The legacy of John McCain lives on

The legacy of John McCain lives on
© Greg Nash

When the television networks announced that U.S. Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) had won Florida’s 2008 Republican presidential primary, I told my invalid mother that I was donating to his campaign that minute. She asked how much, and said to send the same amount from her, too.

My mother was a lifelong Kennedy Democrat, so her pledge surprised me, her lifelong Republican son. She liked McCain because she was a member of the Greatest Generation and she adored military heroes. McCain was a military hero in her mind, in my mind and in the minds of millions of Americans. Surviving more than five years as a prisoner during the Vietnam War made him, and his fellow American POWs, heroes by any definition. 

Being a journalist, TV commentator, radio talk-show host and newspaper columnist, as well as a Republican campaign professional for almost 50 years, I lived and breathed the 2008 presidential campaign. Moreover, I didn’t think much of Democratic candidate Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama praises marathon runners Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei for 'remarkable examples of humanity's ability' Each of us has a role in preventing veteran suicide Why calls for impeachment have become commonplace MORE.

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McCain ran for president before, in 2000. The media loved McCain — everywhere he went, hundreds of journalists followed him and everything he said. The quintessential political maverick even looked like he might knock off the establishment favorite, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Then came South Carolina’s Republican primary, where the media suggested McCain had a real shot at winning. He didn’t win; South Carolina turned its back on hero McCain by voting for Bush. 

Later that year, on a warm September day in San Diego, my better half and I attended a fundraiser for Congressman Brian Bilbray at a beach hotel that featured Sen. McCain as the speaker. Before the luncheon speech, I asked Congressman Bilbray if he would introduce me to the senator, since I had never met him. We walked over to the senator, who took my outstretched hand in both of his hands.

I said, “I served under your father” — Admiral John S. McCain Jr. was the commander of all Pacific forces, including my Marines — and, smiling, continued: “I would have served under you, if you had been in the military.”

Without blinking an eye, Sen. McCain looked at me and replied, “F--king Marine.”

Both the senator and I laughed as everyone else in the room looked over; the congressman, perhaps not understanding the joke, appeared to experience cardiac arrest. The senator and I exchanged a Mexican “abrazo” — a man’s hug — and laughed again.

When lunch was over, my better half and I walked out of the hotel. Standing alone out front was Sen. McCain, waiting for his car. No entourage, no gaggle of media; he stood alone. We stopped and spoke with him, just the three of us. My better half had purchased a copy of his latest book in New York just weeks before and he had signed it, at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Twin Towers, which would be destroyed a year later on another warm September morning.

When the valet brought his car, the senator gave me another “abrazo” and said goodbye, adding: “Be well, Marine.”

Those few minutes I spent with John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Video depicting Trump killing media, critics draws backlash Backlash erupts at video depicting Trump killing media, critics Cindy McCain condemns video of fake Trump shooting political opponents, late husband MORE were, in my experience, priceless. I have recounted the story many times since, especially to military folks. Arizona's U.S. senator became my personal hero that day in San Diego.

When then-presidential candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE insulted McCain in 2015 for not being a “hero” because Trump only admires men who were not taken prisoner — and when he continued belittling McCain, even as the senator began treatment for cancer — it demonstrated, for all of America to see, Trump’s true character.

When one compares the character of John McCain with anyone else, one finds few men who measure up to the senator and the 1,800 days of torture, beatings and broken bones that he, and most other American POWs, suffered at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors.

Real men must stand up now to be measured by the standards that Sen. McCain left us as his legacy. 

I cannot tell John McCain, as he once told me, “Be well.” But I can say, “You did well. I wish I could live up to the standards you set.”

Raoul Lowery Contreras is the author of "The Mexican Border: Immigration, War and a Trillion Dollars in Trade" (Floricanto Press 2016) and "The Armenian Lobby & U.S. Foreign Policy" (Berkeley Press 2017). He formerly wrote for the New American News Service of the New York Times.