LeRoy Collins Commentary 158

Commentary #158
28 April 2008

McCain's Turning Point

Roger, I have a sea story re this article describing John McCain's transformation from Naval Officer to Politician...which you sent to us.

It was of special interest because my friend, Navy Captain and a fellow submariner, Jim High, preceded John McCain in this Navy Liaison Officer billet in the Russell Senate Office Building; as a Navy Reserve Commander, I was in that job for two weeks in 1976..less than a year before John McCain arrived. That job had a similar stimulus to me, but alas, I was not able to convert it into political success like Commander McCain did.

I arranged for two weeks of Naval Reserve annual active duty in this post through a fellow Floridian, Rear Admiral (later 4-star Admiral) Gus Kinnear (from Brooksville FL), who at the time headed the Navy's Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA). While the article explains the Navy is not permitted to "lobby" Congress, an informed Navy Officer on Capitol Hill is in a good position to readily answer questions from Members of Congress and their staffers, most of whom have not served in the U.S. Military. Accordingly, all Armed Services wisely place officers in such jobs who have broad operational experience in the field. Most of the questions involve explanations for Department of Defense budget requirements, arrangements for exposure of Members to the respective Services, and followup to constituency queries involving the respective Services.

Aside from the usual orientation, I asked Captain High to arrange for me a visit to the office he considered the "most efficient" so I could see how they handled the enormity of daily mail. The office he chose was that of Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), who was not there at the time of my visit. I was highly impressed with what his staff showed me at the time in 1976. I came back to the same office 20 years later (!). By then there had been an almost complete change of staff, the procedures were about the same, but by now the office was totally computerized, so it was more efficient than ever. But this time Senator Hatfield was there so his Executive Assistant asked if I would like some time with the Senator. You bet I would!

Well, when I strode into the Senator's palatial office, now in the Dirksen Building (reflecting his longevity and senior committee status) he looked up and did a double take: "Admiral Collins you look exactly as I recall your father when we were Governors together during 1959." What a warm entre for me; we had a wonderful chat for perhaps 20 minutes. Dad had died 5 years before that moment, so I could not relay that occasion to him afterwards. The Senator retired shortly after that.

Back to John McCain...

John McCain and I were in the same 5th Battalion at the Naval Academy. He was in the Class of 1958, and I was in '56. He was better known since he came from a long legacy of Naval Academy graduates who became Admirals, and by John's own admission, he was noted for his participation in hi-jinks to the delight of all, but to the detriment of his Class Standing. John was noisy wherever he was during those years, and I had little contact with him until he relieved my friend, Jim High, on Capitol Hill WASHDC in 1977. On some occasion back on Capitol Hill in 1977, I checked in with Commander John McCain in the same space where I was the year before with Captain High. He received me quite graciously; I was especially interested how he had resumed his Navy career after being a POW for six years. He handled my questions in the same stoic way he does it today...he now was a very different person than I recall at the Naval Academy over 20 years before...quieter, more contemplative, and clearly more wisened.

The next time I saw John McCain was during an Inauguration Parade in Tallahassee after he had become a Member of Congress. While our time together was fleeting at best, he was all business and wanted to know what I thought Floridians thought about some National issues. By that time I was so immersed in my own business there was nothing I knew which was responsive to his queries. So it became one of those HOWZITGOIN? greetings...polite but not substantive.

When I ran for the U.S. Senate (Republican Nomination) in 2006, Our mutual friend, Bud McFarlane, tried to get John to endorse my candidacy, but there was never any evidence he ever got the message. While I was disappointed, it has not diminished my desire to support John McCain for President in 2008. He is the ONLY candidate qualified to be the Commander-in-Chief, and he has displayed more courage in his life than perhaps ALL Members of Congress COMBINED. While I agree when he places National Security as the highest priority on his platform, I disagree with his immigration policy which is a form of amnesty as far as I am concerned. But I agree with far more of what he represents than any of the others; the man has CHARACTER which has been forged over a hot flame which has been very intense for over HALF A CENTURY!

Read the attached and you will see what I mean.

/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr.

