Richard Connor: If John McCain was imperfect, welcome to the club

John McCain, the happy warrior. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

In the days since his death those who served with and really knew John McCain personally have written incredibly moving and thoughtful pieces about him, his life, and his service to this country.

It would be superficial and self-serving for me to write much about McCain, the six-term Arizona senator and two-time candidate for president who died Aug. 25 less than a week before his 82nd birthday. I did not know him. I rooted strongly against him and for George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries and I still like Bush to this day. I was stupefied that a man of McCain’s depth and intelligence would choose the hopelessly underqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate when he won the presidential nomination in 2008.

But, then again, that was no worse than George H.W. Bush keeping Vice President Dan Quayle on the ticket in 1992 despite overwhelming evidence that Quayle had no business being a heartbeat from the presidency.

Those choices cost both men dearly.

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Chalk it up to this: We all make mistakes.

I did come close to a McCain encounter one day in Washington when I went to visit with then-U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson. On my way to the Texas Republican’s office, McCain stepped from his office and was immediately surrounded by reporters. I stopped to watch and listen.

His personal charisma and charm created an aura that was spellbinding. That aura is a mysterious gift that great leaders have and the rest of us are left to marvel at.

What strikes me most about McCain’s passing is how his life and legacy stand in contrast to the way our president behaves and Washington conducts its business in this era of rancorous hyperpartisanship. McCain’s memory shines even brighter than it might have because of the deplorable state of the nation’s politics and the peevish, petty, petulant and perhaps even criminal conduct of Donald Trump.

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There are two benchmark pieces of journalism I urge you to seek out in these days of reflection. One is 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl’s interview with McCain in September 2017. Speaking with Stahl just two months after being diagnosed with brain cancer, McCain was full of hope for our democracy, grateful for a bountiful life and totally lacking in animus, even toward the Vietnamese captors who tortured him for more than five years as a prisoner of war at the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp.

In fact, McCain called his imprisonment one of the experiences that affected him in a positive way. He said the bonds he forged with fellow prisoners would always stand out as a highlight of his life. He expressed gratitude for the life he had lived.

The second is an editorial published after McCain’s death in The New York Times. The piece was headlined: “John McCain, a Scarred but Happy Warrior.”

The editorial was no fawning whitewash. It pointed out mistakes McCain had made and criticized him for things he said and did that The Times editorial board found wanting.

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But in the end it gave him his due:

“Mr. McCain was a charming, imperfect man, driven by a code of honor and self-aware enough to know when he had violated it. A Senate where the phrase “happy warrior” is an oxymoron will miss him.”

If I had a quarrel with the editorial’s assessment my main point of disagreement would be the reference to McCain as “imperfect.” Aren’t we all?

If McCain is to be judged on a scale that measures perfection I would say he fared better than most of us.

It is important to note that during his time as a POW he was offered freedom as a propaganda ploy by captors who were aware that McCain’s father was a powerful and influential officer in the U.S. Navy. McCain declined because other prisoners had been held longer and it wasn’t his turn to leave.

That’s the type of noble selflessness that should cause all of us to stop and question what we would have done in a similar circumstance. Personally, I would like to believe I would have reacted similarly but I can’t say for certain I would have done the same.

It’s easy for editorial writers, of course, to look back on a man’s life with hard-eyed detachment, analyzing the pros and cons as if they were reviewing a movie or a meal at a Manhattan restaurant. But McCain, ever the straight-talker, held himself to account even on his deathbed. Here’s what he said in a farewell letter written to the American people and his Arizona constituents:

“My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for 60 years, and especially my fellow Arizonians, thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I’ve tried to serve our country honorably. I’ve made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.”

He went on to express his belief in the country and its ability to overcome obstacles and emerge from troubled times – an important message amid the troubled times we face today. McCain’s humble gratitude for the life he lived and the opportunities he was given showed why he is deserving of the praise that’s been heaped on him in recent days.

Labor Day weekend always strikes me as a time for reflection. I have never lost that long-ago schooldays feeling that summer represented “time off” and freedom. Labor Day is the end of that time. Thank goodness for college football and the opening of dove season in Texas.

This year my Labor Day reflections have focused on the example of Sen. John McCain, a true American hero, a statesman, a builder not a divider, a dedicated believer in the power of democracy and the will and instinctive intelligence and decency of the American people.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at