Few towering political figures can say their foundation was built on mediocrity and insubordination — twin distinctions of John McCain’s time at the Naval Academy.
Since his birth at a naval base in Panama, there was little doubt that the son and grandson of admirals would one day be clad in sharp whites and commissioned as an officer in the Annapolis summer heat. That was the problem, he wrote in 1999, frustrated that his life seemed “preordained” to fall into the inescapable orbit of Navy service.
“You have come to appreciate the value of discipline,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower told the Naval Academy class of 1958, though a newly minted Ensign McCain in the crowd may have been an exception at the time. Out of 899 graduates in McCain’s class, only four had worse grades.
McCain, who died Aug. 25 of brain cancer at age 81, was buried during a private service Sunday at the verdant riverside cemetery on academy grounds among other towering figures following funeral ceremonies in Arizona and Washington.
Hundreds of midshipmen packed the academy chapel and lined an avenue for a long procession. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis walked ahead of McCain’s flag-draped casket on a caisson pulled by a team of horses from the Army’s Old Guard.
Four fighter jets from the Blue Angels squadron roared overhead after the ceremony in a tight wedge. One F-18 broke away and climbed skyward in the “missing man” formation to honor the memory of McCain, a former Naval aviator.
The ceremony took place miles from Arlington National Cemetery, where his father and grandfather, both admirals, are buried.
McCain’s final rest at the academy is a remarkable turn from his rowdy beginnings there. He escaped the academy as the leader of the rambunctious club known as the “Bad Bunch.” He would go on to endure more than five years of brutal captivity as a prisoner in Vietnam. He would later serve as a Republican senator in Arizona for three decades, in a career that included two failed bids for president.
Yet it was his time at the Naval Academy that set his career on a tumultuous climb and, in some ways, girded his defiance with resolve that would help him survive imprisonment and torture after his plane was shot down over Hanoi in 1967.
It is perhaps that duality which at times repulsed McCain from the academy’s rigor and the inescapable shadow of his family name — only to pull him back decades after he improbably cast out a legacy all his own.
In 1993, more than 20 years after his release from captivity, McCain addressed the Naval Academy graduating class in what would become one of his most memorable speeches. He spoke fondly of scaling the wall to escape into town, among the many actions that would earn him the only high marks he received at the academy — piles of demerits, which he also accumulated through pure insolence and back talk.
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McCain first congratulated those who earned good grades and stayed out of trouble. Then, he spoke to midshipmen who were more like him.
“Although academic and other honors may have eluded you, the standards here are such that simply surviving the four years reflects great credit on your ability and dedication,” he told the class. “I say that with all sincerity.”
The world was changing, McCain noted, unrecognizable since the first time they entered the academy gates. The Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union had disintegrated in their first year, and flash points of conflict in Somalia and the Persian Gulf were signs of instability emerging from the Cold War.
What the midshipmen learned in Annapolis, he explained, would help them navigate uncharted waters of combat.
Their resolve and duty could be tested in full view, or even in private moments. His North Vietnamese captors had offered relief if he denounced the United States, saying his peers would never know, McCain told the crowd. But he would know, McCain said, and that was enough.
“There may be times in your life when the consequences of your devotion to duty are so dire that you will be tempted to abandon it,” he said. “There may be times when truly only you will know. But you will resist. I know you will.”
McCain would often return to the academy grounds for events, including a lecture series that included remarks less than a month after the 9/11 attacks and again in 2012. It was a return to the “scene of the crime,” he joked in his opening remarks during the latter lecture, according to the Capital Gazette.
In an October interview with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, McCain acknowledged that lessons learned from his schooling had helped him weather his sometimes perilous political career.
“I’ve made more mistakes than most anybody you will ever know,” McCain said in the interview, conducted for the 2017 Naval History Conference. “But one thing has guided me, is what I learned the first day I walked through the main gate at the Naval Academy. And that was do the right thing, and do it honorably, and you can never go wrong.”
It is Annapolis that McCain has returned to, again and again, in life and in death.
McCain’s father and grandfather are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. But Adm. Charles “Chuck” Larson, a longtime friend and classmate, is buried at the academy in Maryland. Larson reserved four plots before he died in 2014 — two for himself and McCain, and their wives.
McCain’s plot is near where the two men first met, “back where it began,” he wrote in his recent book “The Restless Wave,” when he revealed Annapolis will be his final resting place.
That day was foretold in 1993, at the stadium just down the road from the cemetery, where McCain will return Sunday for the last time.
“I will go to my grave in gratitude to my Creator for allowing me to stand witness to such courage and honor. And so will you,” McCain said. “My time is slipping by. Yours is fast approaching. You will know where your duty lies.”
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