Blue band divider with stars


Sat. Apr. 26, 2008
By Linda Douglass

In 1977, Navy Cmdr. John McCain was at a crossroads. He was 40, yet the trajectory of his life was unclear. He had spent five and a half years, the prime of his life, struggling to survive the brutality of a North Vietnamese prison camp. Once home, he underwent long months of painful rehabilitation, hoping to overcome crippling injuries and to return to the skies as a Navy pilot.

When it became clear that his flying days were over, he took command of a squadron in Jacksonville, Fla., and won praise for bringing several broken-down jets back into service. McCain was a war hero, the son and grandson of four-star admirals. But when the Florida command ended, his career in the Navy stalled.

What came next was an assignment that a warrior such as McCain could have found tedious and, at times, demeaning: The brass sent him to Washington to be the Navy's liaison to the Senate. McCain describes the post as the Navy's lobbyist, even though, technically, the military is not permitted to lobby. William Bader, then staff director for the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the job as that of a glorified concierge and bag carrier, and soother of senatorial egos and demands. The liaison's primary responsibility was to manage travel logistics and deal with senators' military constituents who had problems with pay or pensions.

But McCain turned the position into something much more. His three years in the Senate became a turning point that put him on a path toward the White House. "I count [his time as the liaison] among the seminal experiences of his life" says Mark Salter, McCain's longtime chief of staff. Adds Robert Timberg, who has written two biographies of McCain, "The Senate liaison job opened up a whole fresh new world for him." In an interview with National Journal, McCain sums it up simply: "A great opportunity to travel, meet people, and to learn."

McCain was hungry to learn when he returned from the Hanoi Hilton. During his first year home, he was given a coveted spot at the National War College and immersed himself in the study of Vietnam and the policies that led the U.S. to fight and then pull out. Barely three years later, from his vantage point as the Navy/Marine Corps Senate liaison, he watched policy being made. By all accounts, he was riveted. "John was different, remarkable, compared to most of the military liaison guys" remembers Pete Lakeland, then the Republican staff director for the Foreign Relations Committee. "He was very interested in learning as much as he could about substance, and about foreign policy."

Almost as soon as McCain moved into his cramped office in a corner of the Russell Senate Office Building, he attracted attention. He was famous as the returning POW whose father had commanded the Pacific Fleet while he was in prison. Gen. James Jones, who recently retired as the supreme allied commander in Europe, was then the Marine Corps liaison in McCain's office. "John was someone that all of the senators wanted to talk to and be seen with", he said. He was a celebrity even in those days. But there was something else.

"McCain was just a fascinating character", says former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., with a chuckle. "He had a great sense of humor. He was smart and funny to be around." Senior staff and some senators began to routinely wander into McCain's office at the end of the day, looking for laughs, drinks, and lively conversation. "It was the place", says Hart, who was then a freshman on the Armed Services Committee," that you could go and put your feet up." Adds Lakeland, "McCain had been in solitary confinement for two years, and he really wanted to catch up on life. He didn't like to be alone. He wanted to sit around and talk."

Senior senators began asking the Navy to detail McCain to their committees for trips to China, the Soviet Union, South Korea, Oman, Israel, and other destinations. His job was to handle logistics: organize transportation, make sure the luggage was handled properly, and manage the needs and demands of senators' spouses. McCain carried out his duties with good cheer, according to those who worked with him."He did not complain about menial tasks",Lakeland says. He was very conscious of protocol and rank. He said, "If there is one thing you learn at the Naval Academy, it's 'You're absolutely right, Captain!'"

McCain formed a bond with some of the senators. Bader believes that many were drawn to the former POW because they hoped he could help them work through their own feelings about the Vietnam War. He recalls the scene aboard one charter flight to China, when he watched several senators approach McCain, who was sitting quietly in the last row. One after one, for hours, they came back to the back of the plane, one at a time, to make their peace with John McCain. Many of the senators had opposed the Vietnam War. But here was someone who was the epitome of the symbol [of what is] valiant and patriotic. It was clear these politicians, as politicians and Americans, wanted to make their peace with this man. Soon, Bader says, McCain seemed to achieve the extraordinary status of a peer among the senators. He was enormously clubby with them. They did not treat him as a concierge. They treated him with respect.

