My first experience with Senator John McCain was about 12 years ago, when Yeshiva University asked me to request his attendance at its annual dinner as a keynote speaker.
I had met Senator McCain in the past at events promoting U.S.-Israel relations, but I had few personal ties to him or his office. I knew that he was interested in running again for president, as did YU, and that it would be very good publicity for the school and his campaign if he could fit the date into his schedule. Senator McCain, however, because of his fame and the upcoming presidential election, was in great demand. After speaking with some of my contacts around the country who were close with the senator, he did agree to come, and there was much favorable publicity both for the school, which had a successful dinner, and for Senator McCain’s campaign for the Republican nomination for president.
Soon after the dinner I was invited to become a member of Senator McCain’s finance committee for his presidential run. Although most of my political advocacy work was for members of Congress, working for this presidential candidate was compelling. His life story and the way he conducted himself were personally inspiring. Early in the primary process many of my friends worked on the candidacy of then-Democratic primary candidate Hillary Clinton. She also was well known and respected in the community, and also received much support from Jewish citizen advocates.
I was invited to travel with Senator McCain when he was campaigning for the primary in New Hampshire. About 10 of us would ride on the bus named the “Straight Talk Express,” including Cindy and Megan McCain, the senator, and some campaign staff. I was immensely impressed at the ability of the senator, then in his late 60s, to answer multifaceted questions he got from the audiences he addressed. Having gone through medical school with the help of a good memory, it was astounding to me to realize how much trouble I would have had following complicated questions. But even though he was 15 years my senior, Senator McCain easily fielded them. I was also impressed that he was willing and proud to have a Jew wearing a kippah accompany him around New Hampshire in a tight election campaign.
One of my most memorable moments in the 22 years I have been working in citizen political advocacy was when John, Cindy, and Megan McCain joined a couple of us having dinner together at a local restaurant on the campaign trail. It was the evening of the Iowa primary, and Senator McCain’s main competition was Mitt Romney. Senator McCain told us he personally had no shot at winning Iowa, since he was against subsidies for using corn to make ethanol for the gas tank. When the news came in that Huckabee won Iowa, the senator confidently smiled at the table and told us he felt he would win the nomination. With Romney’s loss in Iowa, the senator said, he would win both New Hampshire and South Carolina, and that historically, the candidate who won two out of the first three state primaries would succeed in becoming the party nominee.
At that point, young Megan McCain expressed a very strong (and loud) opinion at the dinner table about who her father should not pick for the VP candidate. I will leave the name out for discretion, but the entire table fell silent, including the senator. It was a good lesson for me that even someone who could face five years of POW captivity and torture and fly jets into combat had something in common with a short Jewish doctor from New Jersey.
We were both afraid of our daughters.
I had thought that Senator McCain would win the presidency until the economy tanked shortly before the election. In my typical child-of-survivors paranoia until this day , I have felt that the timing and severity of the financial crisis were manipulated to favor the Democratic candidate, who would be much more disinclined toward a strong military and foreign policy. So respected was Senator McCain by our foreign adversaries that the Russian invasion of Georgia essentially was halted by his criticism and by his expressing American support for the people of Georgia in his statement “Today we are all Georgians.”
It was a lost opportunity to have a most extraordinary person at the helm of our country. The enthusiasm for electing the first African-American president was great, however, as was American fatigue, especially with the economic downturn, with continuing Republican leadership in the White House. Fortunately for our country, Senator McCain continued his work in the Senate, as perhaps the second-most influential politician in the nation after the president, for the last 10 years of his Senate tenure.
Our country is stronger, safer, and better respected because of Senator McCain’s leadership. His conduct in putting his nation before self and politics truly exhibited his motto, “Country first.” He has served as an inspiration to his colleagues and to our entire nation.
He will be missed.
Dr. Ben Chouake, M.D., of Englewood is the national president of Norpac, the largest pro- Israel political action committee in the United States. He runs a medical practice in Cliffside Park and is a board member of several Jewish organizations on the local and national level.