My first experience with Senator John McCain occurred about 12 years ago when I was asked by Yeshiva University to request that he serve as the keynote speaker at their annual dinner. I had met the senator in the past at events promoting US-Israel relations, but I had few personal ties to him or his office. I knew he was interested in running again for president, and that it would be very good publicity for both YU and his campaign if he could fit the date into his schedule. However, McCain, because of his fame and the upcoming election, was in great demand. After speaking with some of my contacts around the country who were close with the senator, he did agree to come and it generated much favorable publicity for both the school, which had a successful dinner, and for his upcoming campaign for the Republican nomination for president.
Soon after the dinner, I was invited to become a member of McCain’s finance committee for his presidential run. Although most of my political advocacy work had been for members of Congress, working for this presidential candidate was compelling. His life story and the way he conducted himself was personally inspiring. Early in the primary process, many of my friends worked on the candidacy of then-Democratic primary candidate Hillary Clinton. She was also well known and respected in the community and also received much support from Jewish citizen advocates.
I was invited to travel with Senator McCain when he was campaigning for the New Hampshire primary. About 10 of us, including Cindy and Megan McCain, the senator, and some campaign staff, would travel on the bus named the “Straight Talk Express.” I was immensely impressed at the ability of the senator, then in his late sixties, to answer multifaceted questions from the audiences. Although I had gone through medical school with the help of a good memory, it was astounding how much trouble I had following complicated questions that the senator, even though he was 15 years my senior, easily fielded. I was also impressed that he was willing and proud to have a Jew wearing a kippah accompany him around New Hampshire during a tight election campaign.
One of the most memorable moments in my 22 years working in citizen political advocacy was when the senator, Cindy, Megan, and a couple of us were having dinner together at a local restaurant on the campaign trail. It was the evening of the Iowa primary and the main competition for McCain was Mitt Romney. McCain told us he personally had no shot at winning Iowa since he was opposed to subsidies for using corn to make ethanol for gas. When the news came in that Huckabee had won Iowa, McCain smiled confidently and told us he felt he would win the nomination. With Romney’s loss in Iowa, the senator believed he would win both New Hampshire and South Carolina because, historically, the candidate that won two out of the first three state primaries would succeed in becoming the party nominee.
At that point, young Megan McCain expressed a very strong (and loud) opinion about whom her father should not pick for the vice presidential candidate. I will leave the name out for discretion, but the entire table fell silent, including the senator. It was a good lesson for me that even someone who could face five years of POW captivity and torture and fly jets into combat had something in common with a short Jewish doctor from New Jersey: we were both afraid of our daughters.
I thought Senator McCain would win the presidency until the economy tanked shortly before the election. In my child-of-survivors paranoia, I have until this day felt that the timing and severity of the financial crisis were manipulated to favor the Democratic candidate who would be much more disinclined toward a strong military and foreign policy. So respected was McCain by our foreign adversaries that the Russian invasion of Georgia was essentially halted by his criticism of the invasion and expression of American support for the people of Georgia in his statement, “Today we are all Georgians.”
It was a lost opportunity to have a most extraordinary person at the helm of our country. However, the enthusiasm for electing the first African-American president was great, as was the fatigue of America, especially with the economic downturn, for continuing Republican leadership in the White House.
Fortunately for our country, Senator McCain continued his work in the Senate as perhaps the second-most influential politician in the nation after the president for the last ten years of his Senate tenure.
Our country is stronger, safer, and better respected for Senator McCain’s leadership. His conduct in putting his nation before self and politics truly exhibited his motto, “Country First.” He has served as an inspiration to his colleagues and our entire nation. He will be missed.
Ben Chouake, M.D., is national president of NORPAC, a non-partisan political action committee whose primary purpose is to support political candidates and sitting members of the federal government who demonstrate a genuine commitment to Israel.