Like virtually all of my fellow cadets in the mid-1980s at the Air Force Academy, I knew of John McCain before I actually knew him. For us, no stranger to teachers who flew and fought in Vietnam, John McCain’s tale stood out. The son and grandson of 4-star Admirals, shot down and held prisoner of war. Because of his lineage — his father was commander of US forces in the Pacific — McCain was offered early release. Because of injuries he had received upon ejection, many urged him to take it.
Instead, then-Lieutenant Commander McCain elected to remain with his comrades. Though there would have been no shame in taking the offer, McCain chose to honor the code of conduct handed down to us all: “I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.” I recall upon hearing that story, that if I were to attempt to devise the ultimate test of character when one had to endure great hardship only in defense of a sacred principle, I couldn’t have come up with one better than the one John McCain had passed.
My first actual encounter with the man was over the telephone. In 1999 while stationed in Northern Florida, my wife answered the phone when my dad called and said, “Put Rob on the phone quick!” Fearing some bad news and with a worried expression, Carmen handed me the phone. Dad said, “Hey Rob there’s somebody who wants to talk to you, Admiral James Stockdale.” Before I could respond, I was stunned to hear Admiral Stockdale’s voice on the other end thanking me for service to my country. Imagine that, a Medal of Honor recipient thanking a nobody Air Force major for his service. I had read Stockdale’s Master of My Fate: A Stoic Philosopher in a Hanoi Prison while a cadet and admired the man greatly. He put my dad back on the phone and dad quickly said again “There’s somebody else here who wants to speak with you, Senator John McCain.” Again another almost mythical figure was thanking me for serving in the Air Force. I was, to say the least, blown away. God bless dad and his unlimited chutzpah. He had been invited to a small event as McCain began his pursuit of the Republican nomination in 2000 and dad asked Stockdale and McCain if they would talk to me on his cell phone. They said sure.
Inspired, I quickly went online and gave a small donation to McCain’s political campaign. I think that he was, in fact, the last politician I’ve donated directly to. A few days later I received an invitation from a retired Marine 3-star to a fundraiser in Pensacola with the Senator and his wife. I really wanted to go, but wasn’t willing to pony up the $500 donation that was expected. So again on the phone to dad. Dad makes a call or two. Then I get a call from the campaign telling me the Senator and his wife Cindy would love for my wife and me to come as their guests.
The fundraiser was held in the evening at the small Museum of Industry in Pensacola. We arrived and parked the car in a somewhat dark parking lot and as we walked to what we thought was the right building, an older couple walked up to us and the man said, “Hey do you know how the hell to get into this place?” I replied, “I think it’s this way, follow us.” When we got to the building where the light was better I looked at the old man and realized who he was. I said to him, “You’re Colonel Bud Day, aren’t you?” He replied that he was indeed. Colonel Day was another Medal of Honor recipient, who had escaped and evaded enemy capture longer than anyone else after being shot down in Vietnam. He was also McCain’s cellmate in the Hanoi Hilton. The two took care of each other in the prison camp. After Day’s death in 2013, McCain said of him on the Senate floor, “He was the bravest man I ever knew.” He introduced his wife Doris and I made some stupid joke about not asking her to sing Que Sera Sera, which of course she had never heard before.
We walked inside. It was a small gathering, perhaps 100 people, of former and current Naval aviators, shipmates, and friends of the McCains. There was no real receiving line and my wife and I were able to just walk up and introduce ourselves to the Senator. My wife spoke first and told him that since she and he were both Panamanians — my wife was born there and McCain was born in the Canal Zone — a handshake wouldn’t do. She gave him a big hug and kiss, which he happily reciprocated and chatted with us about Panama. My wife also told him that she had just become an American citizen and that he would get her first vote. He seemed very touched. Then I couldn’t resist and told him that as an Air Force Academy graduate I recognized that he had to overcome the limitations of an inferior education but I thought he would make a pretty good president. He smiled, looked at my wife, looked back at me, and then turned to my wife again and said words I will always cherish, “He’s kind of a smart ass isn’t he?” My wife replied that yes, of course, he is. Thanks, honey. We had a good laugh together.
