American Patriot, Military War Hero, Public Servant, Husband, Father, Iconic Leader. Survived by his wife, Cindy, seven children and five grandchildren and millions of Americans who honor him and are grateful that he served us for six decades. My friend.
My Kind of Man
Senator John McCain was an American original – a maverick and a fighter, never afraid to stand for his beliefs. He never took the easy path in life – and through sacrifice and suffering he inspired others to serve something greater than self. His reputation in the Navy as a Lieutenant Commander was cocky,
With the death of the Senator, the key question that all Americans must answer is: who will take his torch – who will carry on his legacy of fighting for and defending life, liberty, truth, justice for all Americans, and freedom with human dignity for everybody else in the world who deserves to live with our same guaranteed inalienable God given right to pursue happiness?
Six Degrees of Separation?
Yes the Senator was my friend. I served on the International Board of Governors of Operation Smile for over a decade, raising money, awareness and support for our humanitarian medical missions, where our renown plastic surgeons and pediatric nurses volunteer their time and extraordinary skills to perform free reconstructive surgeries on the poor and underserved children of the world who were born with and suffer from the social/family humiliation caused by their cleft lip/cleft pallet facial deformities.
Over the years I have been blessed to serve with extremely smart, incredibly strong, passionate, and influential women including Operation Smile co-founder Kathy Magee (married to co-founder Dr. Bill Magee), the amazing actress Roma Downey (married to visionary/legendary television producer Mark Burnett), Elizabeth Daley (Dean of the University of Southern California Television and Film School), Jennifer Salke (former head of NBC Television/now running Amazon Studios), and Cindy McCain (married to Senator John McCain).
I mention this in tribute to John McCain because it is my experience that behind every incredibly strong, powerful, passionate person who is dedicated and committed to service, is an equally strong, powerful, passionate partner who supports him/her unconditionally and who believes in what he/she believes in, which actually allows him/her to do the special and extraordinary things he/she does!
Voila! Meet America’s ultimate power couple, the McCain’s! I was introduced to Senator McCain by Cindy at an Operation Smile Gala in Los Angeles, where we immediately connected and who have kept in touch for the last many years.
Unlike any other politician I have been around who always makes every event about him/her, at the beginning of the Op Smile Gala Senator McCain was reserved, quiet and purposefully stayed in the background to let his beloved Cindy do her thing and lead in this noble charitable ‘cause.’ I watched him limp into the ballroom and quickly noticed the scar above his forehead left and that when he removed his coat he could not raise his arms above his shoulders caused by enemies past.
When he sat down at the table he was very cordial but respectful to not bring attention to himself. However, as the evening progressed and the comments from physicians and celebrities brought to light that Operation Smile was liberating young children who had been prisoners in their own bodies, I could see this analogy touch a chord within his soul.
When the moment presented it self, I leaned over and mentioned that I had taken my teenage daughter to Vietnam on a nine day Operation Smile mission, where our volunteer surgeons had performed 162 free surgeries on the children in Ho Chi Minh City (commonly called Saigon) and Da Nang. Suddenly the Senator’s face lit up like a Christmas tree and he wanted to know all about our experience! I explained how my daughter played with the children and comforted the moms and dads while they were in surgery, and that she later visited orphanages to interact with other children.
What really connected us was when I told him that I left my daughter in the hands of our Op Smile team and flew to North Vietnam to spend the day in Hanoi. I had been invited to speak to the students attending the International University, and explained to the Senator, that when I arrived I was taken to the campus where I delivered my two-hour speech. But the second I was finished I asked the Director of the School to take me to Hoa Lo Prison, commonly referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
The Senator grimaced and I saw the veins in his neck tighten, as this was the prison where he and the other American POWs were incarcerated and brutally tortured – with their captors dislocating their limbs, starving them and beating them to a pulp – every day! I When I mentioned our mutual friends who had also been shot down and incarcerated as POWs in Hoa Lo, it lightened up the conversation and triggered stories about Rob Risner, Gerry Coffee, and Charlie Plumb, whom I had become friends with as authors and speakers.
We also connected in the fact I have flown the F-4 Phantom fighter jet similar to his A-4 Skyhawk that he flew off the carrier deck on the fateful day he was shot out of the sky. I got a quick glimpse of the Senators self-deprecating humor when he joked about his flight record, laughing, “My number of landings don’t match the number of takeoffs! Ha! As you know, we don’t fly a fighter jet with the left-brain cognitive thinking side of the brain, but with the right brain ‘emotional feeling’ side of the brain, which is why I have actually crashed three different jets!” Again he laughed, “I was one of the most popular guys at my Naval Academy graduation because I was the one who made the top 98% of my class possible! Ha!”
