Ed Lewis is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet, but at 6-foot-4 it’s fair to call the veteran Times Leader reporter imposing.
As the Facebook tributes to Sen. John McCain began to pour in following the announcement of his death Saturday night, Ed’s brief post stood out.
More than 20 years ago, when Lewis was an intern on Capitol Hill, he happened to meet McCain on the elevator in the Russell Senate Office Building.
“He asked if I played sports, where I was from and what college I graduated from,” Lewis wrote. “As he got off, we shook hands, and he said, ‘don’t break my hand, big guy.’”
I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.
McCain stood 5-feet-9 inches tall. It was amusing to think of him standing there looking up at a younger version of our colleague, as most of us in the newsroom do daily.
But it also was a poignant reminder of McCain’s humanity.
In his service to this country, McCain endured torture beyond what most of us civilians can ever comprehend, and carried the physical scars of his injuries and imprisonment in North Vietnam until the end of his days.
That included an obvious inability to raise his arms above his head, so McCain was perhaps only half joking in his parting shot to Lewis.
With the distance of years, the retired Naval aviator also was able to look back on his horrific five-and-a-half-year captivity with grace and a bit of humor, returning to Vietnam several times.
“There is no reason for me to hold a grudge or anger,” McCain told C-SPAN in a 1992 interview.
“There’s certainly some individual guards who were very cruel and inflicted a lot of pain on me and others but there’s certainly no sense in me hating the Vietnamese,” McCain added, pointing out that his captors were “less than friendly on my arrival, and understandingly so — we just finished bombing their city.”
“The Vietnamese people are very basically gentle, decent people,” he added.
On the shore of the lake in Hanoi where McCain parachuted out of his damaged bomber, there stands a monument to the man, erected by the Vietnamese. He first saw it on his return visit to the Southeast Asian nation in 1985.
“Why they erected it and the significance it has to them, I have never quite figured out,” McCain told C-SPAN with a chuckle.
On Sunday, in the wake of McCain’s death, Hanoi residents held a memorial at that monument, leaving flowers and other tributes.
How striking it is, then, that Monday morning saw the U.S. Flag flying at full-staff over the White House in Washington, less than 48 hours after the senator died.
As you likely know by now, there was much criticism of President Donald Trump for not initially issuing a proclamation ordering the flag remain at half-staff through the day of interment, which is set for Sunday.
In keeping with U.S. Flag Code, however, the White House simply raised the flag back up early Monday after it had been lowered on Saturday and Sunday, raising the ire of many Americans, including veterans groups.
During President Barack Obama’s administration, proclamations were issued not only for deceased senators, but for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016.
Many governors across the nation, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, ordered the lowering of the U.S. and state flags on state government buildings in memory of McCain.
Finally, at mid-afternoon Monday — after photos and TV footage circulated of that flag at the top of the pole amid growing outrage — was a presidential proclamation announced.
Throughout much of the day, Trump also ignored media questions asking for his views on McCain and the late Arizona senator’s legacy.
Only later Monday, during a dinner with evangelical leaders, did Trump speak out: “Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country,” he said.
But Trump’s point had been made in the hours of defiant silence that came before.
It’s no secret that Trump had a long-running feud with McCain, and the feeling was mutual. The difference is in how the two men behaved.
Trump, once a wealthy young man who avoided service in Vietnam through multiple deferments, grew into an even wealthier old man who said McCain was not a war hero, infamously adding: “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Political rivalries are nothing new, and John McCain had more than his share. He also carried himself with dignity and civility toward friend and foe alike.
It speaks volumes that two men who kept McCain from reaching the White House himself — Obama and President George W. Bush — have been asked to speak at the senator’s funeral.
Trump, as was clear before McCain even died, would not be welcome.
In a farewell message read Monday by his former campaign manager, Rick Davis, McCain left the nation with a veiled critique of the president, and a clarion call to the better angels of our nature.
“We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement,” McCain wrote.
John Sidney McCain III was a flawed human being and a politician. McCain made mistakes and owned up to his failures. That is the measure of a man.
His policy positions will be debated in the history books for years to come.
His heroism shouldn’t be.