Mentors and Friends

McCain was captivated by what he saw on the committee trips." I was exposed to some of the great leaders in the world", he says. "I hope I gained a lot from observing them. One of his heroes was the late Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson, D-Wash., whom McCain has praised as "one of the country's leading hawks" at a time when most Democrats were anti-war. McCain devoted several pages of his autobiography, Worth the Fighting For, to Jackson, who, he wrote, "suffered the disdain of elites who mistook fashion for wisdom."

McCain described his gratitude for Jackson's unwavering support for the Vietnam War. "A lost war is a terrible calamity and, in this instance, all the more so for its last casualty, America's faith in herself. Thank God for Scoop Jackson, for his willingness to stand apart from the new conventions of his party." McCain told National Journal that he learned some of his important lessons from Jackson, especially this one, spelled out in his book: "Political courage in practice is the resolve to do what's right whatever the personal consequences one must suffer."

Jackson's fierce support for Israel and the adoration he received when he arrived in Tel Aviv on a 10-day trip impressed McCain profoundly. "I will never forget landing in the airport in Tel Aviv and they were all carrying signs: "God Bless You, Scoop. It was a heartfelt and emotional greeting." When Jackson spotted the wife of then-imprisoned human-rights activist Natan Sharansky in the crowd, McCain says, "He stopped the bus and had her come on the bus with us. I will never forget it. I saw the effect that a person can have in office."

Although McCain deeply admired Jackson, he characterizes the relationship as strictly professional. His relationship with Sen. John Tower of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, was much more. With Tower, whom he also called a "leading hawk", he struck up a deep friendship, one that many have described as a father-son bond." I was inspired by Tower, an unwavering advocate for increased defense spending", McCain says.

McCain accompanied Tower on 20 trips. He loves to tell the story about one visit to Oman, where they met with the Sultan Qaboos bin Said in his palatial desert tent. All of the other guests knelt or sat cross-legged, but McCain could not bend his legs because of his war injuries. So he sat with his legs straight out, feet facing the sultan. Unbeknownst to him, showing the soles of one's feet to the sultan is an unforgivable insult. Tower knew that, however; realizing that Sultan Qaboos and his guards were becoming incensed, he intervened to explain McCain's predicament. McCain wrote that Tower "loved to remind me time and again how he had once saved my life in the Omani desert."

"There was always him, and then there were the rest of us. There was no doubt when he left that he would play on the national stage again" Gen. James Jones, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and Marine liaison in McCain's office.

As the liaison, McCain tended to Tower's needs when they traveled, making sure that the senator was able to knock back a few highballs at the end of the day even when traveling in the Middle East, where alcohol was banned. "When I traveled with him as his Navy escort, it was usually my job to make sure his hotel room had an adequate, but not unusually ample, stock of his preferred beverage", McCain wrote. On a trip to Saudi Arabia, he recalled, "I had to smuggle in a dozen or so single-serving bottles of Johnnie Walker obtained on the flight over. These I would deliver to Tower's room after I checked us in, so that he and his traveling party could wind down in his accustomed way at the end of a long day." Years later, then-Sen. John McCain fought unsuccessfully to defend Tower when accusations of drinking and womanizing were raised during Senate hearings to confirm Tower as Defense secretary.

As McCain tells it, Tower was a formal man with few friends, so the bond between them was unusual. Less surprising were the deep friendships that McCain formed with a pair of younger senators: Hart, who later ran for the Democratic presidential nomination; and then-Republican Sen. William Cohen of Maine, who went on to become Defense secretary in the Clinton administration."McCain's exuberance was infectious",Cohen says. "John was so lighthearted. He had this buoyant personality, always bubbling up."

But Rhett Dawson, then a top aide to Tower, remembers that McCain occasionally showed sharp edges. He could sometimes be a handful. He could be very willful. Others say that, at times, McCain was downright wild. Bader remembers one night in particular. The senators were sitting around a table and John, bag carrier extraordinaire, got up on the table and started doing a dance. The senators, Bader says, howled with laughter. "McCain had star power", Gen. Jones said. "He is a very charismatic individual. People liked being around him."

