By Daniel Twining
I started working for John McCain in 1995. I never really stopped working for him. I served on his Senate staff, including as his foreign policy advisor, a role that took me to some 40 countries with him and allowed me to witness the great man in action during some of the most consequential moments of modern American history, including the campaign for NATO enlargement, the 9/11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I volunteered for both his presidential campaigns, doing everything from driving him to events to penning parts of his foreign policy platform. I now run an organization, the International Republican Institute, that he chaired for 25 years until reluctantly handing over its leadership in the weeks before his death. The John McCain I know is not the one in the glare of the media spotlight. The private John McCain is in fact more impressive than the public one.
The media narrative always had McCain in the center of the great public policy cause of the day: from campaign finance reform to North Korean nuclear proliferation to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Russian aggression against its neighbors. He was a leader in these and other causes, foreign and domestic. But the causes that animated him equally passionately were those with no media bandwidth whatsoever: a coup in Fiji that subverted democracy; the cause of human rights defenders in Belarus; persecution against online dissidents in Vietnam; the fate of Cambodia’s opposition in the face of repeated government crackdowns; the prospects for Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition; the future of Iraq’s Kurds; the fate of tiny Baltic nations most Americans could not find on a map; prospects for peace in the Balkans; ethnic cleansing in Burma by the powerful against the powerless.
Sen. McCain was not selective in his belief that advancing universal values of democracy and human rights served American interests in a more peaceful, stable world. He raged against tyranny in countries such as the Maldives, population 400,000, as virulently as he fulminated against the strongmen in control of authoritarian great powers who had turned their nations into prisons for their people. He took repression personally: How did Putin get away with conning Russians into believing he was protecting their country from American encirclement even as Moscow invaded neighbors in Georgia and Ukraine in an effort to build a new empire? How did successive North Korean despots charm American presidents into negotiating closer ties when large segments of the North Korean population lived in gulags?
Sen. McCain believed deeply that America must lead internationally—and that while our country did so imperfectly and at times intemperately, it was vacuums left by the absence of American leadership that ultimately made the world more dangerous and insecure. America was a different kind of great power, he understood—one whose universalist aspirations were not simply a cloak for the covetous pursuit of territory and resources but a reflection of the belief that our founding ideals were the prerogatives not only of Americans but of all people. If Americans were endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, should that not be true for everyone else too? Those authoritarians who stood in the way of their people’s natural rights to freedom and dignity were the targets of his greatest wrath.
It takes courage and commitment to care so much about the liberty of those who did not have a voice, or who could not pay Washington lobbyists to push their case. Sen. McCain could have made an equally successful career leading on popular causes that made the front pages of the newspapers and led the storylines on cable television. But he was haunted by an insight he had learned in solitary confinement in Vietnam, where he saw the best and worst of humanity.
Honor is not defined by fame and fortune; it’s not determined by the choices you make when everyone is watching. “Honor is who you are in the dark,” he would say, when you are alone—and when no one but yourself will know whether you did the right thing or whether you accommodated, yielding your principles in the pursuit of a narrower self-interest.
John McCain never yielded. America and the world are better for it.Top