George H.W. Bush, 1924 – 2018

“America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.” — George H.W. Bush

Former President George H.W. Bush photographed on August 23, 2001 in Houston, TX. (Photo by Pam Francis/Getty Images)

I arrived to work on Capitol Hill in late February of 1991, just as the First Iraq War (Operation Desert Storm) was coming to an end. George H.W. Bush was our President and the titular leader of the free world. 

By any account, President Bush was known as a kind, gracious, and decent man who’d dedicated his life to public service. For me, I’ve always felt, and I think history confirms, that our nation has been best served by those Presidents who’s life has been an extensive history of serving others.

I’ve always asked when sizing up a candidate for high office, What has he or she done with their life up to this point? Has their life been about serving others? Has their life been mostly about advancing their own personal interests or has it been about their community’s and their nation’s interests? George H.W. Bush spend most of his life in faithful and dedicated service to our nation. 

The only personal (and brief) memory I have of President Bush involved a visit he made to the U.S. Capitol Building in the summer (I believe) of 1992. I was standing near the House Door of the U.S. Capitol and President Bush and his entourage were about to leave the building and head back to the White House. The President was slowly making his way, talking and shaking hands, when he suddenly broke from his group and headed straight for me. I hadn’t been paying close attention to him, but to the group in general as it was moving toward the exit. I noticed the crowd all starting to look at me and I turned to see President Bush walking toward me with his right hand extended to shake my hand. I can still distinctly remember the genuine look in his eyes and the sincerity in his voice as he strongly shook my hand and thanked me for my service “to our great nation.”  

At this particular time in our nation’s history, I’m sure, many Americans miss that genuine decency, dignity, graciousness, intelligence, and nobility that President George H.W. Bush brought to the Office of the Presidency and to the reputation and leadership status of this great nation. 

Farewell Mr. President. You leave behind a grateful nation. Thank you for your service. 

(President George H.W. Bush passed away yesterday, November 30, 2018, in Houston, Texas. He was 94.)

Senator John McCain, 1936 – 2018

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

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 didn’t take the job.)

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.

On Sunday, September 2nd, Senator John McCain was laid to rest at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He was 81.

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 States 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 States 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 about John Glenn; 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 has Aviators too?”

Turning toward me and speaking through a playful smile, “I didn’t know there was any other type?”

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 seemed 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)