McCain’s life has shown character does matter

With news that Sen. John McCain’s last book, “The Restless Wave” — the seventh he has written with his friend and former speechwriter Mark Salter — is about to come out, I thought of the man I covered and traveled with and grew to both like and respect enormously.

On election night 1986, when he won the Arizona U.S. Senate seat long held by Barry Goldwater — the 1964 Republican presidential nominee — the two men met for a private visit. Sen. Goldwater, McCain recalled, got a little nostalgic: “You know, John, if I had beaten Lyndon Johnson in ’64, you wouldn’t have spent all those years in a North Vietnamese prison camp.” McCain, referring to Goldwater’s hawkish support for widening that conflict, responded: “You’re right, Barry. It would have been a Chinese prison camp.”

Later, after his own White House runs had ended in defeat, McCain used his humor to console his disheartened supporters by reminding them that a number of his home-state leaders had also run, all unsuccessfully, for the nation’s highest office. After Goldwater, there had been Rep. Mo Udall, who in 1976 finished second to Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination, and Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who in 1988 won rave editorial reviews for his thoughtful candor but finished way behind Michael Dukakis. “Arizona,” McCain liked to say, “may be the only state in the country where mothers don’t tell their children they can grow up to be president.”

A couple of years ago, when the Gallup Poll found that public confidence in the U.S. Congress had fallen to a record low of 11 percent, McCain cracked that a favorable rating of 11 percent meant that approval of members of Congress was “down to paid staffers and blood relatives.” When a later Gallup Poll found that confidence in Congress had slipped to just 9 percent, he reported receiving a blunt call from his mother, Roberta, now 106 years old: “I can tell you that we in Congress are now down to paid staffers.”

But McCain was much more than a happy warrior. The 2000 campaign for the GOP nomination, when party leadership and all the big money had lined up behind front-runner George W. Bush, McCain held 114 town meetings in New Hampshire, where with candor and humor he answered every question, daring to explain that the Senate would not pass a so-called patients’ bill of rights “as long the insurance companies control (the Republican Party) and the trial lawyers control the Democratic Party.”

He had the courage to oppose his own party’s 2001 tax cuts, arguing presciently that they would completely sabotage the nation’s recently balanced federal budgets achieved by the previous Democratic president at real political risk. In the national debate over the use of torture on prisoners, McCain again took on his own party and its armchair commandos, many of whom somehow were missing in grad school or the doctor’s office when their own draft calls to serve in Vietnam arrived. (See Cheney, Dick.) McCain gave the debate moral clarity: “This question isn’t about our enemies. It’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be.”

To see the men who for years had endured with the Arizonan the unspeakable brutality at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors come to New Hampshire to work for McCain — to knock on doors and testify to voters as character witnesses about the courage and patriotism of their fellow POW — made this cynical reporter stop and admire.

John McCain is no plaster saint. I have seen firsthand and experienced the sting of his temper and his unforgiving cold shoulder. As of today, he stands as the last American veteran to be nominated for president who could tell us convincingly that “only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the cruel and merciless reality of war.” John McCain teaches us once again that character truly is destiny.

To find out more about Mark Shields visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at