Our world grieves the loss of Senator John McCain, an extraordinary American war hero and political maverick. Regardless of whether our political convictions aligned with his, most agree Senator McCain leaves a legacy of courage, perseverance, civility and service.
He reminded us of radical ideals binding US citizens, "Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us. We are fellow Americans, and that's an association that means more to me than any other."
In a chance encounter, he revealed his humble character to me. From that fortuitous meeting, I gleaned a transformative lesson.
Respect others by making them feel valued.
He was a complicated man who left us with elegantly simple messages. In spite of, or perhaps as a direct result of, having survived inconceivable torture and attacks from political opponents, Senator McCain was an advocate of conciliation and respect for others.
He recently tweeted, "Respect for the God-given dignity of every human being, no matter their race, ethnicity or other circumstances of their birth, is the essence of American patriotism. To believe otherwise is to oppose the very idea of America."
This was my experience of him one fateful day, when I was the Director of Conflict Resolution Programs for the Arizona Attorney General.
The AG’s Law Building is a labyrinth of corridors. My office was close to the main security entrance.
Whenever a new Attorney General came on board, there was a surge of transition activity. I rarely minded dropping everything I was doing to help throngs of lost dignitaries. Many, however, were condescending, rushed and demanding. They had little time for those of us on the lower level.
That was not the case when a short, friendly and gray-haired man knocked on my door.
“Hi, Kate. Would you help me find Terry’s office?”
At that instant I must have had a puzzled look on my face, but was soon comforted by his kind smile.
Being fairly low in the Office of Attorney General hierarchy, I didn’t refer to the incoming AG Goddard by his first name. Unlike most of the transition visitors, he called me “Kate.” This confused me, because the nameplate on my door read “Kathryn Otting.”
There was something strangely familiar about this man.
He had confidence, but none of the arrogance demonstrated by so many who passed my office.
He was gentle and unpretentious. I wore heels, so he seemed fairly short, about eye-level to me. He chatted with me as we walked through corridors, as though we were old friends. He asked me quite a bit about myself.
I kept thinking to myself, “Who is this guy?”
He was someone I had seen recently. I was overcome with that familiar feeling when you run into someone you can’t place. I didn’t want to look like a fool and ask the wrong questions. I listened for hints. My brain scanned for memories of this man.
Was he in last week’s meeting at the Supreme Court? Does he go to my church? Maybe he was at one of my son’s games? The gym? I could not recall.
Suddenly, a young staffer walked up to this man, with a clipboard in her hand, “Senator McCain! Mr. Goddard is this way, up the stairs.”
He must have seen my flush of embarrassment, as I recognized him. Not only was he one of the best-known members of Congress, I had just seen him on Saturday Night Live the previous weekend!
Senator McCain said to the young staffer, “It’s fine, Kate’s been helping me find the way there.”
“Thank you for your service to our country, Senator McCain,” were all the words I could muster in that awkward moment.
“It’s John, Kate. Please call me John."
He smiled, looked me in the eyes and shook my hand, "Thanks for taking time out of your day to walk with me. It’s been a pleasure visiting with you. Keep doing important work for Arizonans.”
When I returned to my desk, my assistant came to my door immediately. Apparently, before he knocked on my door, Senator McCain asked her what most people called me. No one had ever bothered to ask. We smiled at one another, "Did that really just happen?"
He made us feel important.
He treated us with exceptional respect. He made it seem effortless.
Respecting those who disagree with us, especially in these polarized times, doesn't come easily to most of us, as I discussed in a previous article.
Senator McCain showed us it's possible to productively engage through the most difficult conflicts. In fact, he often used humor as a catalyst for more productive sparring with his "partners" in Congress.
Senator John McCain did not demand respect.
He asserted, “People who hold certain institutional positions should have your respect until they lose it. But the rest of us mortals have to earn it.”
Senator McCain may not have have the votes, but he won our respect.
He frequently crossed ideological divides to facilitate conciliation.
Not only did he bridge understanding with political opponents, he also returned to Vietnam, to normalize relations with his former captors.
He wasn’t always a winner, and professed, “It's very important to lose gracefully. You know, no bitterness, no anger, no remorse -- can't display that.”
Humility in the face of adversaries was the Defining strength of his character.
He warned against negotiation out of self-interest, "Glory is not a conceit. It is not a decoration for valor....Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely and who rely on you in return."
After my accidental encounter with a remarkably gracious Senator, my screensaver scrolls this reminder to me that no matter how great or small my clients’ conflicts may seem: “Everyone deserves to feel important.”
Once again, Senator McCain, I find myself struggling for the appropriate words to convey gratitude for your service.
May you rest in peace.