A life of perseverance. A life well lived.
by J. Charles 'Chuck' Coughlin | August 26, 2018
Hon. John S. McCain
By: J. Charles Coughlin
My father was born in Boston and attended Dartmouth and Michigan law after World War II. He was a corporate labor lawyer in Detroit, Michigan from the late 1950’s until his retirement in the late 1990’s. Our nightly dinner table conversation would fairly regularly focus on some contract negotiation with one of his many clients. I was blessed at a very young boy to be able to see my father argue a First Amendment case in the United States Supreme Court. It was one of the first freedom of religion cases argued after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 – Dewey vs Reynolds metals.
My mother was a fifth-generation family from Wastenaw County, Michigan. She taught English and coached the high school debate team at Chelsea High. Our family was raised in Ann Arbor where we were all taught how to argue and debate – we had opinions.
Because of that upbringing, I was aware at an early age that people and events outside of my direct presence were shaping my daily life and the world I lived in. It was this soil of my early life that led me to numerous internships with the American Enterprise Institute and the National Republican Congressional Committee and eventually to Cleveland, Ohio in 1984, where I found myself in the wake of then-Congressman John McCain.
I have seen and witnessed many examples of public service, but to me John McCain was the “human” embodiment of a selfless public servant. True, I said “human,” he – as we all do – has had many public failures. The difference between him and nearly everyone else was his will to persevere; to fight on. His will, his faith, his humility, his strength to just keep going is a large part of what fuels my very spirit today.
I saw that spirt and experienced that will for the first time in 1984 – as a 22-year-old, in Cleveland, Ohio on my first Congressional campaign. I was the fundraiser for a Republican candidate for Congress in Cuyahoga County – the suburbs that surround Cleveland, Ohio. People in Cleveland literally laughed at the idea that I was working for a Republican in Cuyahoga County. Republicans did not win there.
John flew out to support our candidate. I had never heard of him. I was reading the literature we had received on him. He was the crown prince POW, son of two Admirals. But again, I had never met him.
I remember picking him up, he was 54 years old then, two years younger than I am today. His demeanor was brusque, short and direct. I was intimidated.
I drove him to a VFW hall in Cleveland. We entered the hall which was filled World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam veterans – all men, much older than me. Everyone’s last name seemed to end in a vowel. It was a tough room.
I did not know what to expect, but I must have sensed then, and what I know today, this man was a man who was shaping our history and my role in it. McCain took the stage and this is how I recall it…
He greeted everyone and the crowd began to quiet. He asked, “Do we have any Marines in the room?” The question was followed with a chorus of “Oorah!”
He looked out at this crowd and said, “I think of you Marines often, particularly on Father’s Day. And I pray for you because I know many of you never got to meet your father.”
Silence….. A long pause. I thought, “Holy cow they are going to kill him!” And, then…. He chuckled at his own joke, and with that the whole room exploded in laughter. I could breathe again. He went on to tell the story of one of his fellow prisoners in North Vietnam. Here is how I recall the story:
One of the men who moved into my (POW) room was a young man named Mike Christian. Mike got himself a bamboo needle. Over a period of a couple months, he created an American Flag and sewed it on the inside of his shirt.
Every afternoon before he had a bowl of soup, we would hang Mike’s shirt on the wall of the cell and say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Now, I know the Pledge of Allegiance may not seem the most important part of our day today, but I can assure you that in that stark cell it was indeed the most important and meaningful event.
One day, the Vietnamese searched our cell, as they did periodically, and discovered Mike’s shirt with the flag sewn inside, and removed it.
That evening they returned, opened the door of the cell, and for the benefit of all of us, beat Mike Christian severely the next couple of hours. Then, they opened the door of the cell and threw him in. We cleaned him up as well as we could.
As I said, we tried to clean up Mike as well as we could. After the excitement died down, I looked in the corner of the room, and sitting there beneath that dim light bulb with a piece of red cloth, another shirt and his bamboo needle, was my friend Mike Christian. He was sitting there with his eyes almost shut from the beating he had received, making another American flag. He was not making the flag because it made him feel better. He was making that flag because he knew how important it was for us to be able to Pledge our Allegiance to our flag and our country.
