two decades of Medicare data and found that black and Hispanic lung cancer patients experienced “considerable racial-ethnic disparities in end-of-life care quality,” which included delayed referrals to hospice and fewer resources for families struggling to make complex medical decisions.

But on an individual level, McCain’s willingness to stay engaged, which includes publicly processing some key regrets, is a more immediate lesson.

“The nomination of Gina Haspel is actually giving McCain a chance to address publicly the most well-known story about his life aside from his presidential runs,” says Betsy Trapasso, an end-of-life guide and advocate. “Not many dying people get a chance to play out their life’s story in such a public arena.” It’s also a function beyond legacy, she says. “This is about coming to peace with the things that have happened, the decisions that you’ve made, and clearing the way to be present with the people you love.”

McCain has always been a feisty and complicated political figure, and there is much in his record to debate, admire, or revile, depending on your point of view. Regardless, I expect Sadler will continue to take well-deserved political heat for her quip, as will the White House, which has not yet disavowed it.

But looking back on our interview, I found the blueprint for a sanguine end already in place, particularly if you’re willing to carefully define “success.”

It was long after his 2000 presidential campaign had been robo-called out of existence by a harbinger of racist trolls yet to come. (And a tactic he would, ironically, soon embrace himself.)

I asked McCain about that loss, which led to a conversation about his legendary temper. “You lose battles in politics. I do get good and angry,” he laughed. He said he wallowed in self-pity for awhile then snapped out of it.

“The people you represent don’t want you this way. You’re still their Senator. And besides, America doesn’t like sore losers,” he said. “I also don’t hold grudges. It’s a waste of time. What’s the point? Frankly, the sweetest revenge is success.”

On Point

Powerful women unite to advocate for change at Cannes Eighty-two women collaborated on the protest, the same number of women directors who have been accepted at the famed film festival since its inception, as compared to 1,866 male directors. The protest was led by Kristen Stewart and Ava DuVernay, and included Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, and Salma Hayek. All marched silently on the red carpet, then stood with linked arms on the steps of the festival’s main theater. “Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of the industry says otherwise,” actor Cate Blanchett said in prepared remarks. Agnes Varda, the legendary French film director said, “The stairs of our industry must be accessible to all. Let’s climb.”The protest was organized by 5050×2020, a French cinema gender equality movement. Variety

Benedict Cumberbatch will now demand equal pay for female co-stars which makes him the best Avenger He also suggests that other actors do the same. “Look at your quotas. Ask what women are being paid, and say: ‘If she’s not paid the same as the men, I’m not doing it,’” he told Radio Times. He will also be adding more female-driven fare to the line-up for his new production company, SunnyMarch. “I’m proud that [partner] Adam [Ackland] and I are the only men in our production company,” he said, making it all look like magic. Radio Times

A community development philanthropy favored by Silicon Valley elite comes under fire The Silicon Valley Community Foundation manages assets worth more than $13 billion, making it one of the most powerful philanthropies in the U.S. Mark Zuckerberg has donated stock worth nearly $2 billion, other donors include Netflix chief Reed Hastings and Twitter’s own Jack Dorsey. But the organization’s top fundraiser, Mari Ellen Loijens has become the target of serious allegations of bullying and demeaning employees and using sexually and racially charged language. The foundation’s chief executive, the once-ascendant Emmett Carson, is negotiating his exit, the head of human resources has resigned and the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner is conducting an investigation. New York Times

The white woman who called the police on a black fellow student has done it before A second black Yale student has come forward to say that the same grad student who had called the police on Lolade Siyonbola for napping in a common room had called the police on him. The incident happened in February, after Reneson Jean-Louis, a masters degree student at Yale’s Divinity School, entered the dorm for an appointment with Siyonbola, but got lost heading to the meeting room. After a confrontational back-and-forth, Sarah Braasch called the campus police. Jean-Louis complained about the encounter to Yale last winter and was initially satisfied with their response. But after another incident with Braasch, he wants more accountability. “This is an issue that, institutionally, Yale’s not prepared for,” he said. CNN

The Woke Leader

Why doesn’t anyone remember the MOVE bombing? Sunday was the thirty-third anniversary of the day that Philadelphia police dropped a bomb from a helicopter into a residential neighborhood, killing 11 people, including five children. The victims were part of a small but radical organization called MOVE, a fringe group with passionate ideas, but who didn’t fit neatly with other black power ideologies at the time. NPR’s Gene Demby, who grew up about 20 minutes away from the site, did a deep dive into the “cataclysmic” incident in 2015, only to discover that it wasn’t more widely known. In addition to being one of the most extraordinary examples of conflict between the police and black communities, the bombing leveled a neighborhood full of middle-class homeowners and is largely abandoned today. It was partly the time, he thinks. “The MOVE story faded into relative obscurity partly because no one connects with their cause today,” he says, “and largely because the mechanisms to preserve the story weren’t in place yet.” NPR

How to be a manager when the world has gone crazy Consider this helpful advice from Lara Hogan, a consultant and former VP of engineering for Kickstarter, called Managering In Terrible Times. She outlines some small behaviors that leaders can embrace to make people from marginalized communities feel safe, even as terrifying events unfold on the news. Clarity is key, but so is respect. Give people freedom to either talk about what’s on their minds, or politely pass. “Remember: marginalized folks are repeatedly called on to explain These Terrible Times to others, and this is a way in which well-intentioned people exacerbate the burden on already-oppressed people,” she says. Lara Hogan Blog

What does it all mean? Cultural appropriation, microaggression, safe spaces, trigger warnings: Tools of inclusion or politically correct oppression? These concepts are some of the newest additions to a rapidly growing lexicon that people, particularly college students, are using to discuss some of the thornier aspects of living life in an increasingly diverse world. The Washington Post asked student activists to explain the terms in their own words. Washington Post

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