John's Notebook: What McCain fights for

Fight like John McCain
Fight like John McCain 02:14

Last Updated Jul 23, 2017 2:12 PM EDT

When the news broke that John McCain had been diagnosed with brain cancer, the outpouring of well wishes all hailed his toughness. This week marks the anniversary of one such example.  

Fifty years ago, the USS Forrestal aircraft carrier was deployed in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam war. A rocket accidentally fired, sparking a fire on the deck. It spread to planes preparing to launch and set off a chain reaction of explosions. 134 sailors were killed. One of the pilots preparing for takeoff who was hit was Senator John McCain, who miraculously escaped his burning A-4 Skyhawk. 

The math of durability in McCain's life is extraordinary.  In addition to surviving the Forrestal, McCain has survived three other plane disasters including being shot down over enemy territory.  He then survived five and a half years of torture as a prisoner of war and later three skin cancer surgeries. His former chief of staff and co-author Mark Salter wrote this: John McCain will be around for a long while. I've always known he'd outlive me. I wrote the eulogy he'll give at my funeral. It's very touching.

There is a basic idea to this fighting spirit: that there are standards worth devoting yourself to that are more important than your self interest. That you should keep the faith, even if it means turning down early release from torture and living in a dark box in North Vietnam. "He didn't just hold fast in Hanoi," wrote the New York Times' Jonathan Martin. "An 80-year-old man with brain cancer pushed himself to exhaustion this year traveling to reassure the world about America."

This does not make John McCain a saint.  He's flawed, a hothead, and has fallen short of his own standard. He'll tell you nearly all of this himself. But when off the path, his fight is to get back on it, to return to his standard. It's a human lesson for all of us who are tempted to recline into self-preservation. It's a call not just to admire the fight from a distance but to fight a little harder ourselves.

Back in a moment.