The late Sen. John McCain generated a day or so’s worth of headlines in 2015 when he angrily ordered an anti-war Code Pink protester: “Get out of here, you low-life scum.”
McCain, R-Ariz., was chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee when he erupted at activists who surrounded one of the panel’s guest witnesses, controversial former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The demonstrators wanted Kissinger, whose arm was in a sling, arrested for alleged war crimes while serving Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
“It’s not free speech when you physically confront a 91-year-old man with a broken shoulder,” McCain later told The Arizona Republic. “If it hadn’t have been for a couple of people intervening, they could have harmed him physically.”
The episode was a minor, if memorable, moment in a long association between McCain, who died in 2018, and Kissinger, who died Wednesday at 100, that stretched back to McCain’s years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
“Henry Kissinger was ever present in my late husband’s life,” Cindy McCain, McCain’s widow, said in a social media message posted Wednesday. “While John was a POW and in the later years as a Senator & statesman. The McCain family will miss his wit, charm, and intelligence terribly.”
As a Navy aviator, McCain was shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967, and would remain in North Vietnamese custody until March 14, 1973.
Kissinger was the top U.S. negotiator working to end the Vietnam War and secure the release of the American POWs.
“Henry Kissinger arrived in Hanoi to sign the final agreement,” McCain and co-author Mark Salter wrote in his 1999 memoir “Faith of My Fathers.” “Near the end of his visit, the Vietnamese offered to release me to him. He refused the offer. When I met Dr. Kissinger back in the States some weeks later and he informed me of the Vietnamese offer and his response, I thanked him for saving my honor.”
In his eulogy at McCain’s 2018 memorial at Washington National Cathedral, Kissinger recalled that first meeting, which he said happened at a White House reception in April 1973. He remembered McCain’s comment about saving his honor as “both self-effacing and moving.”
“He did not tell me then or ever that he had had an opportunity to be freed years earlier but had refused, a decision for which he had to endure additional periods of isolation and hardship,” Kissinger said. “Nor did he ever speak of his captivity again during the near half-century of close friendship.”
McCain’s father, John S. “Jack” McCain Jr., was a Navy admiral who at the time commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific. That made the younger McCain a prize prisoner whom the North Vietnamese dubbed “the Crown Prince” and constantly tried to exploit for propaganda purposes. His captors earlier had offered McCain early release, which was forbidden by the U.S. military’s Code of Conduct. Officers could only accept release in the order they were captured. McCain refused and was brutally beaten.
Averell Harriman, President Lyndon Johnson’s envoy to the Paris peace talks, would later confirm that a Vietnamese official told him about McCain’s refusal to accept early release.
“He had been much on my mind during the negotiation to end the Vietnam War, oddly also because his father, then commander in chief of the Pacific command, when briefing the president answered references to his son by saying only ‘I pray for him,'” Kissinger would say in his eulogy. “In the McCain family, national service was its own reward that did not allow for special treatment.”
The episode impressed Kissinger, who years later became a big supporter of McCain’s political aspirations.
Kissinger supported McCain’s candidacies for Senate, president
In 1986, when McCain was a two-term congressman running for the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., Kissinger headlined a $150-a-plate fundraising luncheon for his campaign.
Kissinger told the Phoenix crowd that he had “followed John McCain’s career since he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam” and praised him for refusing to be “traded out of turn” for early release.
Tom Barrett, namesake of the famous Barrett-Jackson classic car auction, was supposed to pick up Kissinger at the airport in a bulletproof 1939 Packard limousine that had been used by a series of Mexican presidents, but wound up giving him a ride in a Cadillac limousine instead. Kissinger wanted air conditioning, a Republic columnist reported.
Another Republic item focused on the dessert served at the Kissinger event. It was made of strawberries, ice cream and toasted meringue. “I don’t know if we should eat it or call the bomb squad,” McCain was quoted as saying.
As McCain was making his first run for president, Kissinger talked him up in an episode of the A&E Network’s “Biography” series. The profile’s title was “John McCain: American Maverick.”
“I think being a war hero has given him the inward strength to do things that the ordinary politician wouldn’t do,” Kissinger said on the television program.
Kissinger also hosted a 1997 fundraiser for McCain in New York that generated more than $150,000.
