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The feisty senator from Arizona: A birthday tribute to John McCain


In this July 11, 2017, file photo, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington. The office of Sen. John McCain says the ailing Arizona Republican will return to the Senate on July 25, the day of the health care vote. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Who inspires you?

Over the past several months, I asked the most accomplished people I know — CEOs, entrepreneurs and leaders from law enforcement to finance — variations of that question. I got a few good answers.

But mostly I was met with blank stares and quick pivots.

Common themes persist. Leaders are exhausted by hate spewed 280 characters at a time. They are exhausted by the echo chamber of cable news, where pundits breathlessly top the previous commentator with increasingly inflammatory rhetoric. They are exhausted by the enormity of the issues this country faces — immigration, infrastructure, protecting our election systems, supporting human rights around the globe — and the total inaction by those elected to serve and to speak up for what’s right.

I’ve thought about this same question, and there is one person who inspires me. Over the past several months, we heard much less from him than we used to. That silence does not diminish his lesson of forgiveness and selfless service.

You probably know his story, or at least the outlines of it. John McCain served first, becoming an aviator after graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, flying bombing missions over Vietnam. After his jet caught fire and injured him as he tried to rescue a trapped pilot, he volunteered for a new assignment on a different ship. On his 23rd mission, the lt. commander was shot down, nearly drowning in Truc Bach Lake near Hanoi. Two thousand long days later — after seemingly endless torture and solitary confinement — McCain was released.

Most would remain enraged, bitter over the ailments extracted by their captors. Not McCain. First as a congressman, then as a senator, McCain (often with another veteran, John Kerry, by his side) would lead a multi-year effort to normalize relations with the country that nearly killed him.

“It doesn’t matter to me anymore, Mr. President, who was for the war and who was against the war,” McCain would later say to President Bill Clinton. “I’m tired of looking back in anger. What’s important is that we move forward.”

He chose forgiveness over anger. Compassion over hatred. He showed us grace, listening to those who he had every reason to hate, bringing many soldiers lost in the conflict home, and normalizing relations between two countries with a monumental divide.

If prisoner of war McCain could forgive, finding a way forward, why can’t we?

McCain used this example of forgiveness again, and again, and again, mending fences with political adversaries after bruising fights, lost elections and international conflicts. He showed us how to be friends with supposed political enemies. He showed us how to move on and be civil after strong policy disagreements.

He would attempt to continue that service in the highest office, twice. Despite facing defeat twice, he never relented or bowed to that adversity. He kept finding ways to better our county, however long, slow or marginal those improvements might appear to be.

From wading through snow banks in Manchester, N.H., to producing a rally in Fairfax, Va., working for Senator McCain was the privilege of my life. I met some of my best friends and never worked harder. The senator had perennial optimism that fueled the campaign and the hundred-hour work week. No matter what the polling showed, or how dire the situation, there was always a path for that maverick from Arizona.

Though plenty disagree with his politics — liberals, a few Republicans, and a couple of despotic dictators that warrant no mention — he never stopped looking for ways to better the nation. McCain served because he had great love and conviction of this country. It wasn’t about legacy, personal gain or the title senator. It was about fighting, not in opposition to another, but in collaboration with others for the betterment of the country. We need a country built on the values of compassion, empathy, civility — and yes, forgiveness.

Four days ago was the first anniversary of McCain’s passing. Today would be his 83rd birthday. For me, his legacy is a constant reminder that the world needs each of us to serve — and persevere relentlessly in furtherance of the common good.

So, I’ll ask again: Who inspires you? How will you serve, inspiring others along the way? McCain’s lesson offers a few hints, and plenty of inspiration.

Donald is a former assistant police commissioner for the NYPD. He worked for John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign.