McCain understood that the Republican Party was selling its soul. He refused.

But with his passing on Saturday, McCain’s human qualities only bolster his stature as a real and enduring leader. Of all the politicians on the landscape during this generation, I suspect McCain may be among those who stand out most clearly in historical memory, not because he succeeded in bending the country toward the good values he embodied, but because he tried so hard and failed.

McCain saw the populist fire that was burning in the Republican Party, but he didn’t know what to do about it. His biggest mistake may have been the selection of an utterly unqualified Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate in 2008, but it was an attempt to get out ahead of a movement that he could see was becoming more dominant in his party with each election cycle.