Vaya Con Dios, John McCain
Johnny, we hardly knew ye
The title is in fact from that of a favored novel about the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. But in many ways, it explains the complex individual who was the Senator from Arizona and two-time presidential candidate, John S. McCain. Like all people who aspire to these offices, he was a jumble of personal contradictions.
John McCain was different. Raised in the traditions of a Navy Family that counted Duty, Country and Honor as a lode star of their life’s ambitions, John was still a rebellious individual, who sought his own brand of truth and not one handed down or dictated to him by others. Son and Grandson of Navy Admirals, duty, honor and country were not just words to the young McCain.
By his own account, he struggled through the academic and disciplinary rigors of the United States Naval Academy, finishing at the very bottom of his class. He was a warrior by nature and family tradition. He wanted to fly fighter planes against the enemy forces in Viet Nam. Like most fighter pilots, he was cocky and self-assertive. It is a necessary personal adjunct to those daring aviators who fly complicated machines against well-organized enemies trying to kill them at every turn. After 23 missions, his plane was shot down over Hanoi. The ejection from his plane broke both his arm and leg. The Viet Namese peasants, who dragged him from the Hanoi Lake, beat him and spit on him as a detested enemy. One soldier bayoneted his leg. He was dragged to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” tossed into a cell and left to rot.
When the Vietnamese military discovered that his father was a senior, commanding Admiral in the U.S. Pacific Fleet, they offered to set him free. McCain, a strict adherent to the Navy and personal honor code, refused repatriation. He would wait his turn until those captured before him were released. The decision cost him mightily. He was beaten, tortured and subjected to two years of solitary confinement. Yet, the indomitable will and strong personal character carried him through these ordeals. He survived five- and one-half years of this treatment until all of the American captives were released and flown to the Philippines. The cauldron of this searing experience burned away the excess rhetoric and fecklessness of Washington politicians from him forever. From that point of, he was never again to suffer fools idly or even tolerate the antics of anyone not serious of purpose.
After a stint as a Navy Liaison to the U.S Senate, John ran for congress in Arizona. Though not a native Arizonan, he typically rebuffed the charge of carpet bagging by answering that the only place he had resided for any length of time was in Hanoi, North Viet Nam. He was elected handily. When U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater retires a few years later, John ran for and was elected to the United States Senate.
It is from this bully pulpit that the real John S. McCain emerged. He did what he thought was right and the devil take the hindmost. He would not be dictated to by any party leaders or corporate interests. He was branded a maverick by the party regulars of the G.O.P. Maverick or not, he held the respect and esteem of all those who worked with him in the Senate, on both sides of the Isle.
During the 2,000 Presidential Primaries., his winning style, resonated in the highly personalized state of New Hampshire. He defeated the presumptive nominee, George W. Bush handily. Later in the acerbic South Carolina Primary, the Bush forces were triumphant, after a brutal primary election. Joh McCain withdrew from the race and returned to his Senate duties.
It was during the 2008 Presidential election, that I first heard him speak and became enamored of John McCain as a candidate. He was speaking at a small rally in North Fort Meyers, Florida. His homespun approach, and message of plain speaking and common sense, drew me to him like a magnet. There are many factors involved with that race, but I don’t think any of us were ready for the Obama election juggernaut that had been gathering steam across the country. McCain chose a little-known Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, for his running mate. While she might have had her limitations, in the eyes of others, I thought at the time that it was a solid choice. Palin had solid conservative credentials and was both articulate and energetic. Her allegiance to the right wing of the republican party drew the whole assemblage closer to the McCain campaign, someone who had not been a party favorite. History records that Barack Obama, an improbable Cinderella-candidate swept all before him to become our next president. He is and was a decent t honorable man who brought dignity and presence to the office of the Presidency.
Never one to back off from a challenge, McCain returned to the U.S. Senate to carry the republican banner into the fray. He was always vocal in his opinions. This could be disconcerting to those reporters whom he sometimes said “asked stupid questions.” His sense of humor and genuine concern for others usually softened the acerbic response. The Press flocked to him like bees to honey. Much enamored of his candor and honest responses.
On a personal level, I was to experience a very poignant feeling watching McCain orate in the Senate. As a military man, I wondered why he always left a cowlick of his hair askew. Most of the military are fastidious with their personal appearance. A viewer echoed my feelings to a reporter. The reporter quietly replied that his hair was sometimes left askew because the war time torture had limited his arm movement permanently. John couldn't raise his arm far enough to comb his own hair.
Like most senior politicians, John McCain possessed a well-honed sense of drama, second to none. His last-minute emergence, onto the senate floor, to vote against the evisceration of the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care) was a mastery of scripting, unequaled by few, before or since.
The last chapter of his life comprised his final year, just after he had been diagnosed with Brain Cancer. It was a sentence from which there was to be no reprieve. McCain typically refused to be cowed. He resumed his duties as long as he was physically able. Over and over he reiterated the notion that he was the luckiest of men and had been pleased to render a lifetime of service to the United States of America.
I don’t know that I will ever again witness a man of honor and principle like John McCain. He much reminds me of the Kennedys and their attempt during the 1960’s to right every wrong and preserve the American way. And while this might sound like lofty rhetoric to some, it was a life-long cause for John McCain.
In the words of many of our ancestors;
May the roads rise up to meet you.
May the winds be always at your back.
And until another of your substance emerges,
May the good Lord look after the United States of America,
Joseph Xavier Martin