McCain Looks Back on a Unique Life

The House has gone home and the Senate will by the end of the week, so it’s a good time to head to the beach, the mountains, or a park bench for a good read. In recent months I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed eight remarkable biographies: Walter Isaacson’s accounts of Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin; Evan Thomas’s Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World and Being Nixon: A Man Divided; and the 1986 book that Isaacson and Thomas wrote together, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. The Wise Men is about Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, and John McCloy—two lawyers, two bankers, and two diplomats who helped guide the U.S. through the Cold War. Throw in Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life.

The most recent and definitely most poignant was a bit more autobiographical: The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations. This is the seventh, and sadly, maybe the last collaboration between Sen. John McCain and his close friend and longtime staffer Mark Salter. McCain has always been enormously candid, but facing brain cancer—a glioblastoma, the scourge that took the lives of Sen. Edward Kennedy and Beau Biden—has made McCain even more blunt, and this is a very different look back at a remarkable life and career. In the book, McCain quickly admits to flaws, regrets, and mistakes.

McCain and Salter’s book is definitely worth reading; in fact, it’s one that I wish every member of Congress and staffer would read. His vantage point on what has happened in politics and in Congress, through the eyes of someone who has lived through what he has, makes it all the more worthwhile. McCain’s tenacity, both personally and in trying to understand what is going on around the world—relying on face-to-face meetings with political and military leaders, taking fellow members of Congress with him, to pass on that thirst for understanding—is really quite something.

Many will find his reflections on the 2008 presidential campaign and the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate to be particularly interesting, and his discussion of his support for the war in Iraq and mistakes made there. But if you read nothing other than the first and last chapters, it’s more than worth the time and expense.

McCain’s diagnosis of what has gone wrong in our political process in general and in the U.S. Senate in particular is, I think, right on the mark. The passion which he has put into his service in the military, the House, and the Senate has been to the benefit of all three institutions and well worth it for those coming behind him to study and emulate.

For me personally, a vignette in the book about an August 2008 town meeting in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, was particularly meaningful. During the Q&A period, a woman named Lynne Savage, a special-education assistant in the local school system, stood up and told of wearing a silver bracelet on her arm during the Vietnam War in support of a soldier who was fighting in that conflict. That night, she said, she was “wearing a black bracelet in memory of my son who lost his life in Baghdad” a year and a half earlier. It’s hard to read, or to actually listen to McCain’s own voice (he narrated the first and last chapters of the book, actor Beau Bridges the parts in between), without having tears well up in your eyes. Her son, Army Specialist Matthew Stanley, and four other soldiers were killed in their Humvee by an IED in December 2006.

McCain recalled that, listening to Savage, “my first thought in the instant she uttered her statement was that she would hold me responsible for her loss, and she would be right to do so.” McCain continues, “By my vote in support of the war and my support for the surge, I assumed a share of that responsibility, and a Gold Star mother was well within her rights to resent me for it. But she didn’t speak of resentment or accountability. She didn’t ask any questions about the war. She had only come to ask me if I would wear his bracelet, ‘so you could remember your mission and their mission in support of them.’” McCain asked her how old her son had been—he was a newlywed and had died 10 days before his 23rd birthday. McCain writes that he put on the bracelet and has worn it every day since and will for the rest of his life.

Reading this passage, I recalled having run into McCain in 2012, four years after that town meeting, in the lobby of the Loews Regency Hotel in Manhattan, the home away from home for many Washington pols visiting the city. Knowing that his son Jimmy McCain, a Marine, had a combat deployment few years earlier to Iraq, I mentioned that our older son, David, was currently deployed, like McCain’s son, as an enlisted man, but to Afghanistan, in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and that he had just earned his Combat Infantryman’s Badge. Suddenly, it was as if the dozens of other people in the hotel lobby had disappeared and no one else was around but McCain and myself. He reached out, put his hand on my arm, and for a few minutes quizzed me about exactly where David was, about his unit, what he was doing; nothing else seemed important. Not as a ranking member (and future chairman of) the Senate Armed Services Committee, but as a father who knew exactly what we were going through.

Reading and listening to McCain, a former Navy carrier pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war, made me think about a line that a character in James Michener’s Korean War novella about an earlier generation of Navy carrier pilots used—“Where do we get such men?”—which was slightly modified and made more famous by President Reagan in his 1982 Armed Forces Day radio address, “Where do we find such men?” Reading what may be McCain’s farewell to public life, that question comes up again: Where do we find such men and women, remarkable people like McCain and others whom I’ve read about of late, those famous and those little-known, who rose to the occasion and have done so much for our country? Our hope is that we will continue to find more like them.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on July 31, 2018