Nothing To Lose: Shock McCain "No" Is Unmistakable Legacy Call

Going against the pragmatic party line to grab the moral high ground is no real shock when survival odds get this thin. This is when successful people burn capital — political and otherwise — to cement their posterity.

John McCain will be lucky if he lives another year to keep fighting for the government he believes in. Beyond that point, the only thing he has to lose is how future generations will sum up his contribution to American politics.

He’s taking the high road to defy what he sees as a broken system. If he forces the Senate to identify shared goals and work together to achieve them, he’s won.

And the normal rules he’s more or less mastered — “maverick” reputation notwithstanding — no longer apply. Patience and diplomacy aren’t going to buy him much at this point.

After all, he’s been handed a death sentence. Sooner or later, that’ll happen to at least a few of your clients. 

We all know we’re going to die. Learning that it’s imminent transforms our focus on estate planning and the time we have left.

Making every day count

A lot of estate planning revolves around the assumption that death comes as a shock, a bolt out of the blue. That’s what motivates relatively young people to draft wills, sign power of attorney agreements and buy life insurance.

And sometimes the end is truly unexpected. In those scenarios, the estate plan functions as a disaster plan as well as a succession plan: the sudden absence of the principal forces the survivors to break the metaphorical seal and apply the emergency guidance left behind.

Then you’ve got people like John McCain. At his age, with his medical history, his particular strain of brain cancer isn’t really curable. 

As he said on “60 Minutes” last night, even the optimists give him maybe a 15% chance of living beyond the near term. Anything longer is somewhere between a bonus and a miracle.

When you know roughly how much time you have to work with, it makes more sense to prioritize the way you spend those remaining days. 

Abstract and incremental goals may no longer be worth chasing. McCain’s probably not going to live to run for another term. He doesn’t need to think about grabbing the right headlines to keep the donors, voters and party establishment on his side.

Some people in his situation would be content to drift into the sunset, voting the status quo or even vacating the seat early to spend as much time as possible with family, then letting posterity fend for itself.

However you feel about McCain’s recent voting patterns, he’s clearly not doing that. Call it grandstanding if you like, but this is literally the hill he’s picked to die on.

We tend to encourage clients and colleagues with a terminal illness to take things easy, retire from any remaining positions of responsibility and effectively disengage from the world early. It boils down to practicing for the grave. 

Sometimes health fails fast and the energy just isn’t there. But as long as the flesh is willing, this can also be a time to achieve last personal and professional goals. 

If someone’s working, the diagnosis raises the stakes on mentorship and other activities that transmit expertise and ethos alike. Stay involved. The engagement may even extend your energy and your life.

Along with this, the time to push the button on a succession plan is when you can still function in a consultative role and ensure that the transfer goes as smoothly as it can — remember, the emergency transition is the worst-case scenario, to be avoided if possible. Step back, but don’t walk away.

McCain says he’s more energized and engaged now because the stakes are higher. There are no more routine votes where he can just use rubber-stamp logic and go home. From his point of view, every day at the office has turned into a kind of metaphysical gesture, a testament to future politicians.

That said, a death sentence ensures that there’s even less reason to tolerate meaningless trivia in life or on the job. The little things will slide down the now-limited priority list. People will need to find someone to catch these details before they turn into problems.

The McCain situation

McCain can pour this kind of power back into the office because his family life seems relatively settled. The old rifts that opened up in his divorce have closed. He seems to have found peace with all the kids.

Presumably he’s told them what he wants to say. There will always be regrets, but the last few months have probably reduced the number that he’ll leave behind.

His personal financial situation is also settled. It’s Cindy’s money. It’s always been and will always be Cindy’s money. He doesn’t need to spend time chasing last-minute arrangements the way many dying people do.

In his case, it’s probably going to be up to Cindy to structure his political legacy through donations, endowed academic positions and internships or whatever she thinks best. If he was in line for retirement, that would’ve been the time for him to do it himself, but that won’t happen here.

Maybe he’s got personal ambitions left unfulfilled. Odds are good your clients who get a terminal diagnosis will want to travel, squeeze in a few last adventures, start a venture or foundation. They’ll want to be around to see their estate plan start becoming a reality.

The secret here of course is that we’re all inching closer to that moment. The only difference is that when the diagnosis hits, that abstract end date starts to become concrete. We no longer have to budget for a theoretical retirement timeframe, but for a specific span of weeks, months or years.

Truly sick clients can spend down their assets faster and with more confidence that the money won’t run out. There’s always the chance that a miracle cure will force them to retrench, but as the disease progresses and the calendar gets short, the risk there diminishes.

But in general, retirement itself signals a statistical end point in sight. Your clients — and colleagues — may feel great at that time, in which case it’s good to let the trivia slide in order to concentrate on what really matters to them. Often this means letting an unsatisfying job go. 

On the other hand, seemingly healthy people drop dead all the time no matter how old they are. If your clients are truly miserable in their current lives, it can be worth reminding them of this fact. 

Maybe there’s an adventure, crusade or more rewarding path that makes a difference in the world and also makes financial sense. For John McCain, this is the adventure he’s chosen. Whatever else the pundits may say, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s enjoying himself.


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