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As I See It: John McCain and Leadership

AUGUST 25, 2018

John McCain holds a much greater presence in the American consciousness than the average Senator or even the typical losing presidential candidate. It’s not that he is universally loved: heaven knows how he has been attacked by members of his own political party, including by his President. It’s not that his policy prescriptions and legislative accomplishments stand far above those of his Senate colleagues. Rather, it is a matter of his character: In a sea of politicians blown about by polls and passions, he is as immovable as an anchor held fast by rock.

I endorsed John McCain for President. I campaigned with him. I got a first-hand view of the indomitable will and personal integrity that characterize his life. I had read, of course, of his capture, imprisonment, and torture during the Vietnam War. I had marveled at his refusal to be released by his captors prior to other American prisoners who had been incarcerated before him. But now I saw the quality of character that drew such passionate admiration from those who knew him best. Time and again, he refused to bend to any political advantage that conflicted with his sense of right and wrong: He defended candidate Obama from an excessive attack, he stood by sometimes unpopular positions, and he rejected any inclination to draw race into his campaign. His concession speech was emblematic of the man I had come to know.

When the election was over, John and Cindy invited Ann and me to join them and a handful of their close friends for a weekend at their home in Sedona Valley. When we pulled into their driveway, he came to our car to welcome us and to tell us to hurry to see several songbirds that had just landed near the stream by his home. Soldier, Senator, fighter—and bird enthusiast? We saw sides of John McCain we hadn’t expected. Nothing was more impressive than his devotion to Cindy and his pride in his children, especially in his sons just home from military deployments. Family and country are deeply rooted in this man.

In the years since, we have travelled together, campaigned together, and shared perspectives and counsel. Whenever I have asked for his help, he has not hesitated. I think I could give some of his speeches and jokes: “I slept like a baby after I lost the election,” he says, “I woke up every two hours crying.” We have discussed the level of military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and agreed upon the ambition and ruthlessness of Vladimir Putin. We have commiserated over the decline of civility and respect. And we have agreed on the things that matter most: family, God, country and honor.

No person this century better exemplifies the great qualities of patriotism than John McCain. Ones like him don’t come along very often. Ann and I will miss him a great deal. He is a hero. He is a friend. 

I first met John McCain during the lead up to the 2002 Winter Olympics. He was the Senate’s most outspoken opponent of federal funding to support the Games. He was convinced that waste and misuse would characterize government funding, just as he believed had occurred during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. I made my case in his office. 

He listened attentively, insisting on detailed budgets, personal commitments and a post-Games audit. I remarked that he was certainly more relentless protecting taxpayer money than he was even with his own.

It was not until the presidential campaign of 2008 that we met again, this time as competitors and occasional adversaries. I charged that he would never be able to beat Barack Obama (turned out, neither of us could!). He attacked that I was a flip-flopper. After one debate in particular, Ann and I seethed. When his poll numbers cratered during the summer, we were delighted by the reports that he was finished. It turned out that his campaign was only “mostly dead:” he battled on, besting me in the primaries. I saw what others have seen: don’t count John McCain out.