Kent Justice reflects on legacy of Sen. John McCain

Justice opens up about conversations with McCain over the years


How many of us will get to deliver their own eulogy? I am deeply moved by this. Maybe it means something to you. Or maybe not. But I wanted to share.

In my four different times speaking with Sen. McCain, I developed an appreciation for him.

The first time I interviewed him, it was tough to connect. I was a news anchor and reporter in Columbus, Ohio. He was on the other end of a satellite feed. I was looking at him, but he was looking at a camera lens. We didn’t have a great conversation. That was in 2008, just a month or so before then Sen. Barack Obama defeated him in the election for president. I asked questions, and felt like Sen. McCain gave “talking points” instead of answering the questions.

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Four years later, my opinion of Sen. McCain changed completely. After we’d moved to Jacksonville and I became a political reporter, McCain came to Jacksonville, campaigning for Mitt Romney as the GOP candidate for president. I set up a one-on-one interview with Sen. McCain at the 5-Star Veterans center in Jacksonville, prior to comments he would deliver to the audience. During the interview, I spoke face to face with him. Each question I posed, he thoughtfully, confidently, almost candidly responded. He spent twice as long in the interview as we had planned.

My 14-year-old son, Jonathan, had a growing interest in politics, and asked if he could come to the event. I told him, sure he could, it’s a public event. When we arrived at the venue, I told him to carry any equipment my videographer needed him to carry, and to go where she went! We set up in a conference room and waited a little bit. When Sen. McCain entered the room, I introduced myself, and quickly introduced him to my son. “Jonathan? That’s a great name. How are you, young man?” McCain said, offering his hand in greeting. For the next few minutes, Sen. McCain focused solely on the teen in the room, quizzing him on where he went to school, what he hoped to accomplish, even where he considered for college. “You know, the next time your dad is in Washington, tell him he should stop by Annapolis. There’s a pretty good school there!” referring to the Naval Academy, where McCain graduated in 1958. Part of Jonathan’s takeaway from this meeting: “So he could have been the President?” It led to the conversation a dad loves to have with his child, the “You can do anything” speech, including become president. We discussed Sen. McCain’s positions and policies, and the reputation he earned as “a maverick” and what that means. I also explained that Sen. McCain had been a prisoner of war, and related some of the injuries he endured. McCain’s plane was shot down over North Vietnam, I told him. He survived five years of torture and imprisonment. I spared some of the details.

About a month later, Mitt Romney and President Obama held a debate in South Florida. I covered the debate, hosted by Lynn University on Oct. 22, 2012, for our WJXT. One of the most energizing times for a reporter is live coverage of an event, especially in a high-energy environment. Reporters rushed into a “spin room” after the debate. That’s the first time I met Florida political legend Bob Graham, getting his reaction to the debate. I also interviewed Sen. Marco Rubio for the first time. But the first person I spoke with about the debate that night was John McCain. A communications contact called me, asked if I was interested in a short interview, and told me McCain was going to wait for me at a certain location. He greeted me again with a warmth, and the recognition of our recent conversation in Jacksonville, then took the time to answer my questions about Gov. Romney and President Obama, and the general election prospects for November.

I finally visited Washington DC area in April 2016 – my first visit to the nation’s Capitol since 1997 when my family merely stopped to have dinner with a family friend living in Georgetown, on the way to a vacation in North Carolina. We traveled with great friends who served in the military, and a friend who graduated from the Naval Academy. We took a tour, and enjoyed many of the memories my friend has to offer. And then I saw a framed tribute to McCain, referencing his Naval Academy career, his service in the military, his three decades in politics. It brought to mind the fondness I developed for him as a person.

As a reporter, especially in covering politics, I develop relationships that do not depend on a political party affiliation or policy position. I have great friends who identify themselves as Democrats, and great friends who identify themselves as Republicans. I have great friends who say they can’t stand labels and vote their conscience, not according to a conservative or liberal description.

Here is the farewell letter from Sen. McCain. He is a man I consider a patriot and a hero, and a man who displayed grace in defeat, class in the midst of chaos, and resolve that most of us will (gratefully) never really understand completely.

My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for 60 years, and especially my fellow Arizonans,

Thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life of service in uniform and service in public office has allowed me to lead. I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.

I’ve often observed that I’m the luckiest person on earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I’ve loved my life, all of it. I’ve had experiences, adventures, friendships enough for 10 satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anybody else’s.

I owe this satisfaction to the love of my family. No man ever had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine. And I owe it to America. To be connected to America’s causes — liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people — brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.

‘Fellow Americans’ — that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and great power in the process.

We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they’ve always been.

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. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.

Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with the heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening.

I feel it powerfully still.

Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.

Farewell, fellow Americans. God bless you and God bless America.

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