A Not-So-Public Man: The Private Character of John McCain

Posted on July 1, 2008


The following article from JPost.com (full text below) was a delightful read. While there is a bent towards political favoritism towards the end (yes the article is biased), I want to make it clear that I am sharing this for the value of the sentimentality of the article, not for its endorsement. I simply find it refreshing to read something that intends to applaud the contributions of an individual, rather than smear them for political gain. I am reminded of a favorite quote of mine: Whenever you throw dirt, not only do you get your hands dirty, but you lose a lot of ground.”

Jun. 29, 2008
Abraham Katsman , THE JERUSALEM POST

A JPost.com exclusive blog

It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. War hero John McCain has been in the public eye almost his entire adult life. He’s run numerous campaigns, served in Congress for 25 years, and is in his second run for the presidency.

Yet, there is so much of his life that reveals an absolutely sterling character, but remains largely unknown to the public. And in spite of the tremendous political advantages that publicity could confer, McCain instinctively keeps that information private. Although as a presidential candidate he may be forced to overcome this reticence, he honorably shies away from using his personal heroics for political gain.

How aware is the public that McCain has raised seven children? Or that he adopted his two oldest sons as small boys (children from his wife’s prior marriage)? Or that he has raised a Bangladeshi girl with severe health problems adopted from Mother Theresa’s orphanage? Or that his own sons have served in the military, including in Iraq?

It’s widely known that McCain, a Navy pilot, was shot down, captured and tortured by the North Vietnamese for 5 and a half years – an episode worth a forthcoming column all its own. But few are aware that he refused early release until all the POWs captured before him were freed, and that he refused special treatment offered once it was discovered that he was the “crown prince” (the son of the admiral in charge of the Pacific Fleet) because he wouldn’t provide the enemy with any propaganda victories.

Even fewer seem to know that those years were a fraction of a 22-year Navy career. Although broken and battered, after his release from Vietnamese captivity he went right back to the Navy, where he continued to serve for an additional eight years.

Both Israel and America honor military service, knowing all too well the sacrifice of those who step up, stand guard, and put their lives on the line to protect their fellow citizens from the ever-present threat of harm.

Readers in Israel, where military and national service is intertwined with society perhaps more than in any other free country, especially appreciate the McCain family’s tradition of military service and the intergenerational transmission of values that comes with it.

Anyone can talk about “supporting our troops”; the McCains serve. McCain’s father and grandfather were respected American admirals. Of McCain’s four sons, three have gone the military route. One was a Navy pilot like his father, one enlisted in the Marines at age 17 and recently completed a tour in Iraq, and one is completing his education at the Naval Academy (raising the strong possibility that, for the first time in half a century, the United States will have a president with a son at war).

Yet, likely because of those same values, McCain maintains a strict code of silence about his sons’ military service, no matter how legitimate his pride or politically useful their military status. Through 2007, McCain was the strongest Senate advocate of vastly increasing troop levels in Iraq, strongly influencing the administration’s wildly successful “surge” strategy.

Yet McCain never brought up his own son’s service in some of the roughest areas of Iraq. His principled refusal of political advantage from his son’s Iraq service extends to refusal even to be interviewed on the subject, or to introduce his son to campaign audiences.

Also little-known is the story of McCain’s youngest child. As a result of a 1991 Cindy McCain visit to Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh, the McCains adopted an infant daughter dying from a host of health issues. The orphanage could not provide the medical care needed to save the little girl’s life, so the McCains, already the parents of six children, brought the child home to America, and paid for desperately needed surgeries and years of rehabilitation. That child is their teenage daughter Bridget. In fact, there was a second infant girl brought back from the orphanage that the McCains saved. She ended up being adopted by one of McCain’s aides, Wes Gullett, and his wife. “We were called at midnight by Cindy,” Gullett has stated, and “five days later we met our new daughter Nicki at the LA airport.”

This fall, Nicki will be a high school junior. Even after years of expensive medical treatment for the child, Gullett says, “I never saw a hospital bill” for her care. It is an extraordinary man who commits himself to such generous and heroic acts; it is an extraordinary politician who won’t utter a word about such acts for political aggrandizement.

So, it turns out that McCain, standard-bearer of the party constantly slandered as racist, has, without fanfare, raised as his own a Bengali daughter of color. But the character demonstrations regarding his daughter are even more impressive: during his 2000 presidential run, as he was on the verge of becoming the front-runner, rogue staffers of other candidates reportedly conducted a whisper campaign in South Carolina disparaging the McCains for having a “black baby.”

Yet, with every justification to unload with both barrels for such nasty politicking, and with as great an opportunity to set the record straight and tell the world about the heroics of being an adoptive father, McCain chose to shield his child by ignoring the smear. Some analysts believe that move may have ultimately cost him the nomination. But McCain has never questioned his choice. It says a lot about the man that he would readily sacrifice the pinnacle of personal political achievement to protect his family’s feelings and privacy.

The contrast with other politicians couldn’t be more stark. How many candidates have we heard try to score political points as they crow in the public limelight about their own brief military stints, or their wife’s cancer, son’s car accident, or sister’s death from smoking? The contrast is consistent with McCain’s internalizing the codes of honor and military conduct since his youth: the veneration of courage and resilience; the expectation of fidelity to principles of honor; the homage paid to Americans who sacrificed for their country; the nobility of service and sacrifice; the expectation that one would prove worthy of the country’s trust; and the humility that comes from recognizing that there are causes and people greater than oneself. It is, in short, a contrast in character.

Character matters. In a president-and particularly in a commander-in-chief, that kind of character arguably counts more than any particular political orientation or policy. From character flows leadership, as it is character which dictates morally grounded direction and engenders public trust.

Character is critical to determining how a leader will respond to crisis. Will he reach deep within himself and in the traditions that shaped him and find the courage and grace to inspire strength and greatness? Will soldiers trust the wisdom and integrity of his decision when he orders them to war? Will he truly understand the terrible toll of war, as well as the price of appeasement? Will he make decisions based on considerations greater than cheap political expediency?

Now, ask yourself: which candidate has repeatedly demonstrated that kind of character?

The writer, an attorney, is Counsel to Republicans Abroad Israel