In these days of widespread disrespect for politicians, I thought I would look back to my two personal encounters with John McCain, who died on Saturday from cancer at the age of 81.
If you have ever been to Washington, D.C. in the summer, you will remember one thing—the humidity. Some say the District is unbearably humid in the summer because it was built on a swamp. But, D.C. historian Don Hawkins says that only about 2 percent of the land in Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for the capital city would meet the definition of a swamp. And the weather experts would tell you, even if the city was built on a swamp, that wouldn’t necessarily affect our weather hundreds of years later.
According to the Washington Post, the city’s humidity “stems from the direction of its prevailing winds, which come from the south. This airflow draws waterlogged air northward from both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean — sometimes right up the Potomac, funneling in even more moisture. It’s not the land the District was built on that’s the problem; rather, it’s the air streaming toward it.” OK, now we know.
And there I was, in Washington, D.C., on a humid and hot day early in July 1996 when I ran into Senator McCain on the steps of the Longworth House Office Building. I had come down earlier that morning to join my lawyer Steven Perles as we lobbied for the passage of legislation that would clarify and fortify the provisions of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 as it pertained to the murder of Americans, such as my daughter Alisa, in overseas terror attacks.
When I climbed down from the train that morning, the first thing I noticed was that the air literally felt heavy. As I met Steve in the rotunda of Union Station I asked, “what’s with this weather?” He laughed and said, “welcome to Washington, D.C., get used to it.”
Over coffee we mapped out the day’s plan—all subject to change on a moment’s notice—of which House and Senate offices we’d visit to gather support for our legislation. Mind you, we had a few actual appointments, but we were also following the time-tested method of dropping in at an office, introducing ourselves to the receptionist and ask to see the senator’s or congressman’s staffer in charge of foreign policy. When they’d ask us what we wanted to discuss, Perles would push the magic button by pointing at me and say “this is Steve Flatow. His daughter was murdered in a terror attack, and we’d like to talk about getting justice.”
That did the trick; “please take a seat, so and so will be with you in a few minutes.”
When the staffer arrived, Perles would introduce them to the technicalities of the law and explain what we were trying to accomplish through the legislation we were now advancing. These meetings could take anywhere from 10 minutes in offices where they already knew about the legislation or 45 minutes as Steve took them step by step through the Anti-terrorism Act and the necessary amendments. When the meetings ended, we were hoping to hear, “this is great, my boss will be on board.”
It was early afternoon when Perles and I walked hrough the doors out of the Longworth House Office Building after a series of meetings with House staffers. Looking down the steps we both caught a glimpse of a stocky man bounding up them. It was John McCain.
McCain was not on our list of people to see that day since he was already sponsoring a bill dealing with crimes against Americans in foreign countries, but no longer being shy in Washington or around politicians, I sort of blocked his way, stuck out my hand and said, “Senator, got a minute to talk with me about my daughter who was murdered in a bus bombing?”
He grabbed my hand and said, “sure do.”
Moving into the shade, not that it provided any relief, we talked for a few minutes about Alisa and the other American victims of terrorism. He assured me that we had his support. He was already involved in legislation dealing with American victims of overseas terror and had offered a good amendment to a bill pending in the House of Representatives that would require the State Department to report on those foreign countries which did not cooperate with American investigations into terror attacks. I told him it was a needed piece of legislation because the FBI and we had been stonewalled by the Palestinians when it came to getting information about Alisa’s murderers.
My day ended, and I made my way back to Union Station, so I could catch my train home. I took off my jacket in the waiting room only to find that the back of the jacket was damp, and my shirt was soaked. It was good to finally get on an air-conditioned train.
Later that night, I took a few minutes to write Senator McCain to thank him for his work. I was already learning that please and thank you go a long way in politics, too.
Much to my surprise, 2 weeks later I received from McCain’s office a clipping from the Congressional Record mentioning our meeting and my letter as he continued to push the House Bill. You can see it here on page 2 of the Record.
Looking back after more than 20 years, aside for McCain being on the right side of the terror victim’s issue, what struck me was the man himself. Then about 60 years of age, he looked to be in great shape, at least better than I was. But when I had another meeting with him as he considered running for president in 2000, I noticed that his arms moved awkwardly. I went on to learn that he didn’t have full mobility of his shoulders because of the torture he had suffered while a POW during the Vietnam War. The man could not put on a shirt or a jacket without someone helping him get his arms into the sleeves and he masked the pain that movement brought him. Yet he didn’t wince or complain in front of me.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about those who come through a horrific ordeal. Victims tend to dwell in the past. They ask, “why did this happen to me, what did I do wrong?” He says, they are looking backwards.
Rabbi Sacks then says a survivor looks forward and sees himself “as a subject, a choosing moral agent, deciding which path to take from here to where I want eventually to be.” That’s what John McCain became in the years after Vietnam.
While we can disagree about some of McCain’s political stances, the one thing we cannot disagree on is that the man had the ability to look forward. To my way of thinking, that’s a lesson for all of us.
May his memory be for a blessing.