Elephants in the Room

John McCain Was Always There for America

Remembrances of a hero the United States—and the Republican Party—will miss.

John McCain (R-AZ) prepares to greet supporters during a Veterans rally for U.S. Sen candidate and U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) at the American Legion Post on October 13, 2014 in Covington, Louisiana.  (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
John McCain (R-AZ) prepares to greet supporters during a Veterans rally for U.S. Sen candidate and U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) at the American Legion Post on October 13, 2014 in Covington, Louisiana. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

By Will Inboden

“There were giants in the earth in those days…” Genesis 6:4

A giant has departed from among us. With Sen. John McCain’s death on Saturday, our nation has lost a war hero, a statesman, and a patriot.

As an Arizonan, I grew up under the long shadow cast over our state by McCain. He may not have been a native son, but on moving there in 1981 he quickly embraced Arizona and we embraced him in return. The state and the man were made for each other: proud, independent, stubborn, free, and on occasion as prickly as the countless saguaro cacti that adorn Arizona’s southern landscape.

His first run for the House of Representatives in 1982 remains the stuff of Arizona political lore. Criticized during a primary debate for being a carpetbagger, McCain responded defiantly: “I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”

Even as a young conservative congressman in the vanguard of Ronald Reagan’s revolution, McCain built a close friendship with fellow Arizona Rep. Mo Udall, a liberal Democrat and senior House member who graciously mentored McCain despite their political differences. Displaying the loyalty and honor that were his lifelong traits, McCain in turn never forgot Udall, to the point of visiting him regularly in the veteran’s hospital even when the dying Udall was barely conscious and had been forgotten by the rest of his former colleagues.

McCain won election in 1986 to the Senate seat previously held by the iconic Barry Goldwater. McCain and Goldwater combined served 61 years in the Senate, each a pillar of the institution and each a pillar of Arizona. In particular, they wielded enormous influence on defense policy as both became chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee and both designed landmark defense reform measures while working tirelessly to strengthen and equip our military.

Part of McCain’s greatness came from his sense of history. He venerated the past and felt a special duty to be worthy of the legacies he inherited. Whether in his own family Navy lineage as the son and grandson of admirals, in Arizona as the successor to the Goldwater Senate seat, and especially as an American who loved his country with abiding and unrelenting passion, the past captivated McCain. (Because of his devotion to history and national security leadership, we were honored to have McCain serve on the Statecraft Board of Reference for the Clements Center for National Security that I oversee at the University of Texas at Austin.)

McCain also carried forward the Reagan legacy on national security policy more than almost any other U.S. political leader. Like Reagan, McCain was a stalwart advocate for human rights and democracy, exemplified by his longtime chairmanship of the International Republican Institute. Like Reagan, McCain stood for a strong military, free trade, loyalty to our allies, and U.S. international leadership.

Like all giants, this treasure in an earthen vessel had his flaws. McCain could too often let political differences become personal, had a combustible temper, and was rarely guilty of excessive humility. Few Republicans, myself included, agreed with him on every policy stand he embraced. Almost all of us who served in national security roles in the George W. Bush administration found ourselves crosswise with McCain on some occasion or another.

But those past feuds and frailties now fade and give way to our mourning of his loss and our celebration of his life. Death has a way of concentrating the mind and causing us to reflect on those things that really matter. Those include the ancient virtues of duty, honor, and country that lived on in the life of McCain. To those, I would add truth. McCain’s Senate colleague Ben Sasse put it well: “Our nation aches for truth-tellers. This man will be greatly missed.”

A great country produces great men, and John McCain was a great one indeed. May he rest in peace but may his legacy rest not.

* * *

By Daniel Twining

I started working for John McCain in 1995. I never really stopped working for him. I served on his Senate staff, including as his foreign policy advisor, a role that took me to some 40 countries with him and allowed me to witness the great man in action during some of the most consequential moments of modern American history, including the campaign for NATO enlargement, the 9/11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I volunteered for both his presidential campaigns, doing everything from driving him to events to penning parts of his foreign policy platform. I now run an organization, the International Republican Institute, that he chaired for 25 years until reluctantly handing over its leadership in the weeks before his death. The John McCain I know is not the one in the glare of the media spotlight. The private John McCain is in fact more impressive than the public one.