He smiled, looked at my wife, looked back at me, and then turned to my wife again and said words I will always cherish, “He’s kind of a smart ass isn’t he?”
My next encounter was in the Senator’s office while on active duty, taking an Army Four-star general around Capitol Hill. The General and the Senator started talking about the upcoming Army-Navy football game. That year Air Force had already beaten both teams and won the coveted Commander in Chief’s Trophy. I looked at the Senator and said to him “Sir, the Army-Navy game, that’s for the runner-up for the Commander in Chief’s Trophy right?” Again with the same smile as years before he said, “Major, you come into my office to insult me?” I replied that I was only insulting Navy football and he replied that, “Well, they probably deserve it.”
In one final memory worth sharing, I was taking that same Army general on kind of a farewell tour of Congress, and the General asked me to run over to McCain’s office and see if he was in. We had no appointment, but the General wanted to say goodbye and thank the Senator for his support while the General had commanded US Southern Command. I trotted over to McCain’s office and found him outside in the hallway talking to reporters. I was in uniform and he glanced at me and I said, “Sir, General Tom Hill is here and he’d like to say goodbye. Do you have a minute, I’ll bring him over?” He replied “No that’s okay, I’ll come with you, let’s go,” and the two of us walked through the hallway together to where I had left my general. The General was surprised and impressed that I had just brought the Senator to him. So was I, frankly, but McCain never seemed to stand on ceremony.
I had a few other occasions to meet with Senator McCain over the years on active duty, as a lobbyist, and in my current job as a defense analyst. It was always a thrill and a joy to spend time with him.
Of course, it is the curse of meeting one’s heroes face to face that you find out that they are indeed all too human. John McCain would be the first to admit that he was far from perfect. There were times when I disagreed with his political positions and other times when I was downright disappointed in him. But those times when I thought he let me down, such as a confederate flag issue in South Carolina, he would later admit were also times when he disappointed himself. John McCain’s greatest failings were when he failed to live up to being John McCain, and I suspect that he was his own toughest critic.
But those low points were far outweighed by the highs. Like when McCain took on a supporter who made a personal attack on his then-opponent, Senator Barack Obama. Politics isn’t beanbag, and he could be as tough as the rest of ’em but he also reminded us that we were, in the end, all Americans. There was the time he supported re-establishing relations with Vietnam. His horrific treatment did not embitter him or prevent he and the nation from moving forward. But the time that stands out for me was his speech decrying the US use of torture and the dishonor that it had brought on our country. Nobody could have spoken with more credibility on this issue, and his eloquence then moved me to tears.
It is really an exaggeration to say I knew John McCain. The truth is I’m not sure he ever remembered my name. I have little doubt that there are family and friends, shipmates and staff who knew him far better than I and can regale us all with better stories. My heart goes out to all those who loved him dearly and closely, and I have little doubt that that love was returned by him a thousandfold.
But at the same time, I do think I knew him because I understood his essence — the thing that made him tick. At the end of the day it really wasn’t hard to figure out, and every time I saw him it simply confirmed what was obvious. John McCain loved his country and was passionately dedicated to its service and wellbeing. That’s it. I have met many patriotic people in my life and consider myself among their ranks, but none of us could quite measure up to the example set by John McCain.
Somewhere now, I picture Captain McCain ascending a gangplank, being piped aboard with sailors manning the rails in his honor. At the top of the gangplanks are two other John Sidney McCains there to greet him and grant him permission to come aboard. No doubt this, while a sad moment for all of us, will be a joyous one for them. His father and grandfather will give him a hard time about never making admiral, and he’ll tell them he almost became president. They’ll laugh and cry and hug and sail off to wherever it is old sailors go.
And the rest of us will mourn and miss the powerful voice he offered as a fervent guardian of our nation and its highest ideals. I’m not sure they make ’em like John McCain anymore and, if they don’t, the country is much poorer for it. Fair winds and following seas my friend. You will indeed be missed.
Rob Levinson is a retired Lt. Col in the U.S. Air Force with over 20 years of service as an intelligence officer. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and served in Latin America, the Middle East, and South Korea as an intelligence officer, foreign area officer, commander and politico-military affairs officer.