Senator John McCain, 1936 – 2018

Washington Post Picture
Senator McCain Boarding Elevator at the Capitol (Imagine: The Washington Post)

On Sunday, September 2nd, Senator John McCain was laid to rest at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

I saw Senator John McCain often during my 4 years working at the U.S. Capitol Building in the early-to-mid 1990s. He was usually cordial—if not sprinting to catch a vote—and would sometimes chat with me in the hallways or while waiting for a subway car or an elevator. I was honored when McCain agreed to write me a letter of recommendation for a job I was interested in with the City of Scottsdale, Arizona. (I decided not to take the job in AZ and stay on Capitol Hill.)

A colleague of mine explained to me one night why McCain couldn’t raise his arms above his shoulders. I had never really thought about it, but I’d noticed it on a few occasions while observing McCain at events. Having been taken prisoner and severely tortured during the Vietnam War, McCain had suffered life changing injuries that, I’m sure, reminded him of his torturers all his life.

Though McCain was a Republican he was known for his political independence; thus the nickname “Maverick,” because of his ready willingness to buck his own party and vote with Democrats when he felt it was the right thing to do. This independent streak, naturally, availed him with independent–minded people. In 99/2000, McCain ran for the Republican Presidential nomination and generated a lot of enthusiasm with voters, especially young voters, via his Straight Talk Express campaign. A memorable aspect of McCain’s primary campaign, and the theme his life exampled, was his call for Americans to devote themselves to something higher than themselves and their own personal self-interests.

Now generally speaking, a politician calling for self sacrifice and devotion to a higher purpose is usually met with a bit of skepticism and sometimes mocking laughter. But that’s always been hard to do in McCain’s case. Because there is a big difference—massive, really—between those who pontificate and those who actually put up. We can talk about country, honor, and code and our dedication to preserving and protecting them, but how many of us could actually do it if faced with extreme pain and suffering—for years!—for doing so?

I think it’s worth posting a brief summary of what happened to McCain as a prisoner in Vietnam. It’s a commentary on the strength of character. It’s painful to read. But please take the time to read it. David Foster Wallace spent some time with the Straight Talk Express in 2000, and he wrote the following for Rolling Stone. In this segment, Wallace explains why McCain is a hero, not for what he did, but for what he voluntarily suffered in the service of something higher than himself.

Here’s what happen. In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 26th Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, and the ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi. Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him.

U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. This is all public record. Try to imagine this. He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where for a week they made him beg for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.

He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after he’d hung on like that for several months and his bones had mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up, the prison people came and brought him to the commandant’s office and closed the door and out of nowhere offered to let him go. They said he could just . . . leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer.

John S. McCain III, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused.

The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The commandant, not at all pleased, right there in the office had guards break McCain’s ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. Forget how in movies stuff like this happens and try to imagine it as real: a man without teeth refusing release. McCain spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.”

Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.

But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code.

Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches now you can feel like maybe it’s not just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it’s maybe the truth . . .  The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered – voluntarily, for a Code.

Whether one agreed with McCain’s politics or not really shouldn’t matter. What should matter, I think, is the high regard this nation owes to Senator McCain and those like him who truly serve this country (in the military or in public service) and who have or may be called upon to sacrifice for those ideals and institutions and freedoms that we all so cherish. Without them, without people like John McCain, we would not have the freedoms and way of life we love.

If there was ever a time we needed more John McCains on Capitol Hill, it’s now.

His leadership will be sorely missed.

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