America misses the courage of Sen. John McCain

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
If Sen. John McCain were alive today, he would most likely take on the role as the Senate’s conscious. File Photo by Erin Schaff/UPI
If Sen. John McCain were alive today, he would most likely take on the role as the Senate’s conscious. File Photo by Erin Schaff/UPI | License Photo

Darkened by the coronavirus and a badly broken American political system headed by arguably the worst president in this nation's history, suppose Sen. John McCain had not died two years ago and was alive and well. Would that have affected today's rancid and septic politics?

I first met Capt. McCain when he led the Navy's Senate's Liaison Office prior to his retirement from the Navy. But years before, when I was a Plebe (freshman) at the Naval Academy, McCain was still a legend among upper classmen who had known him when they were in my lowly status. His time there and during the course of his extraordinary life were memorialized in Robert Timberg's great book, The Nightingale's Song, about five Naval Academy graduates. Timberg, a journalist, was a 1964 Naval Academy graduate and had been severely wounded in the Vietnam War.


Even as a Plebe in the rigid Naval Academy structure, McCain did not tolerate bullies. Timberg wrote how McCain upbraided an upper classman for disparaging one of the Filipino mess stewards tending the dining room tables in Bancroft Hall. Timberg also colorfully documented how McCain attacked his North Vietnamese guards with the most extreme verbal abuses.

One can only speculate as to how McCain would have dealt with Donald Trump if he had lived. My guess is that it would not have been pleasant. As a candidate, Trump demeaned McCain's 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, Vietnam, saying, "He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured." And, later, according to several accounts, Trump called McCain a "loser" and initially did not want to provide support for a state funeral for him.

McCain never claimed to be a war hero. Indeed, with his self-deprecating humor, he declared himself a "lousy pilot," noting his major combat achievement was knocking down a North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile with his SkyHawk jet. But McCain's long captivity was, to use President John Kennedy's phrase, "a profile in courage." At the time, McCain's father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr. was commander of U.S. Forces Pacific, making the younger McCain a very important prisoner.


The North Vietnamese offered McCain early release. He refused, placing his loyalty to his fellow captives above his own freedom. For that reason alone, McCain deserved consideration for the Congressional Medal of Honor. And McCain was relentless in making life as difficult as possible for his captors.

McCain, R-Ariz., earned the eternal enmity from Trump when, ill with brain cancer, he cast the vote that preserved the Affordable Care Act, rejecting the administration's proposal. The resignation of James Mattis as secretary of Defense over the president's unilateral decision to withdraw special forces from Syria would have drawn McCain's ire. Little doubt exists in my mind that McCain would have voted to convict the president in the impeachment trial. Sen. Lindsey Graham probably would not have lost his way. And the Senate would have had at least a few vertebrae, if not a real backbone, in taking on the recklessness of this president dealing with COVID-19.

What would have moved McCain to regard the president as he had his North Vietnamese guards were reports that Russia had provided bounties to Afghan Taliban for killing U.S. and U.K. troops and during the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion allegedly called Marines killed in the World War I Belleau Wood Battle "losers and suckers."


McCain would not have allowed those two reports to go unanswered. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, one can be assured that McCain would have launched serious investigations of both, not accepting denials or deferrals. And that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the secretary of defense took part in the Lafayette Park photo op during the protests last summer over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police would not have been tolerated by McCain. Hearings likely would have been scheduled on the politicization of the military.

It is also inconceivable to me that McCain could have supported the president for re-election. McCain would most likely have taken on the role as the Senate's conscious. But no matter how the next election turns out, McCain's anti-Trump stance would have done the president huge political damage.

Two of McCain's three closest colleagues in the Senate went on to serve as defense secretaries: Bill Cohen and Vietnam vet Chuck Hagel. The third was Joe Biden.

If I am correct, Cindy McCain would not be the only McCain campaigning for Biden, running against Trump on Nov. 3. For these and many other reasons, the nation misses and still needs Sen. John McCain.


Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age."

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