By William “Duke” Smither
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
While I never met Senator John McCain (08/29/1936 – 08/25/2018), as a U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era Veteran and American Legion member (Post 141, Virginia), myself, I’ve come across a few naval fighter pilots, during and following my military service. As a result, I have a fairly good idea of what the man was made of.
Naval fighter pilots (and other military aviators) are a hearty, often boisterous and down-to-earth bunch. Their linear thinking, step-by-step approach to solving problems can be frustrating to other professionals bent on applying intellectual theories to complex analytical activities, something I learned first-hand during CIC (Combat Information Center) duties and at-sea warfare exercises.
In Times of Crisis… and, Challenge
But, a combat pilot’s ability to draw quick, instinctive conclusions on critical, mental problem-solving challenges is a cherished skill which is highly valued and respected by enemies, “frenemies” and allies, alike. Yet, according to some of their closest friends, they can be dreaded competitors in good-natured, off-duty drinking contests among friends, or foe, but cherished comrades in barroom brawls.
Actually, these were some of the conclusions I recall, mostly during ‘liberty calls’ in foreign seaports and shore-leave breaks from long sea patrols, or at-sea warfare exercises. Once ashore, in foreign ports of call, troops from various squadrons and ships often made a beeline to waterfront bars and grills before beginning their cherished R&R (slang for rest and recuperation period).
On occasion, during multi-nation NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) exercises, you’d bend elbows at the bar with allied troops, as well. And, many conversations and jokes would follow about the exercise’s boogeyman foil objectives– at that time, the Soviet Union– and the drama associated with how we always chased the Russian “Bear” bombers away from probing our fleet exercises. After scrambling jet fighters from nearby aircraft carriers for the intercept and chase, we’d sit around our plotting stations, cheering, with high-fives and ‘thumb’s up’ signs all around, as if we’d won a battle. And, task force fighter pilots were always the hero of the day in the unfolding drama.
Much has already been said about the life and military career of Senator McCain since his death, reportedly from an aggressive form of brain cancer, on August 25, 2018, while at home in the comfort and care of his family. And, I am saddened by his passing, as well as the political hoopla, pretense, and shenanigans which trailed in the wake, some from members of his own party. He was 81. But, his earlier exploits as a combat pilot and scrappy fighter in political or congressional debates will live on in honor. He spoke truth to power; you didn’t need to like it… you simply had to respect it. Where he stood, in times of crisis, challenge or controversy, has never been in question. His prisoner of war experiences proved as much.
On the other hand, I’m proud of the stands taken by the American Legion, the American Veterans (AMVETS), and other veterans’ groups, especially within the vigorous protests against the White House’s initial and shameless failure to issue an appropriate presidential proclamation to note Senator McCain’s death and legacy of service, as well as keeping the nation’s flag at half-staff, consistent with established protocol, through his interment. Yet, I remain embarrassed about the disgraceful incident. But, I won’t belabor the point.
The Helsinki Debacle
However, I would like to voice a couple of points so eloquently put forth by Senator McCain, himself. The first stems from the so-called “Helsinki Summit”– the July 16, 2018 meeting between United States President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin— in Helsinki, Finland. It left me boiling mad, at the time. But, here’s how Senator McCain summarized the affair, which dropped my temperature a tad:
“Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.
“President Trump proved not only unable but unwilling to stand up to Putin. He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script as the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world.
“It is tempting to describe the press conference as a pathetic rout — as an illustration of the perils of under-preparation and inexperience. But these were not the errant tweets of a novice politician. These were the deliberate choices of a president who seems determined to realize his delusions of a warm relationship with Putin’s regime without any regard for the true nature of his rule, his violent disregard for the sovereignty of his neighbors, his complicity in the slaughter of the Syrian people, his violation of international treaties, and his assault on democratic institutions throughout the world.
“Coming close on the heels of President Trump’s bombastic and erratic conduct towards our closest friends and allies in Brussels and Britain, today’s press conference marks a recent low point in the history of the American presidency. That the president was attended in Helsinki by a team of competent and patriotic advisers makes his blunders and capitulations all the more painful and inexplicable.
“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are — a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad. American presidents must be the champions of that cause if it is to succeed. Americans are waiting and hoping for President Trump to embrace that sacred responsibility. One can only hope they are not waiting totally in vain.”
The Final Say
The second point I’d like to echo is among Senator McCain’s final words to America, as voiced in the “farewell statement.” They were read by Rick Davis, a former presidential campaign manager (for Senator McCain) and a family spokesman, at a recent press conference at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix:
“My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for sixty years, and especially my fellow Arizonans,
“Thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.
“I have often observed that I am the luckiest person on earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I have loved my life, all of it. I have had experiences, adventures, and friendships enough for ten satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anyone else’s.
“I owe that satisfaction to the love of my family. No man ever had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine. And I owe it to America. To be connected to America’s causes – liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people – brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.
“‘Fellow Americans’ – that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the process.
“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.
“We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.
“Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with the heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening.
I feel it powerfully still.
“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.”
“…Not Blood and Soil”
No truer words have ever been spoken, in my opinion. There’s no need to add to them. Besides, the American people have already said enough for and against the legacy of this American War Hero.
Yet, I’d like to add one final note. When I reflect on my own life experiences, I’ve become profoundly aware of something very important about who we, as a nation, happen to be. Regardless of our differences or deficiencies– and, there are many– the strength of our national fabric stems from the threads we have in common, including the freedoms of speech, religion, and free enterprise, just to name a few- surely, not strands of Nazi slogans and racialized dog-whistle politics!
But, instead of bull-headed retreats into partisan cubbyholes, whatever differences of opinions we may have (political or personal) can be easily resolved, as long as we have the proper leadership at the helm and fact-based issues are on the table. America’s active military forces, on patrol and peacekeeping duties around the globe, have proven this over and over, and continue to do so daily, 24/7. And, the mettle of John McCain is well represented within many of them, officers and crews alike.
Frankly, the way I see it, the death of Senator McCain could be the turning point the nation has been needing, long before the flaky “Helsinki Summit.” At least, in my opinion, the moral compass of the nation is now center stage, as every so often. Once again, “We the People” will simply have to decide– and, soon: Exactly what are the internalized sets of values and objectives which we will insist on shepherding our collective ethical behavior? What is or will be the relationship dynamics with our traditional allies (not our enemies)?
And, for the sake of our ancestors or, arguably, the many angels who now walk among us: What type of leader should be leading us and bringing us together, rather than dividing us? A good leader– at least the kind I’m familiar with– works for the good of all of the people, not a selective few.