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The timing of the death of soldier citizen John McCain has immense ramifications for the dangerous crossroads the US is placed in today. For me personally this extraordinary all-American defender of democracy and freedom symbolized the courage and fairplay that was synonymous with the American persona and character mostly on display in the 20th century, during and immediately after the two World Wars.  That is not to say it does not exist, it does among a vast majority but is increasingly less on display. With emerging threats to its global leadership and to the principles for which the US once stood for in the free world, democratic rule, protection of individual rights and equal justice before law, “his death is either the passing of an era or the rekindling of American purpose”, to quote my good friend Fred Kempe, President Atlantic Council.

Military officer and politician, US Senator from Arizona from 1987 John Sidney McCain III died on Aug. 25. 2018, 81 years of age. Steeped in naval tradition (his father and grandfather both of the same name were Admirals), he graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1958. Becoming a naval aviator, he flew ground attack aircraft from aircraft carriers. Shot down in the Vietnam War over Hanoi during a bombing mission in Operation “Rolling Thunder” in October 1967, he was seriously injured and captured by the North Vietnamese. He experienced episodes of torture as a PW until 1973, refusing an early repatriation offer when his father Admiral John McCain II was commanding all US naval forces off Vietnam and the Vietnamese were hoping for a PR coup with his release. Wounds sustained during the war left him with lifelong physical disabilities.  Even then as a US Senator he later campaigned for restoring diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

Retiring from the Navy as a Captain in 1981 he moved to Arizona and in 1982 was elected to the US House of Representatives. After serving two terms, he entered the US Senate in 1987, winning re-election five times, lastly in 2016. The Republican “maverick” disagreed with his party on some issues. Making campaign finance reform one of his signature concerns, he co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002. One of his unusual (for a politician) trails was his willingness to acknowledge his mistakes and weaknesses. Losing the Republican nomination for President in 2000 to George W Bush, he eventually secured the nomination in 2008. McCain was defeated by Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

Opposing President Barack Obama in most of his Presidential initiatives, particularly foreign policy, was done with logic, reason and civility. Consider his former political opponent speaking at his memorial service at the National Cathedral in Wash DC, “John liked being unpredictable, even a little contrarian. He had no interest in conforming to some pre-packaged version of what a Senator should be, and he didn’t want a memorial that was going to be pre-packaged either. President Bush and I are among the fortunate few who competed against John at the highest levels of politics. He made us better Presidents. Just as he made the Senate better. Just as he made this country better. So for someone like John to ask you, while he’s still alive, to stand and speak of him when he’s gone, is a precious and singular honor,” unquote. That sums up the quintessential McCain, having the ultimate confidence to let his lifelong opponents vouch for his character and integrity.

Some American families are truly great, that is the strength of America.  For me an endearing sight at the Memorial Service was his 100 plus mother Roberta McCain in a wheelchair, his wife Cindy stoically calm and two of his sons in service uniform, Navy and Marine respectively. The McCains remind me of the Perots. Privileged to have Ross Perot Jr Chairman of EastWest Institute (EWI), New York as a close friend, one had the privilege of meeting his father Ross Perot Sr. Despite being billionaires all the Perots, grandfather, son and grandson have served in the Armed Forces.  Also a US Presidential candidate like McCain this man was so committed to the employees of the company he built that he launched a private mission to rescue those who were imprisoned in Iran in the late 1970s. In the McCains, the Perots, and many other American families like them, one sees at first hand the great sense of service and commitment to their country that so many Americans have, whatever their wealth and status. The possibility of upward mobility and the lack of importance of one’s birth is the strength of America.

John McCain’s farewell message was read by a close friend and aide after his death, “There is always the temptation to see in the dreams of others for democracy all of the particular reasons why their struggles are different from ours…But if I leave you with one thought tonight, my friends, let it be this: It is our obligation, as free peoples, to look beyond these divisions. To disregard all the arguments that counsel passivity in the fight for human dignity, and to reaffirm that core idea united us all, and: solidarity with the universal longings of the human soul, for basic rights and equality, for liberty under the law, for tolerance and opportunity. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down; when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been” unquote.

Ambassador Clint Williamson and Julia Fromholz from the McCain Institute of International Leadership, Washington DC, honoured me with their presence at my family home Amaanibagh, Angoori (near Islamabad) in October 2017 to present to me, in front of family and friends, a signed photograph that Senator John McCain had inscribed  “Thank you for your brave service to Freedom and Democracy”, a treasured possession one displays with great pride.  One does not even dream of comparing myself with this truly great man and wonderful human who was honoured and remembered this past week but given what we had in common, both soldier brats, aviators and POWs, one truly felt his loss.

While being grateful to the McCain Institute and Julia Fromholz for inviting me to the Memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington DC on Saturday Sep 1, 2018 one greatly regret not being able to avail of privilege, feeling my loss even more seeing the ceremony live on TV.  The memorial service brought home to me how a nation should honour its heroes, the eulogies delivered by friend and former foe alike ample recognition of what a great nation America is, was and can be as long as it keep its civility and fairplay paramount, is not influenced by crass motives and machinations of others and remains fair in its dealings with others. This was more than a memorial for a man who had died, it was a celebration of the life of the man as he had lived it, with honour and dignity, his courage and conviction emblazoned like a shining light on his spirit and soul.  Soldier and citizen all-American John McCain, rest in peace!


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