I first crossed paths with that force of nature known as John McCain at the end of a long, snowy road in New Hampshire.
It was January, 2000, just days before New Hampshire Republicans were to go to the polls in the initial presidential primary of that election year. I was there as a reporter, hoping to get my first real look at John McCain in action as he sought his party’s nomination.
And from the instant I walked into that small town community center it became very clear this was no ordinary campaign… and John McCain was no ordinary candidate.
He was connecting with people in ways I had never seen before: simply, directly, and with great candor.
McCain pretty much eschewed all the trappings of a standard campaign. There were no rallies, and he refused to travel in a motorcade surrounded only by staff.
Instead, he criss-crossed the state in a bus labeled “The Straight Talk Express,” supplied with donuts and reporters and good conversation as the candidate made his way from one open meeting with voters to another.
They were called “town halls” — unscripted, down-to-earth, sometimes funny exchanges of views where McCain could just be himself.
The voters loved it, and admittedly, so did I. Did I agree with all his views on policy? No. But did I come quickly to respect his candor and the strength of his convictions? Absolutely.
And now we are mourning the loss of Senator McCain — a war hero, patriot and politician the likes of which this nation will never see again.
He died just a few days shy of his 82d birthday from a rare and deadly form of brain cancer. We knew the cancer was aggressive, we knew he didn’t have a lot of time left, and yet that has not made his death any easier to accept.
His life story is the stuff of great novels. Born the son and grandson of admirals, John McCain became a U.S. Navy pilot at the height of the Vietnam conflict. His plane was shot down over Hanoi, and he endured more than five years of unthinkable torture as a prisoner of war. When he regained his freedom at the end of the war — his body bearing the scars of his confinement — he didn’t turn away from serving his country. He just chose another path.
McCain ran for office in his adopted home state of Arizona and went on to serve for almost four decades in Congress, first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate. A conservative by nature, he gained a reputation as “a maverick,” a lawmaker who was willing to reach out to the opposition and forge his own way in an increasingly partisan legislature.
He made two unsuccessful runs for the presidency — losing the Republican nomination to George W. Bush in 2000 and the general election to Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. Both defeats were handled with a certain grace and an affirmation by McCain of his belief in America.
He loved his family, he loved his brothers and sisters in arms in the military, and — perhaps most of all — he loved the United States.
McCain was a defender of both military budgets and human rights until he drew his last breath. His final act as a senator — weeks after his cancer diagnosis — was winning passage of a major piece of legislation authorizing programs for the Department of Defense. More recently, he made headlines by decrying President Donald Trump’s words of faith in Russian President Vladimir Putin at their Helsinki summit.
He could be blunt and he was the first to admit that he made plenty of mistakes during his political career — including his initial support for the Iraq war. But John McCain also had the ability to speak his mind, no matter the political cost… and to remind and sometimes reprimand his legislative colleagues when they seemed to put partisanship before country.
We miss him already… and we miss him in large part because we need those reminders now more than ever. We need office holders that put others first and understand the true nature of their commitment to the American people.
As his friend and fellow Arizona Senator Jeff Flake put it: “He did not pretend to be perfect, but he perfectly loved his country.”
There were, as expected, tributes from past presidents and world leaders who honored this unique American hero. But from President Trump, there was nothing —- nothing that is, until the largest organization of military veterans in the country urged him to recognize the life and achievements of Senator McCain.
The two did not get along. Trump once famously said he did not consider McCain a war hero “because he was captured”… and, admittedly, they were at constant odds over policy. But in a nation where the president is supposed to lead us in the traditional rites of mourning, Trump clearly failed. Instead of being gracious, he was seen as petty and childish.
As Tom Boswell, columnist for the Washington Post, put it in a tweet: “When a brave patriot dies, who would dare say, ‘Forget him. Look at ME.’”
Indeed, Trump’s reaction to McCain’s death may have brought even more attention to the senator’s incredible life.
When he got that terminal cancer diagnosis a year ago, McCain’s daughter called him “a warrior at dusk.” Instead of falling into despair, McCain used his last months to reaffirm his patriotism and to share some final words of hope.
In his last broadcast interview he was asked by Jake Tapper just how he wanted to be remembered by the American people. McCain thought for a second and said:
“He served his country… I hope, we could add, honorably.”
And when Donald Trump sat stone-faced and cross-armed, refusing to share a kind thought about the recently deceased senator, it was John McCain who had the last word.
It came in the form of a love letter to the American people written shortly before his death and read to the public by Rick Davis, a McCain family friend and spokesman.
In it, John McCain urged the American people to always remember that we are a nation of ideals, not blood and soil… a country that has liberated more people from tyranny than any other… and indeed, a land of wealth and power:
“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
McCain also noted we are a land of individuals who hold conflicting opinions. And yet, we have far more in common than we think and in the end, we will come through these difficult times stronger than before.
“Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”
Farewell to an American hero.
Thank you, John McCain.