In one way, love of country came easily to him, the son and grandson of distinguished naval officers with service and duty in their blood. But given his weaknesses, he might have become merely a playboy aviator or even a swaggering admiral, no more notable than any others. Instead, when he plunged from the skies of Vietnam into the hell of confinement and torture that left him permanently crippled, he found an annealing furnace from which a different kind of steel emerged.
He spent five and a half years in the dark, refusing the early release offered him. Yet he came out of that experience a bigger man than he went in. He hated abuses of power; he loathed tyranny; he abominated torture of body or mind; and he never stinted in fighting against those things.
He moved to Arizona initially because of his wife, Cindy, but there was a deeper connection at work there, a love of sunlight and mountain vistas, of immigrant striving; a western freedom that was part of his soul. Because despite that nightmare in his past and his own demons, his vision of life was optimistic, shaped into proportion rare for his egomaniacal second profession of politics by a humor exercised as bracingly on himself as anyone else.
He liked the word maverick, yet he was anything but a loner. He had a great capacity for friendship, which is why so many of those who worked with and for him, or simply knew him, found tears streaming down their faces during this past year, when his final ordeal came upon him. But if he wept, it was in private, and I doubt that he did so. He had a stoic core, and lived the fullest and happiest of lives: “Glad did I live and gladly die, / And I laid me down with a will” is the line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Requiem” that concludes his last book.
To travel with McCain was to see all that in play. His annual congressional delegation to the Munich Security Conference was packed with senators and representatives of both parties; they were coming to be with McCain more than to listen to speeches and get briefings about NATO. When he spoke there—giving a thuggish regime’s foreign minister the rough edge of his tongue, usually—the entire delegation cheered him on. And on the plane ride back he waded into the middle of the plane, occupied by the retired diplomats and generals, the professors and pundits, and we would have a four-hour foreign-policy seminar, clutching plastic cups of cheap Air Force wine. It was enormous fun.
McCain traveled the world, seeing for himself the refugee camps and the battle lines as well as the capitols and the palaces. More than any other senator of his time, he played the role of the legislator statesman, and more effectively than any since one of his heroes, Scoop Jackson. And this wasn’t simply the McCain show: He cajoled new legislators of both parties to come along with him, so that they could show the flag together and bring firsthand knowledge back to Washington. He wanted to show them how the work of congressional leadership in foreign policy should be done.