Katy Burns: John McCain, public servant

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., gets in an elevator on Capitol Hill on June 4, 2015. AP file

Monitor columnist
Monday, May 14, 2018

John McCain, a Naval Academy graduate, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, an unsuccessful presidential candidate and a United States senator, suffers an especially vicious form of brain cancer. He has battled it for many months.

It’s the same affliction that felled Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2009 and Beau Biden, Joe Biden’s beloved son, in 2015. Interestingly, McCain was a close friend of both Kennedy and Biden. McCain was there for Kennedy in his last days, as Biden was there – for a 90-minute visit – for McCain.

We used to take such friendships – among politicians of diametrically opposed views and strongly held principles – for granted. It was a side benefit of such a small and often cloistered group as our 100 senators, and it fostered healthy cooperation and compromise. It was viewed as a plus in our clubby national legislature, as was the habit of members of Congress to move their families to D.C., where they could form relationships with one another that weren’t all predicated on political beliefs.

Real and important legislation was possible – and happened – among friends.

Today, such friendships are practically unheard of. Senators – like congressional representatives in the House – herd themselves into hostile and uncommunicative tribes, leave their families at home, and flee the nation’s capital at every opportunity. In the case of the House, they go back to districts that are carefully gerrymandered to be as politically homogeneous as possible. The result, of course, is legislative gridlock, with little of consequence being done.

That was not the case for such gregarious, results-oriented old-timers as McCain, Kennedy and Biden.

McCain and Kennedy formed a strong bond working closely for health care system reform. McCain spent time with the Massachusetts senator in Kennedy’s dying days, and later eulogized his friend at his funeral. Biden and McCain developed a close friendship as they worked on various bipartisan bills, including campaign finance reform and climate and conservation measures.

He apparently had a good friendship with Hillary Clinton during her time in the Senate, and his strong if complicated working relationship with John Kerry was nearly legendary.

McCain was the son and grandson of powerful U.S Navy officers, and Kerry enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1966. While serving a tour in Vietnam, Kerry was awarded a Silver Star Medal, a Bronze Star Medal and three Purple Heart Medals and, not coincidentally, went on to become an eloquent critic of the war.

In 1971 testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, he memorably asked a haunting question: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

McCain’s plane had been shot down during that time, and the future senator heroically served for a hellish five-plus years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, where he suffered intermittent bouts of extreme torture and deprivation that brought his weight down from 155 pounds to a skeletal 100 and left him with permanent disabilities. Even in that hellhole, he heard about the other young former Naval officer, Kerry, who had become a leader in the anti-war movement. And he loathed him.

In 1984 when McCain was long back from the war, Kerry decided to run for the Senate from Massachusetts, and McCain took his revenge by flying to the Bay State to campaign for Kerry’s opponent, something he never repeated. Kerry nonetheless made it to the Senate, and two years later he was joined by a new young senator from Arizona: John McCain.

The two veterans and senators quickly discovered they had a shared interest, indeed even obsession. They wanted to get an accounting of long-rumored “missing prisoners” (if any) still held in the jungle and, finally, to normalize U.S relations with the Asian country. It was ferociously hard work (and the reason for many baseless, scurrilous attacks on each man as he ran for president), but ultimately the two succeeded. They were a sort of a variation of brothers-in-arms.

Less well known is that, after arriving in the Senate, McCain also struck up a relationship with a lawyer named David Ifshin, who as a young student leader and activist had years earlier led a delegation to Hanoi, the North Vietnam capital, to protest America’s war on that country. Each man apologized to the other for his own previous harsh words, and they became friends. McCain gave a eulogy at his funeral.

My husband, Don, and I were onlookers in the crowd swirling around this drama. One of Don’s stepbrothers had been McCain’s classmate at the Naval Academy, and Don – a graduate of the Military Academy at West Point – had served in Vietnam around the same time as McCain and Kerry.

Like Kerry, Don was disillusioned by the war – concluding that we had no business there – and, while living briefly in Massachusetts, he was personally solicited by the young Kerry to join the then-new Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The two of us afterwards watched the two veterans’ progress with interest from the sidelines.

And Don supported McCain, with a contribution as well as his vote, when McCain ran in his first New Hampshire primary in 2000. Later, he supported John Kerry, whom he’d met so many years ago, in the 2004 presidential race.

And the 2008 primary here gave us a glimpse of McCain the ordinary man. When we met the senator at a small gathering that year, Don mentioned in passing that his stepbrother Bill remembered McCain fondly from their years at Annapolis. McCain broke his campaign spiel abruptly. Oh, Bill! He beamed, spoke of fond memories of Bill and warmly asked to be remembered to his former classmate.

His reaction was wonderfully personal and human.

McCain and Kerry were men of character, honor and decency, despite strongly held and different political views.

Donald Trump is something else. During his presidential campaign he famously mocked McCain, saying the Arizona senator “wasn’t a war hero,” because “he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Writer Frank Bruni accurately called that “gratuitous cruelty.”

McCain didn’t say much at the time, but he clearly seethed – probably less on his own behalf than on behalf of hundreds of his fellow prisoners who also were so careless as to be “captured” while serving their country, something Trump himself never did, thanks to convenient “bone spurs” in his feet.

In fact, Trump once crowed to Howard Stern that he, Trump, had been a “brave soldier” for avoiding contracting STDs at that time while prowling the New York club scene. Trump called that – the health hazards of his clubbing days – “my personal Vietnam.”

It wasn’t surprising that McCain asked that former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush give eulogies at his funeral – and specifically said that President Trump’s presence would not be welcome.

In the end, character really does count.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)