The media narrative always had McCain in the center of the great public policy cause of the day: from campaign finance reform to North Korean nuclear proliferation to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Russian aggression against its neighbors. He was a leader in these and other causes, foreign and domestic. But the causes that animated him equally passionately were those with no media bandwidth whatsoever: a coup in Fiji that subverted democracy; the cause of human rights defenders in Belarus; persecution against online dissidents in Vietnam; the fate of Cambodia’s opposition in the face of repeated government crackdowns; the prospects for Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition; the future of Iraq’s Kurds; the fate of tiny Baltic nations most Americans could not find on a map; prospects for peace in the Balkans; ethnic cleansing in Burma by the powerful against the powerless.

Sen. McCain was not selective in his belief that advancing universal values of democracy and human rights served American interests in a more peaceful, stable world. He raged against tyranny in countries such as the Maldives, population 400,000, as virulently as he fulminated against the strongmen in control of authoritarian great powers who had turned their nations into prisons for their people. He took repression personally: How did Putin get away with conning Russians into believing he was protecting their country from American encirclement even as Moscow invaded neighbors in Georgia and Ukraine in an effort to build a new empire? How did successive North Korean despots charm American presidents into negotiating closer ties when large segments of the North Korean population lived in gulags?

Sen. McCain believed deeply that America must lead internationally—and that while our country did so imperfectly and at times intemperately, it was vacuums left by the absence of American leadership that ultimately made the world more dangerous and insecure. America was a different kind of great power, he understood—one whose universalist aspirations were not simply a cloak for the covetous pursuit of territory and resources but a reflection of the belief that our founding ideals were the prerogatives not only of Americans but of all people. If Americans were endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, should that not be true for everyone else too? Those authoritarians who stood in the way of their people’s natural rights to freedom and dignity were the targets of his greatest wrath.

It takes courage and commitment to care so much about the liberty of those who did not have a voice, or who could not pay Washington lobbyists to push their case. Sen. McCain could have made an equally successful career leading on popular causes that made the front pages of the newspapers and led the storylines on cable television. But he was haunted by an insight he had learned in solitary confinement in Vietnam, where he saw the best and worst of humanity.

Honor is not defined by fame and fortune; it’s not determined by the choices you make when everyone is watching. “Honor is who you are in the dark,” he would say, when you are alone—and when no one but yourself will know whether you did the right thing or whether you accommodated, yielding your principles in the pursuit of a narrower self-interest.

John McCain never yielded. America and the world are better for it.

* * *

By Michael Green

More than any other public figure I have had the opportunity to meet, John McCain is the one I tell my own children to exemplify as they seek a life made meaningful by patriotism, integrity and service. My son was very young when I worked on the foreign policy team of the 2008 McCain campaign. At the time my wife bought him the book My Dad John McCain written by Meghan McCain to introduce the candidate to young readers. My son’s collection of books has changed several times since then, but he still keeps My Dad John McCain front and center.

As Max Boot notes, John McCain was an easy Presidential candidate to support as a foreign policy advisor. In 2008 I represented the campaign in a series of proxy debates organized by think tanks and the press. The Obama team would always come armed with thick books looking like litigators in a complex anti-trust case. While I had a lot of respect and admiration for the guys on the other side of the table, it was clear that their talking points were designed to avoid alienating key Democratic constituencies as much as they were to articulate a clear foreign policy strategy. Team McCain came armed only with an understanding of our candidates’ vision, principles and record. Our counterparts later joked that our clarity on human rights, alliances or trade probably didn’t move any voters in swing states like Florida, but there was no doubt we had much more fun.

Like others, I have also been under the glare of Sen. McCain. As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain authorized an external review of U.S. basing strategy for the Pacific that I co-chaired in 2010. Always focused on the taxpayers’ money and the readiness and welfare of our forces, McCain was cranky about the cost of new housing for Marines on Guam and the Rube Goldberg-like airfield the Pentagon was constructing in Okinawa to satisfy local complaints about noise and safety. After six months of intense work, our outside panel concluded that the new dispersed laydown of bases and access arrangements made good operational and strategic sense given China’s growing missile arsenal and reach into the South China Sea, but that the plan would need adjustments. When I first briefed McCain, he grimaced. When I testified, he called me up afterwards and told me I would need “a bigger piece of lipstick” for this particular pig. He was not going to be convinced by ideology, party, or talking points. In the end, he supported the plan, but only after Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work personally squeezed the Navy to bring costs down almost 50 percent and only after we could explain with precise citation of history, geography and operations how the plan could be implemented in a way that would make our service personnel, our country and our allies safer.

