What made my friend John McCain so exceptional

We've known for over a year -- since John McCain shared his cancer diagnosis -- this day was coming. But it...

Posted: Aug 27, 2018 9:28 AM
Updated: Aug 27, 2018 9:28 AM

We've known for over a year -- since John McCain shared his cancer diagnosis -- this day was coming. But it is still heart-breaking and difficult to accept that this man, a larger than life figure, is gone. He leaves such a void.

It was the honor of my life to know John McCain. I met him in the early 2000's. He would go through Miami a lot back then, on his way to the US Navy Base in Guantanamo. I was his National Hispanic Co-Chair in 2008. Please let me tell you a little about my friend.

John McCain

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John lived to be almost 82 years old. I remember speaking to him a few days after his diagnosis. I called to comfort him and give him words of strength. Instead, I wound up crying so hard on the phone I could hardly get any words out. It was John who gave me strength and comfort. I can hear his calm and steady voice in my head, speaking in that familiar cadence. He said not to feel sorry for him. He was adamant about this. He said he was a fortunate man. He had lived a full life, much longer than he ever expected.

In all the time I knew John McCain, he never complained. He was not one for self-pity or agonizing over regrets. I never heard him talk with bitterness about his five years as a prisoner of war. I never heard him complain about the physical pain and lack of mobility he endured every day of his life after that. I never heard him complain about losing two presidential elections. I never heard him complain about his cancer diagnosis.

John was also authentic. He was humane and compassionate. John laughed easily and heartily. In his 80s, he could still laugh like an immature teenage boy when watching some stupid movie or clip. He liked to tell jokes -- sometimes the same jokes over and over again. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor.

'Sorry, mom'

John could also get deadly serious. I saw him give a speech at a gala dinner a few years ago. He was making the case for Congress to act on immigration reform. He was furious at the inaction and lack of political courage shown by some.

He punched the podium hard and cussed in frustration. I was sitting at John's table along with his mom, Roberta, who must have been a spry 95 years-old then. John received a standing ovation. But when he came back to the table, I heard his mom tell him, "Johnny, we did not teach you to curse in our house." And John McCain, this, larger-than-life figure, put his head down, and said, "Sorry, mom."

One time, John got livid with me. We were having dinner with his wife, Cindy, and Sen. Lindsey Graham. It was a very busy restaurant in DC. I made a passing comment about Sarah Palin. I can't remember what exactly I said, but I'm sure it was snarky. John screamed at me, got red in the face, punched the table and got up to leave several times.

You see, John McCain was a loyal and chivalrous man. He was grateful to all those who had helped him along the way. He hated for Sarah to be attacked or mocked. He felt responsible for putting her in that position. John called me every day for almost a week after that to apologize. That's how John was. He had the humility to acknowledge when he was wrong, and he valued friendship. I'll tell you what though, I never again said anything remotely negative about Palin in his presence.

Fighter for freedom

John was a principled man. He loved freedom, and he fought for it all over the world. We would often talk about events in Latin America. He thought it was important to look beyond our borders and fight for human rights. I don't know how the hell he did it, but he was somehow engaged and informed about the political challenges across the globe, and at the same time he knew the roster and stats of every sports team in Arizona.

So many times through the years, I called to wish John well on some holiday, and he would answer his old flip phone in some far-flung part of the world where he was visiting our troops.

I helped brief John for Spanish language debates and interviews during the 2008 presidential campaign. There was so little to brief him on. He knew what was happening in Cuba and Nicaragua and Venezuela. He knew the names of the leaders fighting for democracy, and he knew the names of the despots and dictators. John gave a damn about the people of the world. He understood a more democratic world meant a safer America.

John did not see color or creed or economic status. John judged people by their character. He saw good and bad. I traveled a bit with him during the 2008 presidential campaign. His bus and plane were always full of friends and family. And we were a motley crew. John had friends from his early Navy years, POWs, congressional colleagues, people who'd worked for him and friends he'd made along the way. Once you made it into John's heart, you were there to stay. Loyalty was important for him.

You could have strong disagreements with John, lively debates, shouting matches even, and it didn't matter. He did not expect to have his ring kissed. He did not want to go unchallenged.

I went to see him once to ask that he vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina nominated to the Supreme Court. We argued about it intensely for about 15 minutes. He said no. Then we grabbed lunch and laughed a lot. I won't even tell you about the fight we had surrounding the 2010 Senate primary in Florida. It lasted for months. But none of those things impacted our relationship one bit. That's just not the way John saw life.

John was always a Navy pilot at heart. He didn't play it safe. He took big gambles, literally and figuratively. He risked his political skin leading a bipartisan effort with his friend, Ted Kennedy, to pass immigration reform heading into a Republican presidential primary. It was a crazy thing to do, and he paid a price. But he did it because he believed it was the right thing to do for America.

John never gave up. In 2007 his presidential campaign was given up for dead. He found himself without money and had to fire many people, and some of the ones who weren't fired, jumped ship. But the guy just didn't quit. He was taking small commuter planes. He kept doing town halls. He carried his own bags and traveled without staff. It was his sheer-will and leadership that kept a small band of political pirates going.

Political resurrections aren't easy. John did it. He went on to lose that election to Barack Obama. Some would have gone out to pasture and taken their leave. Not John. He got up and got back in the arena. There is nothing he hated more than being on the sidelines. He loved to say, "a fight not joined, is a fight not enjoyed".

John was not a perfect man. He'd be embarrassed to be spoken about that way. He made mistakes. He had regrets. He erred in judgment at times. But John McCain was a good and decent man with a huge capacity to lead.

Even in his dying days, it was not about him

John lived his faith. He served his country with honor. He loved his family. He was grateful for the opportunities life gave him. John was a happy man. He did not dwell on losses or the bad things that had happened to him.

It wasn't the trappings of power that appealed to him. It was the opportunity to make a difference that mattered. He strove every day of his life to serve a purpose higher than himself. Even in his dying days, it was not about him. It was about the future of America, defending democracy, standing up for what is right and fighting against what is wrong.

I hate that we are losing John at a time when he still had so much to give. I hate that we are losing him when America needs him most. Even as he retreated to Arizona a year ago, to face his illness with dignity surrounded by the place and people he loved most, even then, John was showing us the way. He could have focused just on himself and his circumstances, but until his last days he was showing political courage and moral clarity.

We shouldn't cry for John. He wouldn't want us to. We should be inspired by him.

A lot of people in government will be expressing their condolences and paying their respects to John. John would ask them and us to do what he did in so many difficult junctures in his life -- put country first.

Honor John's memory by not remaining in complicit silence against injustice and abuse, by not looking the other way when democracy is threatened, by not pandering to divisions and bigotry. Honor John by not standing on the sidelines but joining the fight to defend those values which make America exceptional.

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