Meghan McCain Makes Good (and Uses Some Time-Honored Writers’ Tools)

Watching Meghan McCain’s eulogy for her father, John McCain, has refreshed me in an unexpected manner this weekend—as a writer, as an American, and as a man. As a man, I’ll say this: When we are dust, ash, or worm motel, may we all have children who can sing our praises so well before a gathering of family, friends, and well-wishers.

The word “eulogy” is often confused with “elegy,” a word poets are familiar with. A check with my good friends Merriam and Webster clears this up:

“Both elegy and eulogy may be used about writing or speech in remembrance of a person who has passed away, and this semantic overlap creates the potential for confusion. Elegy (which may be traced to the Greek word elegos, “song of mourning”) commonly refers to a song or poem lamenting one who is dead; the word may also refer somewhat figuratively to a nostalgic poem, or to a kind of musical composition. While eulogy is also commonly found referring to words about the deceased, its basic meaning, both in English and in the Greek language from which it was borrowed, is “praise.” Formed from the Greek roots eu “good” and logos “speech,” a eulogy is an encomium given for one who is either living or dead. If you are praising your partner’s unsurpassed beauty or commending the virtues of the deceased at a funeral, you are delivering a eulogy; if you are composing a lamenting reminiscence about a person who has long since passed, you are writing an elegy.”

Meghan’s 17-minute eulogy managed to be both eloquent and emotional, mixing elements from the speech writer’s (and poet’s) toolbox and techniques of persuasion espoused by Aristotle so long ago. As writers reading the full text of her words here, we can see that she has learned the value of anaphora especially—the effective use of repetition coming at listeners in waves. As for the persuasion, both ethos (her character as well as her father’s) and pathos (the leavening of biography with rising emotion) are seen in abundance.

Also on display here is the power of anecdote. Nothing illustrates an abstract point better than a concrete example. Note the story of the horse, especially—how Meghan broke her collarbone falling off of one, how her father took her to the hospital, and how he then took her home and put her back on that horse’s back.

The contrasting technique of antithesis was highlighted, too, when Meghan McCain said, “We gather to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice, those that live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.”

And, of course, by the line this eulogy will most be remembered for: “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”

To be honest, I was never much impressed with John McCain’s politics and didn’t vote for him when he ran for president. As an American, though, I was much impressed with the example he set once in the grip of terminal cancer. McCain the former prisoner was  captive again, this time by the take-no-prisoners brain cancer called glioblastoma (the same that took down his friend across the aisle, Ted Kennedy). But he fought, not only the disease, but the disease he perceived to be spreading across America.

For that, McCain gained my respect. Thus, I found myself inexplicably teary-eyed watching Meghan’s eulogy. What was the source, I wondered? Obviously the man’s death and the family’s loss played into it, but a little self-searching brought up more.

I was mourning the passing of another America, one I’m not sure will return, given the goings on not only here but across the world where authoritarian regimes are popping up like poisonous mushrooms. With the electoral college-elected president out of the news cycle and out on a golf course, watching the proceedings of this funeral this weekend was fresh air. It returned a sense of sanity and patriotism that many hadn’t breathed in two years.

That’s something. And that’s proof that a eulogy—like any piece of good writing—can have effects beyond their stated purpose.