Reflecting on the Legacy of Sen John McCain

“We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears.” – Sen John McCain

“I don’t mind a good fight. For reasons known only to God, I’ve had quite a few tough ones in my life. But I learned an important lesson along the way: In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test.” – Sen John McCain

When Sen John McCain passed away last week from brain cancer, our country lost a national treasure.  There is simply no other way to put it.  There are few men or women in our time who have made the impact that Sen McCain had on our country.  Courage, compassion, respect, integrity – all of these are words that are often used when describing Sen McCain.

So if you will allow me, I would like to dedicate this leadership blog to John McCain, pay respects to the qualities that made him such a great leader, and offer parallels on how we can live our lives in the spirit John showed in his own.

John McCain was a commissioned officer in the United States Navy, having graduated in 1958.  The son of a naval officer, at an early age John was taught the fundamental principles that guide our armed forces – honor, respect, integrity, and the value of fighting to protect the liberties we enjoy as citizens of the United States.

When the Vietnam war erupted, John served his country with honor and distinction.  Wounded in action more than once, John was known for his heroism (at one point pulling another pilot out of a burning plane).  On one fateful flight in 1967, John’s plane was struck by a missile while making a bombing run over Hanoi.  While he survived the plane crash, he was eventually taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese.

This was a defining moment in John McCain’s life.  As a commissioned officer in the famed “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp, he was a prized prisoner for the North Vietnamese.  He was subjected to an unimaginable level of torture and inhumane treatment, much more than others.  In fact, his daily beatings resulted in the long term crippling of his right arm.  And yet not only did he survive, but he worked hard to keep the other men in that prison from giving up.  In fact, at one point he was given the option for release but refused to leave the rest of his men behind.

That was the war hero Joh McCain.  The soldier that fought with pride and valor, not for the love of war, but of country.  And not a blind love for the sake of country, but a love affair over what it stood for – all of the decency, respect, freedom, and liberty that define the United States of America.

For most that would be enough. But for John McCain it was just a start.  Returning from the war, John found his way in to politics.  Serving both as a congressman and a senator, John’s political career spanned nearly four decades, and included numerous positions serving on key committees such as House Foreign Affairs, Commerce, Armed Services, Homeland Security & Government Affairs, Indian Affairs, and Intelligence.

What’s important about John’s political career wasn’t the length of time, or the number of committees, laws, acts, or other legislation he worked on.  Rather, what defined John McCain’s political career was a passion for doing the right thing regardless of the circumstances.  He was often referred to as a “Maverick” for his unpredictable behavior.  And yet nothing could be farther from the truth.  His behavior was wholly predictable – it just wasn’t done along party lines.  John always approached every situation with a view towards what was right for the country and its citizens.  In many cases, that fell within party lines.  When it didn’t, he was often labeled for it.  Regardless, he didn’t care – if it was right, he would stand up for it.

What makes John different isn’t that he would cross party lines.  Plenty of other politicians have done the same.  What made him different is that he COULD cross party lines and still be respected.  Why?  Because he always operated with professionalism, decency, and honor.  He never treated another person with disdain simply because they didn’t agree with his approach.

How many of you remember his run for the presidency?  Few candidates have competed on that stage with the same level of character.  In fact, during one of his town hall rally events while campaigning for office, he was famously quoted as saying “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about” to a supporter who was attempting to disparage then candidate and Senator Barack Obama as an Arab.  How many candidates would show that level of restraint and respect in today’s political environment?

I had the good fortune to meet Senator McCain once at a US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala a few years ago (thank you Nina Vaca!).  I have to say it was a memorable moment.  He well could have simply said “hello” and moved on.  He didn’t.  Instead, he took the time to speak with me and two others for a good 20 minutes.  I still remember the conversation vividly, as his insights were that of a man who cared deeply for the causes he represented.

I offer all that detail not to give you a history lesson, but to provide a back drop for an individual whose character was rarely called to question, whose actions spoke louder than words, and whose positive impact will  be felt long after his life in this world ended.

Courage; Honor; Purpose; Dedication; Respect.  Those are the qualities I believe defined the life of John McCain.

How will your life be defined?

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