So the next time you say the Pledge of Allegiance, you must never forget the sacrifice and courage that thousands of Americans have made to build our nation and promote freedom around the world. You must remember our duty, our honor, and our country.
After the remarks, I knew then what I know even more so today.
I had met a real leader – a real political leader. John McCain set the bar. I was the first person hired on his first Senate campaign in 1986. I moved my life to Arizona in the fall of 1985 knowing one person in the state. The Senator has said on more than one occasion that bringing me to Arizona was the worst mistake of his career.
Because of John McCain, I have been able to lead a life I dreamed about as a kid growing up in Ann Arbor and interning in our nation’s capital.
After the 1986 campaign, Grant Wood’s dad, Joe, helped me get a job at the Mesa Chamber of Commerce. A year later, I was working for Bob Robb, the Republic columnist (one of my mentors), who had a firm similar to HighGround. Bob was Grant’s college roommate and both of them have remained a big part of my life.
I was blessed to be able to work for Grant when he was elected Attorney General, run Governor Symington’s re-election campaign in 1994 and go on to be his Deputy Chief of Staff. While working for him, I really got to know Jan Brewer. In time, I ended up running all of her campaigns and serve as her transition committee chairman when she became Governor at our state’s darkest hour in 2009.
Over the years, I have messaged, managed, and executed hundreds of campaigns in Arizona. Martin Luther King Holiday. Growing Smarter – Arizona Conservation Plan. The half-cent sales tax extension for transportation in Maricopa County including freeway, streets, and transit. Prop 100, the emergency, temporary one cent sales tax increase to balance the state budget in 2010. The creation of the Maricopa County Special Healthcare District and a bond campaign to fund our state’s only public hospital. The restoration and expansion of Arizona’s Medicaid population in 2013. Hundreds of county and local candidate and ballot measures throughout all of Arizona.
I have been blessed to work with and meet hundreds of talented and articulate Arizonans who have made our state better because of their professionalism and commitment to public service. And I am deeply grateful that John gave me an opportunity to meet and work with so many extraordinary people.
But before I sign off on this blog, I want to leave you with my own take away from the life of John McCain: A life lived well is necessarily a life of perseverance. John McCain is the personification of perseverance. John got knocked down many times in his life, but he always got back up to fight again.
To prepare for this post and to better understand the lens that John McCain saw his role in the world, I went and read his favorite novel: For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. It is the story of a noble American guerrilla fighter Robert Jordan fighting for the Spanish people during their civil war against the fascist regime in 1930’s Spain.
Jordan maintains his faith in the people and his faith in the cause despite the betrayal of his friends, the self-serving bureaucracy of the revolutionary movement, the extreme selfishness of his colleagues and the overwhelming odds that were stacked against him. The title of the book is taken from a poem written by John Dunne:
“No man is an island, unto if its self; every man is a piece of the continent, part of the Maine; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is less, as well as if a promontories were, as well as if a mannor of thy friends or thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
When he took what was likely his last vote in Congress to oppose the repeal of the American Health Care Act, John McCain voted his conscience. He knew there was no replacement plan and the repeal would leave many, many people twisting in the wind.
The bell was tolling for all of us.
So as we celebrate the life of John McCain, I think it appropriate to contemplate our own call to duty. Be strong, stay open forever. So open that it hurts and then open up some more. Stay in relationship and not on Facebook. Act and live a life of faith. Be joyful, and be a deep, deep source of love and empathy to those around you – friend & enemy alike.
Question your judgements with a smile of humility, knowing you are often wrong – but persevere.
Smile because you are an American and because you have been blessed to live in the greatest country on Earth and your life has been made possible by many, many people that came and sacrificed before you.
Nobody’s got it better than us. Show gratitude every day.
Thank you John McCain for your service to our state, to our country and to mankind. Thank you for giving me the opportunity you did. I have been able to live an abundantly rich life because you gave me an opportunity. Thank you.
God speed my friend, our senator, and our leader. You will live on in our hearts. Let our service reflect his commitment and perseverance.