Leadership: What is he? Are men born, of mothers, blessed with a cloak of leadership, clerics of a sort, draped not in flags but in the aforementioned cloaks of leadership? Or is leadership a mere will-o-the-wisp that blesses men momentarily before flitting away, a phantom, off on wings, slipping bonds, to the land of grace?
Ronald Reagan. 1984. Speaking: “If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God,” he said, his deep brown eyes flashing leadershiply, “then we will be one nation gone under.” I wrote these words for him wedged in a West Wing bathroom stall, a Bible clutched in one hand and a dictaphone in the other. They barely reached his Teleprompter in time for the speech. Yet today they live on in the hearts of men. As I emerged into the cool evening when the speech was over, frazzled, preoccupied with earthly concerns, I stepped carelessly upon the foot of someone. A man. Not Reagan, though; another man, who carried in his bearing something that struck me instantly as Reaganesque—an ennobled and statuesque orientation towards the world. A partridge of a man in a pear tree called America.
“Excuse me,” he said with overt grace. “I’m John McCain.” He stuck out his hand and I shook it, though it was partly covered in barbecue sauce. A hero’s hand. The hand of man. A helping hand. Saucy.
As years passed by and seasons changed, I would see this man, this McCain, in Washington. There he was, making a bawdy joke with a journalist; there he was, making a sly joke with a constituent; there he was, making a bawdy joke with a Congressman. In bawdiness he found his connection to the common citizens, who, though they may never have plunged to earth in a fighter jet, endured unspeakable horror for love of country, or owned more houses than they could remember, could certainly bond over a shared love of ribaldry. A commonness, common to all. All for one. One day in the Senate mess hall, McCain sat down at my table, where I was dining alone on a salad of watercress. “What do a woman and a fire hydrant have in common?” he asked me, his eyes asparkle with magic. Before he had the chance to answer, an aide interrupted him, and he rushed off. On Saturday, that terrible eve, when I heard that John McCain had passed away at last, I thought back to this riddle. It shall remain an unsolved mystery. Like our Constitution, it will be studied by future generations—its subtleties, perhaps, teased out one day by those who today are just children. In class, they sit. Perhaps in Iowa. Perhaps in fields of grain.
I oft relay to my acquaintances the most powerful lesson that John McCain taught me. After Ronald Reagan—the president whom I worked for, and with—left the White House, where I worked, I found myself adrift. There was a four-month period when I could be found day and night at the bar of the Tabard Inn, unwashed and hopeless, allowed to remain only because I had convinced the owners that I was Nancy Reagan. One night, at the ebb of my depression, I raised my head off of the bar and saw there next to me, as if an apparition, John McCain. He winked at me, pitiful though I was.
“Now look here,” he said, his eyes sparkling, winking again and again. “We’re not so different, me and you. We both have big responsibilities. You gave an eloquent voice to President Reagan. And I’m succeeding Barry Goldwater as Arizona Senator. Lots of folks are looking to you for leadership. That pressure can get to you sometimes.”
He paused, and took a sip of what I imagined at the time was absinthe, but which may in retrospect have been water. “Let me give you a piece of advice about stress. I learned this in Hanoi. I went weeks barely seeing the sun, locked in subhuman conditions, hurt all over. At times I thought I couldn’t go on. There was only one thing that I replayed in my mind, over and over, that kept me going. Do you know what that was?”
He paused. Winked. Sparkled.
“It was Ronald Reagan’s charismatic role as a psychology professor trying to teach human morals to a chimpanzee in the 1951 film ‘Bedtime For Bonzo.’ Every time I thought I couldn’t take any more, I’d just say to myself: ‘Hell, if Reagan could teach a damn chimp right and wrong, this is easy.’ Give it a try.”
With a final wink—and a smile—he was gone, trailing what seemed to be be sparkles. I contemplated his words for several long moments. Then I rose off of my bar stool, moved to New York City, and began my grand second act in life. Had John McCain not given me the courage of Reagan that day, I do not know where I would have ended up.
I never got a chance to thank him for what he did that day. But many years later, after it became clear that the entire episode had been a hallucination triggered by my overuse of what were euphemistically called “pep pills,” I was recuperating in a sanitarium in Arizona when I saw John McCain on the C-Span. He was smiling. And I turned up the volume just in time to hear him say, “I vote yes to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court of the United States of America.”
I’ll be damned if he wasn’t winking.
Peggy Noonan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. Her Dominican friend, Cesar, works at the deli.