McCain tells Naval Academy mids to 'do the right thing' in politics and military service

U.S. Sen. John McCain had a message for Naval Academy midshipmen Thursday about retired members of the military entering politics.

In a video interview with The Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward, recorded specifically for a Naval Academy conference Thursday the ailing Arizona Republican and former candidate for president offered his thoughts on the subject for his “young friends in the brigade of midshipmen.”

“I’ve been around a long, long time. I’ve made more mistakes than most anybody you will ever know,” McCain said. “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’s a lesson he hasn’t always followed, the 1958 academy graduate said.

The interview was a part of the 2017 Naval History Conference, organized by the U.S. Naval Institute and held in Alumni Hall . The topic of the conference was “Military and Politics: Proper Participation or Perilous Partisanship?”

The daylong event included two panel discussions that featured retired Army Gen. Colin Powell — who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, secretary of state and considered a run for president — as well as a keynote speech by retired Adm. Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Woodward also moderated a panel Thursday morning that tackled the subject of retired officials entering the political arena.

One of the last questions he asked the panel, which included Powell, Vice Adm. Robert Harward and retired Adm. Gary Roughead, was to describe the most important leadership lesson they’ve internalized.

Powell recalled a story he heard the day he was promoted to brigadier general. In the story, President Abraham Lincoln receives a message during the Civil War saying a Confederate detachment captured a brigadier general and 100 horses.

Powell said Lincoln told the messenger that he hated to lose 100 horses, but that he could make a new brigadier general in five minutes.

“What it says is it’s the horses that count, it’s the troops that count, it’s the seals that count, it’s the sailors that count,” Powell said.

The Naval Academy’s mission is to train leaders. Leaders are privileged to be given the opportunity to lead — that and accomplishing what their superiors ask of them is a leader’s principal responsibility, Powell said. It is important to create an environment of trust and respect in every organization you’re responsible for, he said.

“But it all comes down to the horses,” Powell said. “The people who are standing watch. The … infantryman going up the hill. The crew member taking care of the F-16 that’s about to take off.”

Harward answered first, and his answer was in the same vein of Powell’s — your obligation as a leader is to the people who serve for you, their interests and the country’s interest, he said.

Later, when discussing divisive rhetoric in the media, Roughead told the students to read stories that will expand their field of view — reading only the stories that make them happy would be a disservice, he said.

“I recommend that from the outset you read things that make you uncomfortable and that you disagree with,” Roughead said.

In his video message, McCain — diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, over the summer — told the midshipmen that they’re blessed because at the academy they're exposed to the “honor and integrity and courage” of the centuries of people who served in the Navy before them.

McCain’s grandfather, father and son all attended the academy, and last month in an interview with “60 Minutes,” the six-term Arizona senator said he’d like to have a ceremony at the Naval Academy “when I leave.”

“So, my friends, the next time you’re walking around the Yard and you see one of these names — ‘I wonder who that was?’ — look them up. They were important for us to be able to have the lives we have today,” McCain said. “And don’t let them down.”

A full video of McCain’s interview, including a discussion about North Korea, is available at www.news.usni.org.

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