John McCain on Character and Heroism

The Arizona senator and former POW tells us about some of the people he admires.

In addition to representing his Arizona constituents on the Senate floor-and pressing Congress to pass an anti-torture bill-John McCain writes best-selling books. In his newest one, "Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember," McCain profiles 34 people whose lives embody essential traits of good character, such as honesty, citizenship, faith, and loyalty. His heroes and heroines range from historical figures like Sir Thomas More and Charles Darwin (the latter exemplifies curiosity) to Pat Tillman, the NFL player who enlisted in the Army and was killed in Afghanistan, to a kind prison guard at the North Vietnamese prison where he was a POW for more than five years. He recently spoke to Beliefnet about God, heroism, torture, intelligent design--and why he'd like to dine with Leonardo da Vinci.

You say you don't believe in destiny but that you believe in character. What do you mean by that?

John McCain recites the 23rd Psalm

In other words, I don't think that our life is immutable. We have control and influence over our destiny and that, to a large degree, is determined by our character-the qualities that people are endowed with, or acquire, that form their character. The book is basically about the qualities that form character. We use stories and different people to illustrate those characteristics.

You're obviously talking about many different traits in the book. Which trait do you feel is most important?

I think the most important trait is to stick to your ideals. Don't ever waver from them. All the rest is fairly easy after that.

Do you feel that we all have the potential to become people of good character?

We all have the potential. It all depends on the choices we make. I believe the influences that young people receive today sometimes are not always the best.

The subtitle of your book gave me the impression that maybe you felt young people today don't know who true heroes are.

John McCain on talking to God
I think sometimes they don't. I'm sure that a hundred years ago, two people were talking like we are, lamenting the things that young people are exposed to. But they really are subjected to a lot of influences and they have different role models. This book is intended to remind adults of these characteristics and how important they are, but also to instruct young people.

Almost all of the people you list as your heroes are dead. Why is this?

John McCain on intelligent design
[laughs] That's a good point. I hadn't thought about that very much. I guess because we go back throughout history. Let's see [who is still alive]- Romeo Dallaire, Mother Antonia, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi-but you're right, the minority of them are alive. Maybe it's because we're reaching all the way back to people like Sir Thomas More.

Which Americans today do you find as exemplifying good character whom you didn't include in the book?

I think there are many. Off the top of my head-Rudy Giuliani is one, and all those police and firepeople-first responders-who reacted so bravely during and after 9/11.

Why would you say Rudy Giuliani has good character?

Because in a time of terrible crisis he displayed the leadership and inspirational qualities that provided comfort and encouragement, not only the people of New York, but to the people of this country.

[Other exemplary Americans include:] my friend Max Cleland who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War and still continues to contribute. Bob Kerrey, who was a governor, a senator, and now president of a college in New York [The New School University]. A big guy by the name of General Jack Vessey who is still alive who fought in four wars and was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A guy who I have really gotten to admire because of his character and accomplishments is [former hockey star] Wayne Gretzky. [He's a] modest man from humble beginnings who attains fame and fortune. He has a wonderful family and is now coaching the Phoenix Coyotes. He's a great role model, but maybe that has to do with the fact I was a mediocre high school athlete and admire athletes so much.

He recently passed away, but I thought Pope John Paul II was an inspirational leader because of his role in the downfall of the Soviet Union. I'm sure I could think of many more.

Which politicians in Washington do you feel exhibit good character?

[Connecticut senator] Joe Lieberman, [New Hampshire senator] John Sinunu, [Arkansas senator] Mark Pryor, [South Carolina senator] Lindsey Graham. Most of the men and women I serve with are of good character.

What about President Bush?

Oh yeah. I think he's a very fine man, a very decent man.

What do you feel is his most inspiring characteristic?

Probably his core beliefs and convictions, which are unshakable.

In the chapter on your experience as a POW in Vietnam, you say that you needed two things in order to survive-hate and faith. How were you able to balance this as a Christian?

I think that it's important to maintaining your strength to dislike people that are doing bad things, not only to you, but to your comrades. And that gives you a certain amount of strength. And at the same time, I think afterward you can love your enemy.

When you lose your dignity, you become less human...
Read more >>


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