That time I hung out with Senator John McCain in Washington

This is not about politics; it's about a guy who believed in doing the right thing more than the politically savvy thing.

August 27, 2018
John McCain & John Fisher

Jennifer Orr


We don’t deal with politics here on the Sound because that’s not . . .relaxing. You don’t want to hear about all of that, at least not on this staion. I'm sure you know where you can find it if you want it.

So this isn’t about politics. It’s just about a man – Senator John McCain – who died over the weekend. I met him in 2002. We were doing some shows in Washington DC and talking to some of the bigwigs out there and he was on our show. This was just a few months after 9/11 and there were many issues around security and terrorism that were worth talking about. But I was mostly interested in simply discovering what this guy was like one-on-one. I've met lots of rock stars over the years, but not that many politicians. Most musicians I've met turned out to be pretty normal in person, no matter how famous or iconic they were .As my dad used to say (and probably your dad too!) they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like us regular people. I wondered if that could possible true for a politician, as well.          We all have this cynical idea that politicians are all phonies, that they don't make a move without taking a poll first, and they don't have any real opinions of their own -- they only care what will get them more votes and more campaign contributions.

But McCain had his "maverick of the Senate" reputation, and he was an undisputed war hero, enduring more than five years of torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam that left him without the full use of his arms. He couldn't shake your hand with his right hand, and in fact often carried a pen in that hand so people would just go for the other hand. 

Anyway. The thing that struck me about looking him in the eye and talking to him was that he was for real. He kind of grimaced and shook his head at how ridiculous things were in Washington, and how nobody ever did something because it was the right thing to do. He had kind of a wry smile that implied, "What are you gonna do? That's Washington!" as he talked about the partisan gridlock that seemed to make it so hard to get meaningful things done in government. (And this was 16 years ago!)

But the most telling moment for me came when we talked about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. If you've ever been there, you know it's one of the most powerful monuments you'll see to the people we lost in a war that seemed endless at the time. It starts as a sliver of marble at each end, with a few names carved into the gleaming black surface, and as you walk down a ramp next to the wall, you're soon dwarfed by this massive expanse of names -- thousands of them -- belonging to the men and women who died in that long conflict.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial
© KC McGinnis-USA TODAY Sports

I asked John McCain if he ever visited that memorial, and he told me that from time to time he did visit, usually late at night when fewer people were around and he could quietly reflect there. I asked him what went through his mind when he stood inside this overhwelming tribute to his brave comrades. He looked at me, shook his head and said, "Well, that's one we lost." That's an honest guy. Five and a half years of his life in enemy hands, labeled a hero, awarded a Purple Heart, but he didn't pretend that any of that added up to anything good for our country.

I have no idea if most politicians are sincere in their desire to accomplish great things for this country. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. But in the case of John McCain, I looked into his weary but wise eyes and saw a man who loved what he did even though much of it drove him crazy. I would guess that at some points in the 2008 presidential campaign he may have followed the advice of advisors more than his own instincts, but most of us forgive him for going a bit off the rails back then. Looking at the totality of his life and career, he dedicated himself to military service and then service to his country in the Senate. And I'm pretty sure he was just about the last of a certain breed.

I'm so glad I had that chance to look into his eyes and know it for sure: John McCain was the real deal.