McCain's ebullience also fascinated the senators because they knew that behind his antics was the dark story of his years of torture in Vietnam. Hart says, "You saw that one of his arms was crooked and one of his shoulders was stiff, and he hobbled a bit when he walked. But there was not an ounce of bitterness in him. He laughed and told stories about himself. I thought it was stunning that he could do that." Bader caught a glimpse of McCain's nightmarish past just once, as they toured a factory in China. "I turned around and he was standing in front of this double bunk bed. He was frozen and unsteady. His body was trembling. McCain was staring at blankets, gray with a red stripe. He whispered, 'Those were the blankets we had in Vietnam'." Bader says that they never talked about Vietnam again.

Influencing Policy

As he traveled, attended Senate hearings, and joined in after-hours bull sessions, McCain absorbed lessons of foreign policy. That's not surprising, insists Salter, who co-wrote two of McCain's autobiographies. When he was young, McCain thought he might want to be a Foreign Service officer. He adds,"In the Senate, he became much more interested in politics than he ever had been before. I think he saw the enormous influence elected officeholders could have on policy and the direction of the country." Lakeland, a lawyer with Ivy League training in foreign policy, was struck by the Navy officer's intense curiosity. "He was very interested in the work, in learning what the issues in China were, why we were going there?, what about Russia? He wanted to know."

On foreign trips, McCain witnessed the extraordinary political skill and power of senators such as Jackson and the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, the late Jacob Javits of New York. Lakeland recalls that McCain was awestruck by one confrontation between the two men over the U.S.-Soviet Union SALT II Treaty, which would have limited the manufacture of strategic nuclear weapons. Just before a meeting of NATO's Parliamentary Assembly was scheduled to begin in 1979, Lakeland says, Jackson revealed that he had prepared a speech urging the parliamentarians to oppose the treaty. Had they done that, Lakeland says,"it would have turned into a big deal." So Lakeland rushed to confer with Javits, his boss. Javits was able to quickly prepare a rebuttal and then persuaded the parliamentarians to pass a resolution supporting it. McCain was amazed, he said, chuckling. He said, "Wow. This is how these things work?"

"A light began to go on", says Timberg, McCain's biographer. After studying the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, McCain wanted to see things go right. Based on his research, he saw times when senior officers, senior political figures, didn't do the right thing. Timberg believes that McCain was transformed by watching strong-willed senators shape policy. He thought to himself: "This is a place where you can make a difference. This is it. This is what life has in store for me."

McCain agrees with that assessment. He cites a lesson he learned on a trip to South Korea with a Senate delegation in 1979. President Carter was determined to fulfill his pledge to begin withdrawing American troops from the country. But Democrats Sam Nunn of Georgia, John Glenn of Ohio, and Hart, along with the GOP's Cohen, came away from their trip convinced that removing the troops would threaten South Korea's security. They pressured Carter to back away from his plan, which he eventually did. "What did I learn from that?",McCain wonders aloud. "There are policies that presidents can impose, but there are also times when the Congress, and especially members of their own party, can override a president's ambitions or policy wishes."

As his confidence in his own views grew, McCain began to assert himself politically. Cohen met McCain onboard a plane to China early in 1979, just after Cohen had been elected to the Senate. He had been a member of the House Judiciary Committee that had conducted the impeachment investigation of President Nixon and was thinking of joining the Judiciary Committee in the Senate. During the long trip, McCain urged Cohen to join the Armed Services Committee, arguing that he could play a much more important role for the country from there. "He was so passionate about the need for me to go on the Armed Services Committee", Cohen remembers."He was so persuasive. So I joined. In a way, John was responsible for my becoming secretary of Defense."

Cohen also credits McCain with giving senators important advice as they tried to sort through the views of the White House, the Pentagon, and the service branches. "I would turn to John and say, 'Give us the straight talk'. We put a lot of faith in his judgment on military matters."

