At the moment I heard of John McCain's, z'l, decision to reject further medical care to treat the glioblastoma with which he had been stricken, I was reminded of a time long ago when I met John McCain under the most unusual circumstances.
In my second year of service as the United Jewish Appeal National Campaign Chair, I had been in Washington, D.C. to solicit some of the leaders there. The night before my scheduled departure for a meeting with Leslie Wexner in Columbus, Ohio, the forecast of an imminent hurricane strike was accelerated. I was on a 6 a.m flight out of Reagan (I'm not even sure it was "Reagan International" then) and I remember the darkness and the howling winds as I boarded the plane at 5:15 a.m. to the voice of the Captain announcing "we are closing the doors now and taking off immediately or we won't be getting our of here at all."
As I sat down, I noticed that our flight, to Columbus and then on to Phoenix, was almost totally empty: me, two other passengers, the flight attendants and, then, the door opened and Senator John McCain entered -- relatively short, erect, he looked around, nodded hello to us and sat down a few rows in front of me. We took off literally just ahead of the storm.
As the Northwest Airlines plane reached attitude and the seatbelt sign flashed off. I walked up to McCain's seat -- "I just wanted to thank you for your service to our country," I said. "Sit down here," he replied. He asked me what I was about and I told him briefly of our work for the Jewish People and Israel. He, then regaled me for the next hour, with stories of his trips to "the Holy Land," his love for the People of Israel and, especially, the Israel Air Force, whose fliers he admired for their courage and love of country. We spoke of places that we had both visited in Israel and the hopes for peace -- that was, remember, 23 years ago.
As the plane landed in Columbus, we exchanged business cards and he asked me to call him if there was ever an issue that I wanted to discuss. And, I did call Senator McCain from time-to-time over the decades since; trying not to test his patience. I will never forget one call -- during the 2008 Presidential Campaign. When I got through to the Senator, his first words: "I'll bet you're voting for Obama, arencha?!" I fudged my answer, something about Chicago, my Senator, yada, yada, yada. Senator McCain just laughed at my discomfort. Then I told him that I was calling because "at your rally yesterday, when a woman confronted you with the claim that 'Obama is an Arab,' you responded as the patriot you are, and I just wanted to thank you." Now, I could tell I had made the Senator uncomfortable even as he thanked me for calling.
Since that memorable election, where the choice was between two heroes, one military, the other as a voice of hope (that eventually fell short), I have watched as John McCain became the Lion of the Senate, as he was demeaned by Donald Trump and as the Senator stood tall as the conscience of a Senate so lacking in one other than he. We hadn't spoken in a while when I learned with all of us of John McCain being struck with the brain cancer that would eventually take his life after a brave battle. I sent the Senator a note of concern and support, telling him that I would never forget his grace and generosity, talking with a stranger on a plane about Israel. I finished: "Let me close with the same words I greeted you with when we first met: thank you for your service to our Country." I received a very brief, hand-scrawled note of just "thanks" in return.
John McCain lived the mantra he so often repeated: "Serve a cause greater than yourself." He did.
And, now John McCain, patriot, warrior, statesman has died. In the toxic environment of today's politics, he will not be replaced. Condolences to his family, may his memory be for a blessing. John McCain's heroism in life and in death -- remarkable -- "thank you for your service to our Country" to the end.