In the mid 90’s, when I was there, Admiral Chuck Larson was the Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy—the Navy’s version of a university president. He was a full blown four-star Admiral in a role normally reserved for two-stars. The Academy had hit a few rough patches in the years leading up to my time. There was a cheating scandal and a few other ugly incidents. So the brass brought back one of their most distinguished graduates to steady the ship.
It was Larson’s second go as “Supe”. He’d just completed a tour as the Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces in the Pacific. CINPAC, as it’s called, was and still is the most coveted operational role a Naval Officer could have. Larson was an institution. His mantra of “excellence without arrogance” is the constructive failure of my life. Simply saying the words reminds me of how far I have to go on both accounts and makes me want to be better.
One afternoon, the Supe came strolling up to our “deck” in our dorm where all 4,000 of us were jammed into a 150-year old granite 17th century French architecture styled monster called Bancroft Hall. He wanted to see his old room. Which, as fate would have it, was my room. At least that’s how I remember it. There’s a running debate twenty years later among the 19th company faithful as to who’s room it really was. It’s a story worth arguing about because Larson had one other distinguished role that won’t show up on his service record, though any of us who went there know it may have been his best.
He was John McCain’s roommate.
In 1995, my Freshman year, Robert Timberg published the book A Nightengale’s Song. It was a chronicle of the lives of five Annapolis graduates, John Poindexter, Bob McFarland, Oliver North, Jim Webb and McCain. It wove a narrative of their experience at Annapolis, their time in Vietnam and their lives in government. It was unofficial mandatory reading for us. It was the type of book that one day, someone will write about my class, our time in this war, and the lives after we are all about to start.
“They are secret sharers, men whose experiences at Annapolis and during the Vietnam War and its aftermath illuminate a generation, or a portion of a generation – those who went. They shared a seemingly unassailable certainty. They believed in America.”
The coming of age. And the tragedy of war. The consistent story of man.
There’s something about the specificity of a likeness in someone distinguished that went before you that draws you to them. A place like Annapolis is sharp with detail and consistency. We wore the same uniforms. We went to the same classes. We lived in the same building—the same room.
We put up with the same crap. We felt the same cycle of emotional torment, boredom and longing. And so, we became each other, whether we wanted to or not.
That was the point of that place.
McCain and I were more alike than most. At least that’s the narrative I told myself. We were both screw-ups at Annapolis, finishing near the bottom of our classes. We’d both gotten in because of our fathers. I told myself that John McCain probably felt just like me. That he didn’t deserve to be where he was. Or that he didn’t belong because he was lousy at following the rules. Or even remembering them. But when people told him time and time again that he wasn’t fit to serve, or lead men, it fueled a fire in him that probably still burns today.
It was one thing if he told himself those things. But fuck you if you did.
If you Google John McCain now you’ll find a nearly endless list blog posts and articles criticizing or downplaying his service. There’s truth to many of them. Less to others. We live in a time where there are endless platforms for critics to call out the worst in those they choose to target. And nearly no friction at all to stop anything that will draw eyeballs. That’s the way it is. Perhaps how it always has been.
A fair shake of it will tell you that serving as a pilot in Vietnam, spending five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi and coming back with enough of your wits about you continue on in a life of service is success. A success far greater and meaningful than most that have exercised their right to criticize.
Which is really what John McCain is about for me.
He gave me a story to tell myself. Not just me. But generations of “screw-ups” that dared to take on a place like Annapolis, despite the lifetime of people telling us we couldn’t or shouldn’t. Screw-up is the name for people who can’t follow the rules and fail. Maverick is the one they give you when you succeed. There was enough shared space and mind between John McCain and I to give me reason to believe in myself at a time when perhaps that was the only thing standing between one life and another.
Last week Senator McCain was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He’s 80. And though I don’t really know what any of that means, I thought it was a fair time to say thanks. Not just for me, but for the generations who might have quit, or maybe never even tried had we not seen the road we had ahead lit by someone like us who walked it. Like my roommate, a screw-up, not fit to lead. He’s a decorated combat pilot now. And the commanding officer of a squadron. He sent me a video a few weeks back of him speaking to his command, as the old man, spot promoting some Sailors.
It made me so damn proud I bawled like a baby.
There’s a name for the people in this world who give us reason to believe things about ourselves, that without the evidence of example, we never would have believed.
John McCain is one of them.