As our conversation continued I shared with him the anger I felt when I walked through the front entrance door of the prison and was greeted by a Plexiglas case, displaying his helmet, gloves, flight suit and boots that he was wearing the day he got shot down, accompanied by a photo of him being captured in a lake wherein he landed. His countenance changed. When I shared that I had walked inside his cell that they had turned into a ‘communist shrine’ with his picture hanging on the wall, he glanced away in reflection.
Senator McCain’s Personal Power Over Pressure
For anyone who does not know the brief details of this mind-boggling experience, know that on October 26, 1967, during LC McCain’s 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam, a missile blew off the right wing of his fighter jet, which forced him to eject. His e-gress was so violent that it knocked him unconscious, breaking both his arms and his leg. When the enemy captured him, they pulled him from the lake where he landed, stripped him of his flight suit and his human dignity, clubbed him in the head, stabbed his foot with a bayonet, and dragged him through town to throw him into Hoa Lo Prison.
In the most inhumane ways he was denied much needed and urgent medical treatment and subjected to years of torture by the North Vietnamese. Of the five and a half years that Senator McCain spent in Vietnamese prisons, three and a half years were spent in solitary confinement.
Mentally Tough, Ethically Strong, Morally Alive!
His captors soon learned he was the son of a high-ranking officer in the U.S. Navy and repeatedly offered him early release. But McCain refused, not wanting to violate the military code of conduct and knowing that the North Vietnamese would use his release as a powerful piece of propaganda. (Because you don’t judge a man when he is up, you judge him when he is down – and crisis does not make or break the man or woman – it just reveals the true character within – this test of character and demonstration of mental toughness and moral courage was enough to get me to vote for John McCain in the Presidential election!)
LC John McCain was finally released, along with other American POWs, on March 14, 1973 (my birthday, which the Senator also thought was intriguing to our introduction). For his bravery and gallantry in battle, Captain McCain earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.
His introduction to politics came in 1976, when he was assigned as the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate. In 1981, after marrying his second wife, Cindy Hensley, McCain retired from the Navy and moved to Phoenix, Arizona. However, with a burning desire to continue serving his beloved America he embraced public service and was first elected to political office on November 2, 1982, easily winning a seat in the House of Representatives. In 1986, McCain won the election to the U.S. Senate and was the Republican Party’s nominee for president in the 2008 election.
Changing The Subject Revealed The Real Man
Being sensitive to his changing body language as he looked away, I took this opportunity to thank him for standing up to the spread of communism and violation of human rights promulgated by the Chinese, (which he said is still a challenge presented by the Chinese today), and for defending the freedom deserved by the South Vietnamese – fighting for those who could not fight for themselves, and serving people who would never know his name.
In this mindset it was easy for him to see the similarities I drew to our Operation Smile vision, mission and purpose as wee too, in a soft power way, were in Vietnam to deliver human dignity and love and to serve the underserved who will never know our doctor’s names.
I then lightened up the conversation by asking the Senator how he met Cindy. In his masterful way, he didn’t answer with the details of my inquiry, but instead took control of the question to teach me what he wanted me to know and answer in his own way. He smiled a smile that oozed with love and admiration for his sweetheart Cindy and told me that he was attracted to Cindy and Cindy was attracted to him – not because we attract who we want, but because we attract who we are. Which meant that he had to become a better person in order to catch her eye!
He said Cindy’s strongest qualities reminded him of what made his grandfather and father such amazing Admirals and leaders in the Navy, as the three of them all believed it should never be about ‘who’ is right – it must always be about ‘what’ is right! Which obviously is the M.O. from which the Senator operated showcased in his voting record on Capital Hill.
The Senator Was Always Real
For example, in a follow up personal meeting in his office in Washington D.C., I asked the Senator to help me understand why he and I should be ‘Republicans.’ He smiled and made sure I understood that we should Not be dedicated to being Republicans. We should be dedicated to choosing the right, which just so happens to have a conservative slant.
When I asked the Senator to give me an example, he chose the controversial, highly emotional topic of abortion. This was the first time I witnessed his classic straightforward, monotone, pull-no-punches, communication style and famous refusal to avoid hard conversations. He simply explained, “Off the record? Everybody who is for abortion has already been born! Ha! When Pro Lifers present the medical facts of when the fetus is alive to Pro Choicers, they stop listening. Which reminds me of the guy who read that drinking alcohol was bad for him, so he stopped reading! Ha!”
When I asked the Senator about his relationship with President Trump he said, “On the record? It’s non-existent. I think Trump’s campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again” was a low bogus blow to those of us who already know America is the greatest country on planet earth. Our responsibility is to keep it great so we can help other countries become great!”
