McCain went upstairs to the Oval Office to receive congratulations from a grim President Bush. Bush said he was ordering a missile strike against terrorist training grounds in Somalia, but both he and McCain knew this would not solve the problem. All the serious questions remained: Had the government of North Korea transported the terrorists to China? The North Koreans denied all knowledge; officials said the country had sold the submarines years ago but would not say to whom. So the possibility existed that al Qaeda now owned a missile-firing submarine.
The possibility also existed that the United States would have to invade and secure Somalia and take action against North Korea. President Bush offered to take the burden on himself and do what was necessary before McCain was sworn in. “After all,” Bush said, “I don’t think my approval ratings could go any lower.” But McCain declined. It would not be right, he said; it would not be honorable. The people had elected him, and he would do what was necessary.
“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls,” he said to himself as he left the Oval Office. It tolls for thee.
. . . and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.
President McCain lowered his right hand and took his left hand off his grandfather’s Bible. “So help me God” wasn’t in the Constitution, but it had been good enough for George Washington, and it was good enough for him. The Marine Band struck up “Ruffles and Flourishes” and then “Hail to the Chief.”
Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, had taken the oath before McCain, becoming at age 48 the third-youngest vice president in US history after John Breckinridge at 36 and Dan Quayle at 41. Having a young vice president wasn’t a bad thing when you were 72 and the oldest president in history, McCain decided.
He now walked slowly to the lectern and looked out at the thousands gathered before him. He began to speak. Later, few would remember how his inaugural address began, but all would remember how it ended.
“Not all of us will bear arms for our country,” McCain said. “Our country’s success does not depend on universal heroism. But we have to be worthy of the sacrifices made on our behalf. We have to value our freedom. We have to love it. We have to love it so much that we will not let it be constrained by fear. It is love, then, that makes courage necessary. It is love that makes courage possible for all of us to possess.”
The wind blew across the Mall, up the west steps of the Capitol, and ruffled the thin white strands of McCain’s hair. For the briefest of moments he thought of the sound of cottonwood trees. Then he reached into his pocket. Like many pilots, he was superstitious—he could not stand to see a hat on a bed, for instance—and during most of the campaign his pockets had been filled with little charms that people had given him: coins, tiny horseshoes, rabbits’ feet (which, as he always pointed out, had not been very lucky for the rabbits).
Today, he carried but one talisman with him: the dog tags of Lance Corporal Henry Lee Otis, 23, of Ottumwa, Iowa, the last GI to die in Iraq. Henry Lee’s mother had driven five hours to see McCain speak in Lime Springs, Iowa, near the Minnesota border, during the campaign. She had waited for him along the rope line after he finished his speech and pressed the metal tags into his hand. “Do not let another mother’s son die in a war we are not willing to win,” she said and turned and walked away.
Now, McCain looked out onto the crowd. “We are all afraid of something. Fear is the opportunity for courage, not proof of cowardice. So be brave,” he said. “The rest is easy.”
Two miles away at the White House, McCain’s political team stood, cheered, and hugged one another. John Weaver strode to the TV set and punched it off with his fist. “Are you guys finished?” he said. “Because we’ve got a reelection to plan.”
Roger Simon is chief political columnist for Politico.com. He covered John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000 and traveled to Vietnam with him that year. Simon is the author of four books, three of them on presidential politics and one a collection of columns.