John McCain, the long-time Republican senator from Arizona, has been in the news often since Donald J. Trump said of him in July 2015, “He’s not a war hero... I like people who weren’t captured.”
For those who assume all staid Republican politicians of a certain age are the same, here is a quick review of the eighty-year-old veteran’s record.
Senator McCain broke a leg and both arms when his plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile in 1967. According to The New York Times, “Mr. McCain, a naval aviator, was (then held) prisoner for more than five years in Hanoi, refusing early release even after being repeatedly beaten.”
ABC News reported that McCain declined early release because he first wanted every P.O.W. before him set free. John McCain was released in 1970 and remained in the Navy until 1981, when he retired as a captain. He has received honors including a Purple Heart, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Legion of Merit.
President Obama, who ran against McCain in the 2008 presidential election, said that the Arizona senator is motivated by “a pure and deeply felt love of his country that comes from the painful knowledge of what life is like without it.”
Senator McCain and George W. Bush agreed on many social issues, but McCain believed that the U.S. should not torture their prisoners of war, even if those captured were terrorists. In a thoughtfully-written statement, the Baptist Senator said, “As Americans of conscience we must remember that in the war on terrorism, we are fighting not only to defend our security, but for an idea that all men are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same.”
To try and grasp what personality traits enable a person to thrive after being tortured, I went to see John McCain speak at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum around 2000. McCain’s remarks were serious and his demeanor was grounded, without any sort of ostentation. He mingled afterward, engaging people one-on-one, looking each person in the eye as they spoke and giving them time. When it came time to have his photo taken, McCain seemed a touch stiff.
This lack of vanity is not particular to McCain. Many veterans, especially of his and prior generations, are more concerned with adhering to a structured role than with seeking attention. In The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw wrote, “(Soldiers) faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world. They came home to joyous and short-lived celebrations and immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted.”
One of Senator McCain’s greatest legislative accomplishments, the McCain-Feingold Act (also known as The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002) was the result of a steady, stoic quest to minimize the influence of money in political decision making.
The Democratic co-sponsor of the measure, Senator Russ Feingold (WI) said of John McCain, “”He’s a very good legislator from my point of view, because when he gets onto something, he doesn’t just want to introduce a bill, he likes to move it. And he’s fearless ... he’s a great guy to fight an uphill battle with legislatively. He keeps his word.”
Senator Feingold disagreed with McCain on many issues but still said in 2008 that he would be pleased if either McCain or Obama won.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Donald Trump did not serve in Vietnam due to deferments that protected him from the draft. Some deferments were for education, and a 1-Y medical deferment was granted to Trump, he claims, because of bone spurs in his heels.
At a rally in Virginia in August 2016, the real estate developer was given a Purple Heart by a retired lieutenant colonial. Donald J. Trump responded by saying, “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.”
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