McCain lost the 2000 Republican nomination to President George W. Bush, who on Wednesday praised Kissinger as one of America’s “most dependable and distinctive voices on foreign affairs.”
Kissinger would serve as a campaign adviser to McCain when the senator made a second try for president in 2008.
His name came up in the first presidential debate between McCain, that year’s GOP nominee, and then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who tangled over whether Kissinger supported negotiations with Iran without preconditions.
After Obama brought McCain’s adviser into the conversation, McCain countered that Kissinger supported diplomatic talks without preconditions but not at the president-to-president level and that Obama previously had said he would sit down with presidents of Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.
Beyond his relationship with McCain, Kissinger from time to time made other appearances in Arizona.
He spoke April 21, 1998, to an audience of about 2,000 people at Arizona State University. One student in attendance ripped him for “granting permission” for Indonesia to invade East Timor in 1975.
“You may not believe this, but Indonesia is a country of 180 million people, and they didn’t ask our permission,” Kissinger said, according to a report in The Republic. “Also, we were negotiating an end to the Vietnam War at that time, and we were not looking to make another enemy in Southeast Asia.”
Jon Kyl: ‘You can’t take away from him his long, long service’
In 2006, Kissinger returned to the state for another political fundraiser, but this time the beneficiary was then-Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. Kyl that year was in a slugfest of a Senate race against Democrat Jim Pederson.
Pederson’s campaign tried to use the Kyl-Kissinger connection to link the unpopular Iraq and Vietnam wars.
“It’s not surprising that he is coming to raise money for Jon Kyl, who is helping to lead another major foreign-policy disaster,” a Pederson campaign spokesperson said at the time.
Kyl recalled the fundraiser and reflected on Kissinger’s legacy.
“His service extended over such a long period of time, and he dealt with so many different leaders around the world, that I think a lot of the praise that he is getting is well deserved, even though his approach to managing the Cold War was one which I and others felt was not always entirely appropriate,” Kyl told The Republic on Thursday.
Kyl, who served three terms in the Senate from 1995 until 2013, said he preferred President Ronald Reagan’s stark Cold War philosophy that communism and the Soviet Union had to be defeated. Kissinger was often too nuanced in his approach, Kyl said.
“But you can’t take away from him his long, long service, always in support of a strong United States,” Kyl said.
Former secretary of state spoke at McCain’s memorial service in Washington
Still, it was Kissinger’s enduring friendship with McCain that proved his most lasting tie to the state and its politics.
At McCain’s 2015 Armed Services Committee meeting, Kissinger was set to testify on national security strategy with fellow former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Madeleine Albright.
The Code Pink activists disrupted the proceedings with chants of “Arrest Henry Kissinger for war crimes.”
“I’ve been a member of this committee for many years and I have never seen anything as disgraceful and outrageous and despicable as the last demonstration that just took place,” McCain said.
Turning his attention to an activist who continued to try to interrupt, McCain said: “You know, you’re going to have to shut up or I’m going to have you arrested.”
As the man exited the hearing room, McCain made the “Get out of here, you low-life scum” comments.
McCain then apologized to Kissinger for “allowing such outrageous behavior towards a man who served his country with the greatest distinction.”
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Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin shot back at McCain on the social media platform then known as Twitter.
“Shame on @SenJohnMcCain for saying that CODEPINK was involved in physical aggression against Kissinger,” she tweeted. “We are peace activists!!!”
McCain died Aug. 25, 2018, from a deadly form of brain cancer. Kissinger was among the political heavyweights who remembered McCain at his memorial at the National Cathedral. Former presidents Bush and Obama also spoke.
“The world will be lonelier without John McCain, his beliefs, his faith in America and his instinctive sense of moral duty,” Kissinger said in his remarks. “None of us will ever forget how even in his parting John has bestowed on us a much-needed moment of unity and renewed faith in the possibilities of America.
“Henceforth, the country’s honor is ours to sustain.”
Dan Nowicki is The Arizona Republic’s national politics editor. As a reporter, he covered John McCain for years, including his 2008 presidential campaign. Follow Nowicki on X, the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter, @dannowicki.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Henry Kissinger: Diplomat had long association with Sen. John McCain