John McCain on Character and Heroism
The Arizona senator and former POW tells us about some of the people he admires.
BY: Interview by Dena Ross
You say you don't believe in destiny but that you believe in character. What do you mean by that?
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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.
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Almost all of the people you list as your heroes are dead. Why is this?
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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...
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