Much has been written about the late Senator John S. McCain, the son and grandson of U.S. Navy Admirals of the same name, and much more will be written. He was a hero in life, an impetuous man whose life story was so unlikely as to be more fittingly a work of fiction, perhaps an almost but not quite believable motion picture – something sure to happen.
Fellow Annapolis alumni know that Midshipman McCain was already a maverick. Stories of his famously “in your face” actions at the Naval Academy were passed down through the years; he finished at the bottom of his class but was not discharged most likely because of the great respect (and some fearfulness) felt by the Academy’s hierarchy toward his family. McCain continued in and out of trouble as a junior officer going through flight school, but matured into a leader who always had the courage of his convictions and a desire to stick it out to the end, doing things his way – a way that, to him, was always the right way.
Having been shot down over North Vietnam and becoming a Prisoner of War, his reputation for courage and sticking it out was cemented by his refusal to accept an offer of release ahead of others, based on his father’s assignment as the military chief of our country’s Pacific Command, the Admiral to whom our field commanders in Vietnam reported. Being tortured for not cooperating with his captors, McCain was eventually released but never entirely recovered physically. The best assignment from the Navy’s perspective for the returned hero was in the Navy’s Congressional Liaison office. He got to know Congressmen and Senators and they in turn to respect him, and it was not long after he retired as a Navy Captain that he ran successfully to join them first in the House of Representatives and later in the Senate. There is a great multiple biography of John McCain (The Nightingale’s Song, by fellow USNA alumnus Robert Timberg) written during these early Congressional years; the other subjects of this compare-and-contrast study were four other Annapolis graduates: Oliver North, James Webb, Bud McFarlane, and John Poindexter, all of whom served in various capacities during the Reagan administration.
It could be argued that the high point of Senator McCain’s career came with his running as the Republican Party’s nominee for President in 2008, the election won by fellow Senator Barack Obama. But to me the high point was much later, when an ailing Senator McCain stood up not only to his party leadership in the Senate but also to President Trump, enjoining his fellow Senators of both parties not blindly to follow others but always to seek out the truth and to have the courage to take what they, individually, perceive to be the ethically right path.
John S. McCain III was not the best Midshipman, nor the best Navy Officer, nor the best Congressman or Senator. He was not the best Republican by any measure of his politics. But he was the best American he could possibly be, this year and every year of his long life. He would have been 82 years old the day this issue of The Edgefield Advertisergoes to press, August 29, 2018. He will be missed.