March 17, 2018

The High Calling of Statesmanship: John McCain

Several years ago, I opined in this column about the need for fewer politicians and more statesmen; individuals who are willing to look at more than ideology; individuals who are willing to roll up their sleeves and reach across the aisle; individuals who are willing to take political risk for the greater good that can be achieved.

In our nation’s history, we have many examples. I think of Daniel Webster, one of the greatest politicians in American history, who staked his reputation and career on an oration he gave before the Senate in 1850. In his Seventh of March Speech, Webster spoke, “not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American,” in his fervent defense of the Compromise of 1850, a deal that held the union together for another decade before the inevitable Civil War. While he recognized the principled positions of those among his colleagues who abhorred the Compromise, Webster was certain that rejection of the deal would likely precipitate a civil war, a horror he desperately sought to avoid. And what was the price of his patriotism? Subsequently viewed as a traitor to the South by his New England political base, Webster soon thereafter resigned from the Senate.

Our disdain for the state of our modern politics may make it easy to overlook statesmen in our midst. I place Senator John McCain in that special class. He has always put America first in more than 60 years of service to our country. First, as a naval aviator who was shot down over Hanoi, captured and imprisoned for six years during the Vietnam War, despite offers of an early release (his father was the commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater). In the face of unrelenting and harrowing torture, McCain demonstrated moral courage and refused to accept repatriation until every man taken before him had been released.

The fortitude that defined McCain as a naval officer has also defined his political career. Over the past 35 years, McCain has rightfully earned the “maverick” moniker. As the successor to conservative icon Barry Goldwater, he has carved his own path, willing to break from the herd in service to his principles. This was often evident when it came to large federal spending requests—even for defense programs—and many a supplicant for the taxpayers’ dollars felt the sting of McCain’s pointed criticisms.

McCain leaned toward tough but necessary compromise when he joined the “Gang of 14” in 2005, a bipartisan Senatorial construct designed to break the gridlock over President George W. Bush’s court nominees.

In 2013, he joined yet another gang, this time the “Gang of Eight.” During this time, I had the opportunity to work closely with the Senator on immigration reform in an attempt to resolve the accelerating crisis of labor shortages in agriculture. I recall appreciating that his heart was always in the right place. For McCain, it has never been about the politics—which can chip away at even the noblest of intentions—which is why I think he has worked well with Democrats at key moments.

During the tense negotiations, urgent issues would often come up, and McCain was always willing to accept a meeting, even at the last minute. Whenever we differed, we would both jump on the Straight Talk Express, being open and candid in our discussions. The trust and confidence that formed the foundation of our relationship was essential to the eventual approval of S.744 by the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote. McCain was the first Senator to praise our efforts and results, and he did so publicly.

I also recall my time serving as an agricultural advisor to McCain during his presidential run in 2008. From time to time, our industry partners would claim that McCain wasn’t supporting us on critical issues. I would ask to speak with him, and he always returned my call, several times calling me at home. If I ever asked for a letter of support for our issues, he would respond immediately.

McCain also has a sense of humor, which is occasionally on public display. One time we discussed my Lebanese heritage, to which I gave him the following definition: A Lebanese is someone who can buy from an Armenian, sell to a Jew and still make a profit. He was astute enough to know that we were at an event in Fresno and began to extoll the virtues of the Armenian community. After the event, he said he didn’t think he could repeat my joke for obvious reasons, but we still had a good laugh in private.

Given my personal relationship with John McCain, and my admiration for his years of tireless service to our country, the news of his cancer diagnosis has weighed heavily on my heart as it has the nation. However, through faith and prayer, I believe he will overcome this challenge, just as he has overcome every other obstacle in his life. Whatever the outcome may be, McCain has earned a title of far greater importance than Senator. He is an American Statesman and true hero. May the Lord bless you and your remarkable family, John McCain.