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Listening to John McCain

September 5, 2018

John McCain and I overlapped during our time at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. In 1958 he was a Firsty (senior) when I was a Plebe (freshman). One of McCain’s best friends was in the same Midshipman company as I, so he spent a fair amount of time in our company area.

Truth be known, McCain was only at the Academy because he had to be. His father and grandfather, both four-star admirals went there. Essentially, he had no choice. But given his “druthers” he’d much rather have been at some civilian school having a good time partying and raising hell. Thus, he spent his four Academy years seeing how many rules he could break without getting thrown out and doing just enough academic work to get by, graduating fifth from the bottom of his class. In short, he was a rebellious, flawed kid who thought the rules didn’t really apply to him.

Despite this fact the Naval Academy and its rigors apparently did have a profound, if unrecognized impact on him. He obviously absorbed concepts of fairness, duty, honor, patriotism, loyalty and the ability to listen among others.

We all now know John’s story. Naval aviator, shot down over Hanoi, imprisoned and tortured for five years, refusing early release ahead of his fellow POWs and retired from the Navy as a Captain. He then had a stellar career as a Republican in Congress, the Senate and as a Presidential candidate.

This was a life that tempered him in a forge of fire. It pushed him to grow, to mature recognizing his own flaws and to become the man of integrity, principle and wisdom our entire nation saluted at his death.

As to politics he and I were on opposite sides of the isle. I’m a Democrat, he a Republican. But it’s fair to say McCain never forgot or gave up the lessons he’d brought with him to the political arena from his years of service. While he might not agree with you he was always willing to truly listen and consider the other person’s point of view. He was honest enough to recognize his own shortcomings and did not dogmatically assume that he or his party was always right. And he wanted the rest of us to make the same assumptions while we listened to each other as well. This is best reflected in his final message to his fellow Americans.

What he said in it bears repeating:

 “…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…

               …We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil…

He went on, “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…”

John’s admonition is something we should all take to heart. To quote the words of my friend David Lawrence, Jr., formerly the publisher of the Detroit Free Press and the Miami Herald, in his new book A Dedicated Life, “Words used wisely and with civility, lead to meaningful conversation, real communication, and better lives.”

So, let’s consider John McCain’s words wisely and with civility by reaching across the divides that are threatening to tear our nation apart. If we try we can find common ground with each other to better our nation and our world.

And always remember that John McCain, who never wanted to be at the Naval Academy in the first place, in the end requested to be buried there, his final resting place.

So rest in peace my friend. Hopefully our country is listening.