John Berry: Thoughts on John McCain
28 Aug 2018|

‘John, I love Australians. They are freedom-loving, fierce and fun. They are so critically important for us. I fought with them in Vietnam. I have met them on battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are stronger when they are at our side—damn the odds. America could not have a better ally.’

The Gatling gun paused and then I could exhale.

You see, Senator McCain was my very first meeting on Capitol Hill in mid-2013 as I sought support for my Senate confirmation to become the US ambassador to Australia. I was terrified. His temper was legendary. As I was ushered into his personal office, he stopped his staff at the door: ‘Give me a minute alone with Mr Berry.’

I felt the bead of sweat trickle down my back, and somewhere between the door and the couch I held my breath. Before I was seated he launched into his rapid-fire rap for Australia and its people.

‘Now look’, he continued, ‘if anyone on my side of the aisle gives you trouble, you let me know and I will handle it. And when you get down there, if you ever need any backup, you call me. I care deeply about this relationship—don’t let anything ever screw it up.’

In these precious two minutes, this man turned fear into relief, and relief into the absolute confidence that you were entrusted and empowered and not alone. Even better, you had John Wayne and Lancelot rolled into one ready to cover your back. You knew you couldn’t fail. This is what a good leader does. And it is one small insight into a very great man that helps explain why he is an American hero.

When his aircraft was shot down in Vietnam, it burned away every vanity—and then years of solitary confinement and crippling torture forged this man of iron into the golden example of what true service to country means. It also steeled his resolve against tyrants and authoritarian regimes which he battled throughout his career fighting to secure the blessings of freedom for as many as possible around the world.

Here was an honest man. You always knew exactly where he stood—and he would be the first to admit he wasn’t always right. But he was humble enough to listen and change his mind and he knew that neither party has a lock on the truth. Answers are better when they are tested in the arena, and the Senator was willing to fight the opposition when they were wrong and work with them when they were right. His work and friendship with Senators Ted Kennedy, Joe Lieberman and Russ Feingold will long stand as shining examples of the power and wisdom of compromise and bipartisan patriotism.

In the 242-year history of our country, the honour of formally lying in state within the Great Rotunda, under the dome of the US Capitol, has been accorded on only 32 occasions. Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower among others—and now John McCain.

Not very much brings our country together these days. But whether from the left or the right, Democrat or Republican, every citizen knows how great was the service of this man, how profound his sacrifice for his nation, and how lucky we were to enjoy his loyal and passionate leadership.

As he rides off into the sunset as the Arizona cowboy he was, our country stops and sheds a tear of gratitude for a life well lived and an example set for all.