Patrick J. Durkin Lessons from John McCain
The passing of John McCain feels like the loss of not just a national leader but also a valued friend, personally and to a nation. His life and the services last week are beyond any one political office or title. They are about a person who impacted many lives and the course of history. That’s a tribute to his lifelong ability to keep his internal compass pointed true north.
I had the good fortune to work for Senator McCain during the 2008 general election, and to spend time with him afterward. I learned a few lessons from him that left lasting personal impressions on me — and that help explain why he left indelible marks on people throughout the world.
He was on a first-name basis with almost every U.S. and world leader. And he spoke to them the same way he spoke to every person he met, no matter where they came from and what rank, title or bank account they carried. Senator McCain treated people equally. When you talked to John he not only appeared to be listening, he actually was listening, which can be a rare trait among those in the spotlight. If someone asked him a serious question, he’d look straight at them and give a serious response. But he could also deploy a wonderful sense of humor, often at his own expense, to lighten the mood and draw everyone closer. And while he was as tough as nails, he was also kind, particularly with people who deserved it. I learned that the behaviors of being a great person also makes for being a great politician and leader.
Senator McCain taught me a lot about loyalty — and particularly political loyalty, which can be as fleeting as the seasons. He benefited from intense loyalty from his friends and staff because he earned it, and he shared his loyalty with those who also earned it. I had been involved in several presidential and state races before the 2008 race, and a couple were like internecine campaigns, with the most important topic being what job and office you were angling for. In McCain’s world there was virtually none of that. Most people enlisted with Senator McCain in 2008 because they respected and loved him, and wanted to do everything they could to help him win. Loyalty kept his team bound together, particularly when the times got tough.
Senator McCain also cared deeply about young people and the next generation of leaders. A few years ago, I joined my son’s sixth-grade class during their annual trip to Washington. Senator McCain agreed to meet with the students, and like so many other times throughout his life, he went well beyond the call of duty. He took the boys to the Armed Services Committee room, where they got to sit in the chairs of the senators. Senator McCain then told them how at their age he had read a book, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” that sealed in his mind the decision that his life would be about protecting and serving our country.
He then turned to the boys and said, “Let’s turn this into a hearing. Ask me any question you want.” The boys had prepared for this and asked one tough foreign policy question after another — all of which Senator McCain answered seriously. He finished by telling them, “Your questions were better than what most adults ask me, including some of my colleagues. If this inspires even just one of you to enter public service, this has been a great hour spent.” The meeting and message hit the boys like a bolt of lightning. Most said it was the first time they had been treated like real adults.
Thank you, John McCain, for setting the expectation that we should all act like adults and do better. Thank you for reminding us that we are all measured not just by our public actions, but also the private ones. And thank you for being the embodiment of those sometimes forgotten words of Horace Greeley: “Only one thing endures and that is character.”
Patrick J. Durkin was policy director for John McCain in the 2008 general election. He served in the Reagan and Bush administration and their campaigns. He now works for Atlas Merchant Capital in New York. He is a lifelong resident of Greenwich.