John McCain: Patriot Until His Last Breath
By Arturo Castañares / Publisher and CEO
The death of John McCain on Saturday ended the life of a well-known military veteran, politician, and statesman, and left huge shoes to fill in our nation’s capital.
Most people remember McCain as the US Senator from Arizona that ran for President in 2008 against the unlikeliest of candidates, Barack Obama. McCain famously recruited Sarah Palin to be his running mate and lost the election in a landslide.
For others, McCain’s experiences as a POW during the Vietnam War forever cemented his reputation as a true American patriot. McCain, a US Naval Academy graduate, was a 30-year-old Navy pilot deployed on the USS Forrestal during the summer of 1967. The aircraft carrier was stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam, and its airplanes flew bombing missions into enemy territory.
On July 29, 1967, a bomb from a plane on the carrier deck accidently launched and flew across the ship, striking McCain’s jet as he prepared to take off, causing a huge explosion and fire. The accident nearly killed McCain, but 134 others on board did die. McCain received two medals for his bravery that day, and was offered a transfer home.
Instead, McCain requested an assignment on a nearby carrier, the USS Oriskany where he volunteered to continue flying combat missions over Vietnam. That decision changed his life.
Just two months later, during his 23rd combat mission, McCain’s jet was struck by anti-aircraft fire from the ground, and he was forced to eject. The violent ejection fractured both is legs and one arm, and he was unconscious when he landed in a lake. After being pulled ashore by an angry crowd, they broke his shoulder with a rifle butt and stabbed him with a bayonet.
Wounded and nearly dead, McCain was taken to a POW camp in downtown Hanoi that was sarcastically called the Hanoi Hilton. McCain was not treated for his injuries and was viciously beaten during his repeated interrogations until the North Vietnamese realized his dad, John S. McCain, Jr., was a Navy admiral.
A few months later, McCain’s dad was promoted to oversee all armed forces in the Vietnam War, and the North Vietnamese offered to release McCain as a propaganda stunt.
McCain refused to accept an early release before other POWs that had been held longer were sent home. The enemy beat him for not accepting their offer, but McCain maintained that it was dishonorable to accept special treatment because of his dad’s position.
McCain was held for nearly six years until March 1973, two months after the US signed a peace accord in Paris that officially ended its involvement in the 20-year war. When he finally left captivity, McCain had a sever limp, improperly set arm and jaw, and grey hair that made him look much older than his 36 years of age.
That experience might have left just about anyone else angry, bitter, and resentful. No one would blame a man who was beaten and tortured to hold a grudge or look for ways to extract revenge. But, John McCain was no ordinary man.
For the next 45 years, McCain sought ways to serve his country and fought for the ideals of freedom that he believed America represented. In 1982, he was elected to the House of Representatives, and later elected to the US Senate in 1988.
Politically, McCain was a conservative much in line with Ronald Reagan. Although McCain opposed declaring Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a national holiday, he later fully supported making it a state holiday in Arizona. McCain helped write the legislation that established rules for Native American gaming, but also was later caught up in the Keating Five political scandal.
Through the years, he was a staunch supporter of the military, and endorsed President Bill Clinton’s decision to normalize relations with Vietnam.
McCain often supported bipartisan efforts, including voting to approve two of Clinton’s appointments to the Supreme Court, and his co-authorship of campaign finance reform with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold. He as independent and wore his patriotism on his sleeve.
One of his most telling moments came during a televised town hall meeting of supporters in the 2008 presidential election. A woman took the microphone and accused Barack Obama of being “an Arab”.
McCain quickly took the mic back and confronted her, telling her Obama was “a decent family man citizen” that he happened to “have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
McCain shut down the corrosive paranoia with a head shake and a ‘NO”.
He could have just gone along with the crowd, as most politicians would have. He could have agreed with her and probably gotten more votes. But John McCain’s patriotism put country before politics, and he stood his ground.
During the past year, John McCain again showed his priority of country over politics of country as he persistently voiced his concerns about the way Donald Trump has embraced Russian leader Vladimir Putin, calling Trump’s actions “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
Many Republicans were upset at McCain for doing so, but it was the genuine man speaking his mind.
As he neared his last months of life, McCain seemed to feel liberated to speak his mind to warm Americans of what he viewed as an attack on the very institutions of government that he spent a lifetime defending.
In the end, John Sidney McCain III will most likely be remembered as a maverick, bucking the system when he felt he had to, and embracing it when it could. He was a flawed man in many respects, but his love of country and his sense of duty won out far more often than not.
I had the privilege of sharing a breakfast with John McCain in 1996. He was friendly, funny, and very smart. He had a sense of purpose that I have not seen in very many political leaders. He was a powerful presence. I was impressed.
As memorial ceremonies and a full military funeral take place this week, it is right to honor the fallen patriot that fought for his country, in war and in politics, even if some of us often disagreed with his views.
Our democratic process is better because of vigorous debate advocated by passionate yet disparate sides.
John McCain leaves large shoes to fill in our public discourse. Given today’s toxic political environment, unfortunately it doesn’t seem likely anyone is worthy of filling them anytime soon.
Godspeed John McCain.