Senator John McCain, 1936 – 2018

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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.

Hang on to Your Hope

In March of 1973, a Mr. Nadeau sent a letter to E.B. White, the famed New Yorker writer and author of Charlotte’s Web, expressing his hopelessness about the state of humanity. Considering the state of political affairs today, especially in the U.S., we have good reason to revisit White’s encouraging and hopeful letter of reply:

North Brooklin, Maine,
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,
E. B. White

Remembering John Glenn (1921 – 2016)

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Senator John Glenn

The morning mists at Arlington National Cemetery were still visible as I stood watching the slow precision of the officers folding the U.S. flag. Everyone stood completely still as the ceremonial team of the United State Capitol Police (USCP) carried out this final symbolic act of a grateful nation. This funeral took place in the early 1990s. I don’t recall who it was for. But I do know the deceased had served in the armed forces and then completed a second career with the USCP, protecting and serving the U.S. Congress.

When the two officers completed folding the flag, the officer holding the flag turned and ceremoniously stepped toward a man in a gray suit who was standing at attention waiting to receive the flag. The officer handed Senator John Glenn the flag and saluted him. Senator Glenn saluted the officer back. Senator Glenn then turned, walked around the casket to a woman seated in front of the casket, bent down toward her, and with both hands gently handed her the folded flag. As she grasped the flag Senator Glenn spoke: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. State Senate and the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to this Country and the United State Congress.”

I had watched this entire event from my position about 25 yards away, standing quietly by myself near a parked police van. When Senator Glenn was done he walked over and stood next to me. I hadn’t expected it. It was just him and I standing there in silence as the ceremony continued and the burial team’s bugler began playing taps. As the sad and final note of taps began to fade, the Senator broke the silence: “You know,” he said in a quiet and solemn tone, as he stared out across the sea of gravestones, “I’ve heard that many times, and yet every time always seems like the first emotionally.” The Senator had come here to Arlington that morning because he had known the deceased U.S. Capitol Police officer and volunteered to present the flag.

As the ceremony ended, the Senator asked me where I was from and we began talking. I’d seen the Senator around Capitol Hill a number of times since I’d arrived in 1991, but I’d never really had the chance to talk one-on-one with him, so I took this opportunity. I knew what most people knew: that he’d been an astronaut and, of course, a Senator. But I didn’t know much more. I remember at one point asking him about his military career:

“So you were a Navy pilot?”

“Oh no, I was an Marine Corp Aviator.”

“Oh, so the Marine Corp actually has Aviators too?”

Turning toward me and speaking through a playful smile, “Is there any other kind?”

I chuckled at this good humored shot at the Navy. The rivalry was still alive with this retired Marine Corp Colonel. We stood there talking for about another 5 minutes, and during that brief time I remember feeling a deep sense of admiration and inspiration.

Until he left Congress in 1999, I would see Senator Glenn around the Hill on a number of occasions. He was always friendly and always seem to remember me and our brief conversation that morning in Arlington. He would typically stop for a moment to shake my hand and exchange a few words. It was always a real pleasure.

John Glenn was a true American hero and a powerful inspiration for any aspiring leader. In this uniquely uncertain time in American history, we need to look to the lives of people like John Glenn as the example of what truly made America a great nation.

He will be missed.

(John Glenn passed away on December 8, 2016. He was 95)

My Thoughts on the Presidential Election

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The morning after the catastrophe election on November 8th, I jogged to the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall of Washington DC. I entered the memorial, where the statue of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president is located, and stood there in meditative thought. Out of the profound silence, I thought I heard the whisper of Lincoln’s ghostly voice: “Holy shit, you’re kidding me.” I turned and stared out across the National Mall toward Capitol Hill and wondered the same myself.

I’ll admit I have a bias against people like Donald Trump. I prefer leaders who act magnanimously toward their rivals and those they disagree with. I prefer leaders who can speak intelligently, responsibly, and realize that words really do matter—because, believe me, they do. I prefer leaders who’ve done their homework, actually understand the issues, taken the time to study them in-depth, and can talk intelligently about those issues. I prefer people who don’t abuse their status or celebrity and instead act with graciousness and kindness toward those less fortunate than them. And I definitely prefer leaders without an elaborate and well attested history of immoral behavior. I guess, in brief, I prefer leaders who’ve consistently demonstrated a spirit of nobility and excellence instead of the very opposite qualities. So naturally I find people like Donald Trump an anathema in positions of public leadership. To me—an a very large swath of America—Donald Trump may be the most unfit man to ascend to the Presidency in our nation’s history.

But now the deed is done and we’ll have to suffer through it. I’m doubtful that Donald Trump or those around him will ultimately be able to help most Americans—especially the working class—improve their lives much. The same trickle-down economic policies the Trump team (and GOP Congress) are currently batting around are the very policies that caused the stagnation of the middle-class and decline of the working class over the past few decades. Another big consideration is that a number of the problems in working class communities are self-inflicted and not amenable by government policy. In short, there are cultural problems that have to be resolved or dealt with within those communities before any outside assistance can help.

I suspect we’ll see mostly policies that favor the Donald Trump’s of the world (his family’s wealth and prosperity), while many of the programs and investments in the middle-class and working class are cut in order to provide more corporate largesse and tax breaks for the rich—who don’t need them and we can’t afford to give them. It’s really about math, and many of us will likely be on the losing side of the equation with this administration and this congress. And so the march toward a bigger, even stronger, more powerful oligarchy resumes.

But prove me wrong! Believe me, that would be fine by me. I like pleasant surprises.

Flood Waters in LA

Southern Louisiana is experiencing some serious flooding as most of you know. A good friend of mine working special security in Metaire, Louisiana, just forwarded me these photos from the New Orleans area.

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The flood waters are deep!

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Considering the depth of this flood, which is from torrential rains, you can’t help but wonder about the long-term viability of this area. This real-estate is at or below sea level. As global warming advances, the seas will continue to slowly rise and hurricanes will only get more intense. Poseidon will not be held back forever.

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How to Help Louisiana Flood Victims.