John McCain was a constant reminder of American power and principle for our allies in Asia. Secretaries of defense were grateful when he led bipartisan delegations to the Shangri-La security summit every year to reinforce the administration’s message of commitment and staying power in the region. In 2016, when Beijing began bullying the new government of Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, McCain added a stop in Taiwan on his way back from Singapore to buck her up and push back against the PRC. When Japan was hearing mixed messages about Chinese incursions around the Senkaku Islands, McCain pressed the Obama administration to clarify its support for Tokyo. As many tributes to this great man have emphasized, he relished nothing more than channeling his outrage to plug the gaps in our national security and the shortcomings in our sense of national purpose.

I have been asked in Tokyo, Canberra, Seoul and Taipei on recent trips who will now fill this enormous space in the Senate. I tell our friends that McCain nurtured a strong cohort of principled internationalists on the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Sentors Dan Sullivan and Joni Ernst. John McCain has left them—and all of us—a charge to keep.

* * *

By Phil Levy

I had the honor of coordinating international economic policy for Sen. McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. I have worked on such issues for two presidential administrations and three presidential campaigns, despite my background as an academic economist. There is normally some combustion that occurs when academic economists encounter American politics: The economist will talk about optimal policies; the politicians will dismiss those stances as naive fantasies.

With Sen. McCain’s campaign it was different, at least as far my experience went. Sen. McCain firmly supported whatever policies were most likely to help American consumers, workers, and businesses. He resisted intense pressures to resort to economic demagoguery, such as promises to name China a currency manipulator (a popular stance that both recent winning candidates for the presidency expounded, only to eschew once in office). Sen. McCain was a man of strong principle and believed in doing what was right, even if there was a significant political cost.

One of the great ironies of the 2008 campaign was the dismissal of Sen. McCain as weak on economic issues. It was certainly true that his passion was for security issues. His self-deprecation allowed this to be cast as insufficient preparation for dealing with the economy. Yet his instincts and his stances on economic matters were unusually strong. While he may not have been enamored of the details, he did not need to be; he was of sufficient caliber as a leader that he attracted excellent, experienced people around him, such as Doug Holtz-Eakin, to whom I reported, and some of the others involved in Elephants in the Room.

I cannot claim to have known Sen. McCain well. But I am very proud to have had a small role working with such a principled leader, a true American hero. He will be sorely missed.

* * *

By Dov Zakheim

I knew John McCain since he was a Navy captain, working in the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs after he returned from Vietnam. I always admired his heroism, his honesty, and his decency. He had a sense of what was best for the country that sadly too many contemporary politicians seem to lack.

He could have a ferocious temper—but it was one that could dissipate quickly. He once blew up at me when I was testifying at a hearing and did not like my reply to his comments. He absolutely refused to accept my apologies. That summer, however, my wife—not knowing that he was furious at me—bought his latest book on CD, to which we listened while driving to our summer home in New Hampshire. (I write from there now.) One of the items that struck me was his statement that he didn’t believe in personalizing policy differences. When I saw him again in September, he growled at me until I told him that I had listened to his latest book. “You did?” I replied in the affirmative, adding, “And you write that you don’t personalize policy differences.”

His reply: “You’re right. I apologize,” and he extended his hand.

That was John.

He could, however, be ferocious when he knew he was in the right. During the Air Force tanker scandal, he told me that he would not rest until he sent the guilty parties to jail. And to jail they went.

Quite independent of our relationship, John was especially nice to my son Roger. They developed a quite close relationship during conference committee for the Armed Services Authorization bills when Roger was a senior staffer on the HASC. For that I am exceedingly grateful.

I will miss John and so too should everyone who shares his deep concern about our alliances and friendships with partners worldwide, our commitment to those who fight for our freedom, and the values that have made this country great and that he held so dear.

May his memory be a blessing for us all.

* * *

By Dan Runde

Sen. John McCain distinguished himself by having the right adversaries. My wife and I hosted a fundraiser for McCain during the 2016 election cycle. Our key pitch was: “How will the Mullahs in Iran, the Chinese leadership, and Vladimir Putin feel if John McCain loses his Senate seat?” That was the question that moved people to give.