During another visit with the Senator I asked him what we should do about the movement in America to overthrow our ‘Electoral College’ voting system, and replace it by only counting the ‘Popular Vote,’ Senator McCain first pulled the stereo-typical politician’s response by answering a question with a question asking: “What if the majority of the voters were uneducated, unaware of the whole truth, didn’t understand the most urgent decisions that had to be made, and didn’t care about anybody else’s issues except their own selfish special interest?” Who would these people vote for and why?”
Emphatically he explained, “This idea is outrageous! Can’t let it happen! The majority is seldom right! Most of Americans are broke and over their heads in debt. Most Americans are over weight and obese. The surveys show that most Americans hate their jobs. Over 50% of Americans come from broken homes filled with dysfunctional relationships. In some communities we have an over 50% drop out rate in high schools, and this majority of teenagers in these neighborhoods will be voting when they turn eighteen. With all due respect, the tail should never wag the dog! When we let the prisoners run the prison, we are guaranteeing a negative disaster in catastrophic proportions!
Senator McCain continued, “Democracy is so much more than giving a population the right to vote for who they want and what they want. Every child wants to eat cake and ice cream for breakfast, but a good responsible mom and dad won’t let that happen because of their love for the child and because of their knowledge and experience based wisdom of it’s negative consequences. Look what happened to the Palestinians when the majority elected the terrorist group Hamas, and the Egyptians elected the Muslim Brotherhood. Disaster! Our Founding Fathers were inspired and knew what they were doing, knowing the ‘Electoral College’ would be the ‘secret sauce’ in America’s political process that would insure it’s success for hundreds of years to come!”
When I asked the Senator about gun control he again used the perfect analogies to help me change my focus from ‘who’ is right, to ‘what’ is right, explaining, “It is clear that when you put a loaded gun on a table, it could lay there for years until someone picks it up and pulls the trigger. Guns don’t kill people – people kill people. You don’t blame Boeing for the planes hitting the World Trade Center Towers on September 11. You don’t blame spoons for people getting fat. You don’t blame your golf clubs for your horrible swing. You don’t blame your credit card for your irresponsible spending. I guess ‘common sense’ isn’t so common!”
When Senator McCain found out I was from Utah he told me he did not see eye to eye with our Senator Orrin Hatch because their personalities clashed. However, he respected Senator Hatch because like him, they both did their best to not just be Senators from Arizona and Utah, but to be United States Senators who represented what was best and right for all of America.
When I asked him about his deep respect and admiration for President Ronald Reagan and total support of his administration, and shared my extensive background taking Mrs. Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ Program to all 50 states, speaking to in thousands of high schools and hundreds of colleges/universities, the Senator drew me in close to him and challenged me to use my influence to get every person with whom I came in contact to become familiar with Reagan’s presidency and character so we would love him as much as he did. Senator McCain told me that he dreamed of the day when that much class and sophistication and elegance and pure patriotism and total respect for our country’s history and deep understanding of our monumental leadership role in the world would occupy the White House again!
Senator McCain’s Lasting Impact On Me
Over the years in our brief but meaningful conversations at different political and charitable fundraising functions, and in his office in Washington D.C., I took pride in being one of the lucky ones to get a peak under the tough facade of this principle-centered, headstrong ‘man’s man,’ where we shared laughs and some teary-eyed moments as his hope and dream was that every American – especially the young people whom he called the ‘new greatest generation,’ could learn and live by the same core values he learned in the Navy and from his hero Grandfather and hero dad: Honor, Courage, Commitment, Loyalty, Excellence, Integrity, Duty, Respect, Service Before Self and Social Responsibility.
This, I believe, is the legacy of Senator John McCain. I am grateful that he taught me and the rest of the world through his words, deeds and political votes, that when we identify our core values and dedicate our lives to living by them in the service of others, we create a community of caring and a national culture where everybody understands what he learned as a POW in the North Vietnamese ‘Hanoi Hilton’: ‘It is not enough to say, ‘i will do my best.’ We must succeed in doing that which is necessary!’
The prayer of freedom loving people all over the world should be that we have more United States Senators and members of the U.S. Congress follow the unshakeable example of the Honorable Senator John McCain from my birth state of Arizona. No, we don’t have to agree with him. Personally I did not appreciate how he ineffectively interacted with the U.S. Air Force in an oftentimes indignant way, but still he will go down in history as one of the greatest Senators of all time who was able to put partisan politics aside, cross over the isle, and do the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do! Both in the House and the Senate, Senator McCain earned a reputation as a conservative politician who nonetheless was not afraid to question the ruling Republican orthodoxy on behalf of all Americans.
In Case You Didn’t See This
Knowing he was going to die in a couple of weeks, Senator McCain wrote what he called his ‘Final Farewell To America,’ which included these inspiring words: “Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history. Farewell, fellow Americans. God bless you, and God bless America.” And God bless the lasting legacy of a great American man!