2016-06-30
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...
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  • John Kerry and I worked very hard for a full accounting of the POWs and MIAs [in Vietnam]. We worked hard for the normalization of relations because we felt it was very important to have a reconciliation between old enemies. And so, at the time, to hate your enemy who is doing very bad and cruel things, including killing your friends, is not totally inappropriate because it gives you a source of strength, particularly when you're combating evil.

    John McCain on intelligent design
    After the ordeal on the battlefield ends, you focus on reconciliation. [For example,] what the United States did after World War II, with our two great enemies, the Germans and the Japanese. We hated them at the time, but once the conflict was over, we did everything we could to help them.

    You also write that you "needed to believe in God to maintain through all of the horrors of war a sense of moral responsibility to struggle to remain a human being." Could you elaborate on this "struggle to remain human"?


    John McCain recites the 23rd Psalm
    When you are deprived of all of the luxuries, and even the basics of a normal life, if you aren't careful, your condition-mentally and physically-can deteriorate to something less than what you wanted to be. So maintaining human dignity is so important. That's why the chapter about [Holocaust survivor] Viktor Frankl is so important, where in Auschwitz, as he said in such eloquent fashion, "they can take everything away from you except the right to choose your own way." That, to me, is maintaining your dignity. Then no matter what happens to you, you've had a life, a record, that you could be proud of.

    So remaining human is, in part, based on how much dignity you've retained?

    Yes. You've got to retain your dignity and then you are capable of all of the other qualities-loyalty to your friends, loyalty to your country-but if you lose your dignity then...

    You become less human?

    You not only become less human, but you lose your allegiance to something greater than yourself.

    When you were a POW, what would you talk to God about?

    John McCain on talking to God
    I would pray for deliverance from prison every day. But I would pray that that deliverance would be an honorable deliverance only, in keeping with the best interests of my country.

    One time I was designated to be the room chaplain when we moved into a room of about 25 of 30 prisoners. We used to have...this was when the treatment improved rather dramatically.we would have church services. And I remember one time I gave a little talk, not a sermon, but a little talk about the parable of Christ, when he was asked should they pay taxes. And he held up a coin with the head of Caesar on the coin and he said, "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and render unto God that which is God's." Meaning that if you're doing Caesar's work then you shouldn't ask for God to help you out.

    I was doing my country's work when I flew into combat and so I felt that there's nothing wrong with asking for God's help. But remember that you shouldn't expect miracles and you should want that deliverance to be in the best interest of everybody, not just yourself.

    In your previous book, "Faith of My Fathers," you say that your mother was the daughter of an Episcopal minister and that she saw to your religious instruction. Your father seemed a lot more private about his faith. Who is your model for religious life now?

    I've sort of evolved in my religious faith. And I think probably because of my failings and mistakes in life I'm a much bigger believer in redemption. I really believe that redemption is a very important part of our religion. I'm much more of a believer in a loving God, a personal God. I'm much less inclined in every way to believe in a vengeful God.

    What is your favorite prayer?

    Probably the 23rd Psalm. (Listen to Sen. McCain recite the prayer.)

    In your book, you write about Pat Tillman. When he enlisted in the Army and gave up his NFL career, he was called a hero. When he died, he was an even bigger hero. Yet when word came out that he was killed by friendly fire, it seemed like his heroism was lessened to some. Do you feel he's any less of a hero because of the situation surrounding his death?

    I do not in any way feel that he's been diminished in the slightest. But, having said that of course, we're confused and unhappy that the army bungled the investigation so bad and it very tragically-but understandably-caused bitterness in his family. So all this controversy about the circumstances surrounding his death did not diminish his hero status, but it diverted a lot of attention from his true heroism.

    Last year Beliefnet editors chose Pat Tillman as Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of the year.

    Oh really! That's wonderful! I'm so glad you did that.

    One of our finalists this year is Capt. Ian Fishback, whom you obviously know well.

    Yes, indeed. He's a wonderful young man.

    Does he embody good character?

    Not only good character, but courage. The military is a bureaucracy, which does not lend itself to individual actions that are counter to what the bureaucracy thinks is best. So I admire him enormously. He had the courage to stand up and say what he thought was best for his country. He had his country's interest above his own ambitions.

    Do you think if you were in his place you would have done the same thing?

    I would hope so. But I can't tell you that I would have that kind of courage. I wish I could.

    Why Darwin is one of McCain's heroes...
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  • In your recent Newsweek piece on torture you say that abuse and interrogation can "only lead to faulty intelligence and undermining American values." Are there any situations where you would advocate torture?

    John McCain on talking to God
    It'd be a million to one. Physical torture doesn't work. If there were a case where somebody were caught with his finger on the trigger and he wanted to do something, then maybe that situation might warrant it. But it's so remote. You just cannot have a policy that allows for that kind of thing. Somehow the Israelis have an outright prohibition against torture. They don't do it under any circumstances. They face greater threats everyday than we do. So it's a straw man.

    Most of the people in the book that you profiled as heroes weren't extremely divisive--except for Darwin. When you were writing the book were you worried at all about the political ramifications of being a Republican Christian who considers Darwin a hero?

    John McCain recites the 23rd Psalm
    No. [The book] really is intended for young people. If I crossed over into political ambitions when Mark and I were writing stories like this, I think it would be dramatically diminished. People always say, "He's a politician and he wants to run for president." The presidential campaign is three years away. We wanted to write this book at the suggestion of Random House because I believe and Mark believes that young people could find these stories useful and adults might do well by refreshing their memories. I wasn't worried about any criticism about that.

    In an interview you did with the Arizona Daily Star, you said that you were a proponent of teaching intelligent design in schools. Do you find a contradiction there?

    What I said was not "teaching," I said, people should be exposed to all theories and ideas. Marxism, I reject, but I find it appropriate in college courses of certain kinds. Give people a broad perspective.

    John McCain on intelligent design
    When I stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon. I know that it was the hand of God...only God could have created that magnificence. But at the same time, I think that Darwin's theories are valid, and I think that natural selection and survival of the fittest are clearly scientifically based. But I also believe that in time before time, that there was a divine hand in creation.

    Frankly, I don't understand the controversy. I don't believe that the earth was created in seven days, and I know very few people who do. But I also believe that I don't know how you could have created some of the magnificent beauty that I have seen in this world without the hand of God.

    I think that evolution should be taught. I think it's absolutely the most valid and scientifically based and proven conclusion that we can draw. But I respect the fact that some people believe in intelligent design and they should have their views vented also. But in my own personal opinion, I don't think they're contradictory.

    So do you believe in both?

    Well, if you're saying that intelligent design is the earth created in seven days, then no. But I do believe that time before time there was a divine hand that brought this magnificent world and human beings into it.

    Of all the people you have profiled in the book, if you could sit down to dinner with one of them, who would it be?

    Obviously that's a very tough question, but one of them-and this may surprise you-would be Leonardo da Vinci.

    Why?

    He was just so incredibly diverse. He was a genius in so many things. He had drawings of submarines-of airplanes! [He created] the "Mona Lisa," the most admired work of art in the world [and] "The Last Supper." I'm a student of history-but I don't know as much about that time. I would be very interested. Almost everyone [in the book] I would be privileged to be around.

    My personal hero probably would be [Naval commander] Lord Nelson because of my Navy background. But maybe it's because I didn't know much about him when I first started looking into him and that I was fascinated by his multi-dimensions.

    I found Joan of Arc to be a fascinating historical figure. I would be really interested to have a time machine and go back and watch that one. But most any of them I'd be honored to be around.

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