McCain also distinguished himself by the wonderful friends and allies he had. In the Senate, these included Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, and Joe Lieberman. He also sought the foreign-policy advice of brilliant people such as Richard Williamson, Randy Scheunemann, and Stephen Biegun. In politics, McCain was fortunate to have the loyalty and persistence of wonderful folks including Wayne Berman and Charlie Black.

McCain valued allies, worked tirelessly to maintain the rule-based international system set up after World War II, had a clear sense of America’s leadership role, and was (thankfully) our adversaries’ worst nightmare. The world is a freer, safer, and better place for his efforts. He understood that the United States needed both a strong defense and many friends. He also understood that we couldn’t just kill our way out of our problems, so we needed to use our soft power just as we used our hard power.

I always felt as if I was in the presence of greatness when I was with McCain. Like all of us, he had his foibles, but he earned a stack of waivers from me and millions of Americans after spending five-plus years in a prison camp in North Vietnam. In my mind, he had the right to break with Republican orthodoxy or have a personal moment of weakness whenever he wanted.

I made a point of taking my three children to the fundraiser my wife and I organized to make sure they met a real hero. The fundraiser was organized around the time that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump made the accusation that McCain was “not a hero.” I told my children that McCain had made great personal sacrifices for the United States and that his sacrifices and his service were things to admire. I encouraged my children to look up to McCain. I told my children that McCain was a hero. He will always be one of mine.

* * *

By William Tobey

With John McCain’s passing, we must mourn the loss of an American hero. We are blessed that for two centuries men and women such as McCain have stepped forward to protect and to defend America’s constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

McCain possessed both physical and moral courage. In 1967, he pressed ahead on his mission over North Vietnam in the face of anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles that he knew risked his life and which ultimately brought down his airplane. Later, as a prisoner of war, he refused an offer of release ahead of other Americans who had been held longer. Even injured, imprisoned, and tortured, he would not take the easy way out. He did the same thing in his years in the Senate and an unsuccessful campaign to be president.

In 2006, I faced a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. With me were other Republican nominees chosen by then-President George W. Bush. The senator who gave our panel the most difficult time was not a Democrat; it was McCain, because he cared so deeply about the defense of our nation. He would not permit partisanship to prevent him from asking difficult questions. He was relentless in his pursuit of U.S. security—whether in an aircraft cockpit or on the Senate floor.

I mourn his passing and honor his service, and so should all Americans who value our constitution and our liberty.

* * *

By Thomas G. Mahnken

Americans committed to vigorous internationalism and strong national defense have lost a champion, and America has lost a fine and decent public servant.

I had the honor of testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee periodically, and the pleasure of working more frequently with the truly stellar members of his staff. And I was honored to have been one of three commissioners that Sen. McCain appointed to the National Defense Strategy Commission, which has been charged with reviewing the 2018 National Defense Strategy and reporting its findings to Congress, the President, and the Secretary of Defense.

John McCain truly loved the U.S. armed forces, though not in a starry-eyed, reflexive way. This was not bumper-sticker patriotism. Rather, he possessed a deep and abiding connection to the men and women of the U.S. armed forces in which he himself had served, together with a sense of duty that often led him to ask uncomfortable questions of civilian and military leaders in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Where he saw inaction, he prodded; where he saw problems, he sought solutions; where he experienced obfuscation, he berated. Over the years, he championed the causes that he believed needed championing to improve the nation’s defense, to include strengthening the U.S. military in the Asia-Pacific region and moving the services to adopt new ways of war. His committee’s Restoring American Power laid out a vision of a stronger U.S. military better positioned to confront the operational and strategic challenges that confront us. To the extent that there is a Trump military buildup, one of its chief architects was John McCain.

Even before he was diagnosed with cancer, he acted with a sense of purpose. As befit a man who according to the odds should have died twice—first during the deadly fire that engulfed the flight deck of the USS Forrestal, and later as the result of injuries sustained before and during his captivity in Hanoi—he was fearless, impatient, and abrasive.

His passion, determination, and dedicated focus on national defense—qualities the nation needs now more than ever—will be hard to replace. His passing leaves a yawning void as the United States struggles to deal with a world characterized by the reality of great-power competition and the increasing possibility of great-power war. The U.S. military is nonetheless stronger, and the United States more secure, because of his tenure in Congress.

Fair winds and following seas, Senator.

Elephants in the Room is a blog about U.S. foreign policy in the age of Trump, written by experienced GOP policymakers, scholars, and others not currently working in the new administration. It is curated by co-editors Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.

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