Tower's aide Dawson insists that McCain was responsible for getting funding for a new nuclear aircraft carrier, over Carter's opposition. McCain was careful never to contradict the administration, Dawson says, but behind the scenes he argued powerfully for the carrier. McCain made sure that people understood that aircraft carriers were not just built in Newport News. They were built in all parts of the country. He was superb in organizing other vendors to offer their support. It was a sort of grassroots lobbying. He made sure that other chapters of the Naval Reserve knew it was important to build more carriers. This was in the days of the "hollow Army" and the "hollow Navy" [a term used by critics of Carter's efforts to cut defense spending]. McCain was the mastermind, with direct access to leadership in the Navy.

Carter vetoed one bill that included money for the carrier but eventually signed another that funded it. Others who witnessed McCain's maneuvering have given similar accounts, although the tale of his efforts to rescue the carrier funding clearly makes McCain uncomfortable. "[My role] has been grossly exaggerated over the years", he insists. "We just gave information to members of the Senate who asked for it."

Finding a Home

While McCain was dazzling his clients in the Senate, his future in the military was becoming increasingly cloudy. "He knew his career in the Navy was limited", Cohen says. Timberg recalls that many people assumed that McCain's ambition was to become the only third-generation four-star admiral in history. "It's hard to realize how rarified the rank of admiral is", he explains. "The vast majority of people don't even smell it. If you want to make that rank, you have to really dedicate yourself to it." McCain, he speculates, didn't do that. "I don't think becoming an admiral was ever a driving force in his life. He was born to the cloth but was not comfortable with it."

Hart says, "It became clear that he was not going to receive a star and not going to become an admiral. I think that was the deciding point for him to retire from the Navy.""By then McCain had formed a new goal",Lakeland says. "He very much liked the political life. He had gotten a big taste of it. And, contemporaneously, he realized his Navy career was coming to an end." McCain began telling friends he would like to run for office.

"He was always kind of a reluctant Navy officer", Timberg says. "My sense of John McCain was that he felt life had something really important in store for him, if only he could figure out what it was. Running for political office touched all the bases for him." Cohen says that McCain told him he wanted to run for a House seat. The question was, where would he go? He had been in the Navy and had moved from state to state as all military personnel do.

McCain considered running in Florida, where his wife and children lived. But his marriage was crumbling. He soon got divorced and married a beautiful young heiress from Arizona, Cindy Hensley. Cohen was his best man, and Hart was a groomsman. McCain decided to try his luck at running for Congress in Cindy's home state, even though he had never lived there. "What he did",Timberg marvels, "was pretty much impossible. He was a carpetbagger. But he moved around in the military all his life. When he said, 'The longest I have lived anywhere is Hanoi'; that was a killer response. No one could challenge it."

Cohen set up a meeting between McCain and a Washington political consultant, Jay Smith, early in 1981. McCain told Smith he wanted to run for Congress the next year. "John was a perpetual optimist", Cohen says, laughing. But McCain was deadly serious. In March of that year, he retired from the Navy as a Captain and left the liaison office. Tower held a big party for him in one of the Senate's most ornate chambers, the Russell Caucus Room. Few thought that McCain would return to those marble halls 22 months later as a member of Congress.

There was no open House seat in the Phoenix area. But, by Timberg's account, McCain began running a stealth campaign, meeting Republicans and giving speeches throughout the state. Suddenly, House Minority Leader John Rhodes announced his retirement from the 1st District near Phoenix. McCain captured that district in 1982 and, four years later, won the Senate seat of the retiring Barry Goldwater, whom he had gotten to know when he was the Navy's liaison.

McCain, who now leads Republicans on the Armed Services Committee, says that Tower and Jackson showed him the way. "What I learned from them was: Be smart on the issues. Know it better than anybody else. Really inform yourself. Understand the personalities. Understand that national security issues are very complex at times." For McCain, it always comes back to national security. National security issues are not the most rewarding politically, yet Jackson and Tower devoted their lives to national security issues.

When McCain left the Navy liaison office, he encouraged Jones to take his place. Jones describes his own five years in that job as transformational. He subsequently moved up the ranks of the Marine Corps to become commandant, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then supreme allied commander in Europe. In the liaison job, he says,"McCain was one of a kind. There was always him, and then there were the rest of us." Jones was not surprised to see McCain turn the position into a political gold mine. "There was no doubt when he left that he would play on the national stage again."

Blue band divider with stars

/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr.


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