It’s not a chapter of John McCain’s life many people know about. He’d been released from a North Vietnamese prison, and he was lobbying Congress on behalf of the Navy, when he met a Democratic Senator from Colorado, Gary Hart. They became lifelong friends. Hart was a groomsman in McCain’s wedding to his wife Cindy. Hart says McCain personally asked him to be a pallbearer at his funeral. McCain died Saturday of brain cancer at age 81.
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"What struck me when I first got to know him, it was awkward. In the sense that you wanted to know what his prisoner of war experience was like, but you didn’t want to pry if it was very, very sensitive. And once or twice, he would bring up things that happened in the prison. Not the beating part. Or the suffering part. But just the kind of ridiculous things. He was very straightforward about it. It was remarkable to me. You’d think that if you had been in a foreign prison under dire conditions, that the first thing you’d want to do is forget about it, and not talk about it."
"He told a very humorous but heart-wrenching experience," Hart continued. "There was a young Vietnamese girl that came into the courtyard in the compound he was in every morning like clockwork. And using a kind of primitive broom, swept the dust in the courtyard. John was so lonely. They were communicating with Morse code, rapping on the walls of their prison cells. John knew when this girl would come. He had this little inch-wide crack in the door of his cell and he would watch her sweeping this courtyard. What a very human thing to do. He was just searching for any kind of human relationship."
Hart last saw McCain earlier this year. "I went down to Sedona, in the spring. I think it was early June, and spent an hour or two with him," Hart told Colorado Matters on Sunday. "And I’ve stayed in touch, almost on a weekly basis with his wife, Cindy,” Hart said. “He was experiencing different levels of cognizance, but it so happens that when I was there, he was in a cognizant mood, and we communicated pretty clearly."
Sen. Hart also wrote a tribute to Sen. McCain before his death titled, "Let Us Now Praise A Famous Man." One section in particular references McCain's time as a Prisoner of War. Hart writes, "He emerged from prison with broken bones badly set, walked with a limp, and saluted awkwardly. Those were marks of distinction and honor. Despite his afflictions, he laughed often and saw humor in the ridiculousness of the human folly we call politics.”
Click on the audio above to hear the full conversation, and read Hart's tribute below.
Gary Hart: 'Let Us Now Praise a Famous Man'
Captain John McCain was the U.S. Navy liaison officer to the United States Senate when we first met in 1977. Thereafter, he was escort officer on a number of Senate delegation trips and my escort on board two aircraft carriers underway in the Indian Ocean. The most notable delegation included Senators John Glenn, Sam Nunn, William Cohen, and myself on a tour of Asian nations ending in South Korea. Our report urged President Jimmy Carter not to carry out his proposed withdrawal of U.S. troops in South Korea and the President reluctantly conceded.
The solo aircraft carrier visits, thanks to John McCain’s arrangements, enabled me to fly off the decks in the radar operators back seat in high performance combat aircraft. For anyone who has shared that experience, it is one that is never forgotten.
Thereafter, in 1980, John persuaded the Navy to commission me as an officer (Lt. j.g.) in the U.S. Naval Reserves. My purpose was to gain insights on naval operations not otherwise available to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on which I served. I never put the commission on my bio and never referred to it for political gain.
Along with Bill Cohen, I was invited to be one of John’s groomsmen in his wedding to Cindy Hensley in 1980 in Arizona. Following his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, we served in Congress together until my departure in 1987. Over the subsequent years I tried to maintain contact with John and Cindy and once was invited to speak to a weekend retreat they maintained for friends and supporters at their home in Sedona, Arizona.
The story of John’s bravery as a prisoner in North Vietnam for five and a half years is well known. He refused early release if he would endorse a statement that he believed the war to be wrong and received special punishment when his captors discovered his father, Admiral John McCain, was commander of fleet forces off Vietnam.
When John referred to his experiences in jail it was with an amazing degree of candor and lack of bitterness. Some stories he would tell were in fact humorous and humane.
The world knows that John is ill. The outcome is apparently not in doubt. With Cindy’s help, I managed to speak with him yesterday and did so through my tears.
John is a hero to me and millions of others. He ran for and could have been President. He has lived an abundant and remarkable life. With no provocation he was pilloried by a man who did become President, a man without an ounce of his courage, bravery, and service. It was one of the ugliest moments in our current ugly times. It is a mark of these times that it should have disqualified that man from holding any public office, but it did not. That is how far down we have descended.
It is the mark of a coward that he seeks to bring anyone above him down to his level. He cannot stand to see anyone respected when he himself is not respected and does not respect the high office that he holds. One has only to look at those around that man to know why he could not acknowledge John McCain’s patriotism, service, and honors.
Those of us who know John McCain pray for him and his family. Like most of us, John is not a man without faults. He is very human and the first to admit it. Despite those faults, though, he is an extraordinary human being.
He emerged from prison with broken bones badly set, walked with a limp, and saluted awkwardly. Those were marks of distinction and honor. Despite his afflictions, he laughed often and saw humor in the ridiculousness of the human folly we call politics.
Like many, many others, I am a better man for knowing John. I consider it a privilege to have had the honor.
When John enters the next life, his flight will be straight and level…and very fast. His laugh will be light, but he will mourn for the political chaos that is not his fault but that he could not cure. The rest of us left here have no choice but to try.
Anchors aweigh, John. Set your course for the horizon and your friends will join you soon.
Two former presidents -- Barack Obama and George W. Bush -- are expected to speak at Sen. John McCain's service and he will lie in state in both the nation's capital and Arizona as part of a cross-country funeral procession ending with his burial at the U.S. Naval Academy, according to plans taking shape Sunday.