I did not know John McCain well.
My interactions with him can be summed up to meeting at a party in D.C., where we exchanged pleasantries, a few interviews and a chance encounter outside the tram traveling to his office from the Senate.
The interviews included questions about his time as a prisoner of war, the McCain-Feingold Act, Barry Goldwater and bipartisan politics.
The last time I saw him was shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer. He got off the Capitol tram going to his office. As I saw him I said, “Hey senator. How you doin? Tough room huh?”
He laughed. “Not a bad Rodney,” he said. Then he paused. “Don’t quit your day job,” he added. He smiled and was gone. Now he is dead and he is either being praised or vilified and I cannot understand the vitriol.
I am confused by those who are currently questioning his heroism or his actions as a politician or as a man.
I’ve heard people disparage his efforts, question his motives and say he wasn’t much of a hero and deserves no specific praise for anything he did.
My immediate anger at this sentiment is overcome by my need to understand why anyone would not respect this man and what he accomplished.
He was flawed. I didn’t agree with what he said or did on numerous occasions, but who am I to judge his entire life based on disagreements in policy or personal life. No one agrees with anyone 100 percent of the time and it would be a boring world if we did.
Did McCain make mistakes? Yes, as he often said – and twice when I interviewed him he admitted that he did.
But when it was all on the line, McCain did what I think very few of us would do.
I’ve seen the video of him being shot down in Hanoi. I’ve heard the story. I asked him questions about it.
In case anyone doesn’t know or cannot remember, he was shot down over Hanoi while on his 23rd Vietnam combat mission in 1967. He ejected from his A-4 Skyhawk and in doing so, broke both of his arms, his right leg and got knocked unconscious.
He landed in a lake, regained consciousness, had to tread water with broken arms and then was dragged out of the lake and beaten by an angry mob. He got bayoneted in the groin and a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. He was taken to the “Hanoi Hilton” and left to beg for medical treatment for a week before the doctors set a couple of the broken bones without anesthesia and left his groin wound as it was.
He was delirious with pain for weeks. His weight dropped to around 100 pounds. His fellow POWs thought he would die.
After a few months of recovery he could stand and was taken before the prison commandant. The commandant had found out McCain’s father was a top-ranking naval officer and the North Vietnamese offered to let McCain walk out of the prison – a PR coup for North Vietnam.
McCain refused to leave. He wouldn’t give them a PR victory. He wouldn’t leave before others who had been there longer than he walked out.
Unhappy, the North Vietnam prison commandant had the guards break McCain’s ribs, rebreak his arm and knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to go.
Because of those wounds, McCain wouldn’t be able to raise his arms above his head the rest of his life.
Because he resisted the North Vietnamese, he spent more than five years as a POW. Much that time he was held in solitary confinement – in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” He contemplated suicide. He survived.
If those actions don’t give you a reason to respect him, then what will? I believe it says more about you than him.
If you respect him and disrespect those who add fuel to the fire with their vitriol, or who now offer respect for his life, it also speaks volumes about you and not him. It wasn’t his way.
After being bayonetted in the groin, McCain still sacrificed himself for others. Talk about having stones. This isn’t up for discussion. There are no “alternative facts.”
What would you do under those circumstances?
If nothing else, that part of McCain’s life should be known and taught to all of us. It is a definitive example of self-sacrifice, becoming part of something bigger than ourselves, putting our country and others first – having strength of character.
It, of course, drove him into politics where he was a controversial firebrand who angered both sides of the political aisle at times.
He made mistakes. He owned them.
Still some say he was no hero at all because of those mistakes. Some say he deserves no accolades because he was captured – or that he was also forced to record a confession.
No human being is perfect and if you cannot respect what McCain did in Vietnam then I suspect you cannot respect yourself or anyone else because we are all flawed.
Life is not a binary operation. It isn’t black and white and it isn’t an either/or proposition.
If McCain never went into politics after the Vietnam War, he would still deserve the label of “Hero” and have earned our respect.
But there were many more moments that defined him as a human being worthy of respect.
Just consider one more.
You’ve all seen the video of an elderly woman attacking former President Barack Obama and McCain’s rebuke. “He’s an Arab,” a woman says.
“No ma’am. He’s a decent family man and a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues . . .”
As divisive as we’ve become, McCain would not pander to the audience that clearly wanted to think the worst of his political opponent and wanted McCain to say so. McCain was built better than that.
The John McCain I interviewed told me that we should never forget we’re all Americans working for the same cause, though we may have different ideas how to reach our goal.
You do not have to like the man personally to respect that sentiment. You don’t have to call him a friend to recognize the two examples I mention as shining examples of the ideals of our country.
If you cannot give McCain those two moments, if you cannot acknowledge the higher ideals those moments represent then you my friend are the problem.
Call him flawed. Call him human, but you should recognize John McCain served us all and in doing so, enriched us all.
Politics, in this case, be damned.