Saluting Senator John McCain
When Senator John McCain died yesterday at 81 after a courageous but ultimately losing battle against an especially vicious form of brain cancer, America lost one of the greatest figures in our history. Others vastly more qualified than I will eulogize the storied career of this authentic American hero, but allow me to add a few personal observations.
I’ve been fascinated by Senator McCain ever since reading the late Robert Timberg’s 1995 best-seller Nightingale’s Song. Timberg (whose own life was also quite a story) portrayed McCain along with four other Naval Academy graduates caught up in the Vietnam War and its complex aftermath.
I had a chance to meet Senator McCain in 2015 when he spoke at the Aspen Security Forum. By pure happenstance we wound up together at Aspen’s small airport waiting for flights. With some trepidation – partly a reluctance to bother him, and partly because he was often a critic of the Air Force – I approached him and introduced myself as an Air Force vet and a Duke Law professor.
He could not have been more gracious. We spent a dozen minutes or so talking about the conference and our mutual friend Senator Lindsey Graham. (I knew Graham as he was a student of mine in Air Force JAG School, and our paths have crossed several times over the years.)
What most struck me about the conversation with McCain was that it was a genuine dialogue. McCain wasn’t the typical politician who might just glad-hand and spout one-sided talking points at such a chance meeting with a stranger, he was instead listening and responding in a real way. He never acted like he was looking for an opportunity to end the conversation – as understandable as that might have been for such a busy and prominent legislator.
It’s easy to see not only why he had so many admirers, but also why even those who might disagree with him (as I did on some issues) would still instinctively respect him. I’ll treasure the memory of my short meeting with him for the rest of my days.
One other point. For many, especially those who served in uniform, Senator McCain’s bravery as a prisoner of war is legendary. In a 2005 Newsweek essay he recounted some of his horrific experiences as a POW and said something that I still use in my classes. You should read the full essay (found here), but this part remains especially salient today:
“Until about 1970, North Vietnam ignored its obligations not to mistreat the Americans they held prisoner, claiming that we were engaged in an unlawful war against them and thus not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. But when their abuses became widely known and incited unfavorable international attention, they substantially decreased their mistreatment of us.”
McCain was teaching us that even those adversaries who ignore the law of war can still be influenced by world opinion if their behaviors are energetically exposed and fiercely condemned. In an era when reciprocity with respect to the law of war seems to have collapsed, there are still ways to obtain some measure of compliance, and McCain showed us one way of doing so. That’s what the greatest among us do: take a terrible experience and use it for a positive purpose.
John McCain was a patriot in the truest sense of the word, and someone who lived a life of real meaning. It’s my great honor to salute you, John McCain!