Daniels: John McCain represents qualities which are in short supply right now

Purdue President Mitch Daniels recalls stories of his fellow republican, John McCain.

Posted: Aug 28, 2018 2:49 PM
Updated: Aug 28, 2018 4:50 PM

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — Purdue President Mitch Daniels is joining current and former lawmakers across the country in recalling stories of Senator John McCain. McCain died Saturday after his battle with brain cancer.

The two republicans first met at a barbecue more than 40 years ago.

Daniels recalled his favorite stories of McCain exclusively with News 18 Tuesday morning. He said through McCain's death, Americans are reminded of the great hero he was. 

"John McCain knew that this is a great country, always in need of improvement," said Daniels. "To me, he represents qualities which are in short supply right now."

Mitch Daniels and John McCain first met in the 1970s. Daniels worked as Senator Lugar's Chief of Staff, and McCain represented the Navy in the Senate.

While researching before the interview, we came across Daniels' speech to the 2018 graduating class. It had ideological similarities to McCain's final words released Monday. 

"Suddenly, or so it seems, this nation has divided into tribes, made up of people with very different views of true and false, right and wrong," said Daniels in the May 2018 speech.

McCain's final words echoed the same sentiment. 

"We weaken our greatness when we confuse our greatness with tribal rivalries.," read Rick Davis, the McCain family spokesman Monday.

News 18's Trevor Peters pointed out the similar mindsets. He asked Daniels if he thought they were talking about the same thing. 

"I know we were worried about the same thing. We're not alone these days. I think the problem has become more and more obvious."

Daniels even recalled one of his favorite McCain stories. It was a time the two came together in 2002 when he was in the Bush Administration. Then Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels was alone and under enormous pressure to approve a $400-million Air Force proposal to lease Boeing 737's for "VIP" transports. It didn't look right to Daniels.

"He was the only member of Congress, that I remember, that took the same position," said Daniels. "He saw it as corporate welfare and not a good use of taxpayer dollars. I said, 'John, tell me I'm wrong about this. Because life would be a whole lot easier if I was.' I've got the speaker of the house, I have half the senate, I've got the president calling me saying are you sure we can't work something out! He (McCain) said, you're right, don't let it go. It was the two of us guarding the bridge."
Ultimately the deal was stopped.

Looking back, Daniels said its McCain's honor, principal, willingness to contribute and love of this country that makes John McCain a true patriot.

"I hate that we've lost him, but in losing him maybe he's performing one final great act of national service which is to remind us of those qualities, and how we are always going to need them."

You can find the full interview below:

Q: How did you first meet John McCain?

Daniels: "I did know John McCain since the late '70s, not nearly as long or as continuous as a lot of people. When I first went to Washington, to serve then Senator Lugar, Captain McCain was representing the Navy in the Senate. I got to know him at cookouts and literally learned his story, which I should have remembered through national news, from his own lips at a barbecue one night. Our mutual friend whose house it was, his side kick, told me later that was the first time he'd ever heard John talk about being shot down. He nearly died in the plane. He nearly died in the lake where he landed and was nearly killed by local citizens. Then of course five years of imprisonment and torture that followed. But that's how I got to know him. I came home to Indiana to go into business and he went back to Arizona to pursue politics. Then we got back together when I served in the (George W.) Bush cabinet from 2001 to 2003 and had a lot of interactions then. To me he represents qualities that are in short supply right now. Honor- always trying to do the right thing, even at personal expense. Principal- he freely admitted even in his last days that he was wrong, but then he tried to identify the right thing and then impossible to move, when he did. And Patriotism of the highest variety. John McCain knew that this is a great country always in need of improvement, but that our history has been one of steady improvement. and liberating of people here and elsewhere. I hate that we've lost him, but in losing him, maybe he's performing one final great act of National service, which is to remind us of those qualities. And how we always are going to need them.

Q: In your commencement speech to the Class of 2018, you advised the grads to avoid tribalism, saying Americans have been divided into estranged tribes. In Senator McCain’s final words released Monday, he said “We can not confuse patriotism with tribal rivalries.” Similar mindsets. Do you think you and the late senator are talking about the same thing in your two quotes?

Daniels: "I know we were worried about the same thing. We are not alone these days, that problem has become more and more obvious. But the fact John was expressing similar viewpoints gives me confidence that this is as big a dilemma that I think it is. It's worth talking to tomorrow's leaders. 

Q: During a 2008 campaign stop at the Indianapolis Airport, Senator McCain called you a "great conservative" and a "great leader." Looking back now, would you say the same about him?

Daniels: "Of course, and more. In our work together, during the early part of this century, we were in a couple very tough fights. I can remember taking the same position. He saw the deal in question as corporate well-fare, not a good use of taxpayer dollars and if not for him, it would be very hard to hold out. We did. Ultimately the deal was stopped. Actually a couple of people, one from the company one from the government, went to jail because of it. But, I'll always remember that as 'vintage John McCain.' I said, 'John tell me I'm wrong about this because life would be a lot easier. I've got the Speaker of the House, I've got half the Senate, I've got the President calling me saying, 'Are you sure we can't work something out?' He said, 'You're right. Don't let it go. If it gets up here, I'll try but I'll get rolled!' It was just kind of the two of us guarding the bridge. Knowing that that's what he thought, gave me confidence that instincts were right."

Q: Was that the Boeing case?

Daniels: "It was, it was."

Q: What can Boilermakers, or Hoosiers in general, learn from Senator McCain?

Daniels: "John McCain famously said, 'I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's.' Americans sometimes are forgetful of how incredibly fortunate we are, what a great country this is, it didn't get here accidentally. A lot of blood was spilled, and he spilled some of it. To try to advance and protect those freedoms. When we dwell on it's imperfections, that's fine because we have to have continuous improvement. But it has been, and his life reminds us of that. And of the sacrifice that somebody has to make from time to time for the rest of us to enjoy it. That honor still means something, that doing the right thing, even if you are alone, it comes a great costs. That's still a principle to be upheld. Again, if his passing has anything positive about it, it's that it's put on display for folks who may not have thought about those things. Greatness of this country. Importance of genuine patritiosm. The willingness to contribute somehow. You don't have to have your body broken in 20 places like he did, but we all owe a great debt. But the only way to repay it is to try make our place better.

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