Senator John McCain has been my hero ever since he returned from Vietnam and his story was told.
I never thought I would have the honor of meeting him in person. I never dreamed I’d be interviewing him in a helicopter flying over the sacred mountains of the White Mountain Apache people, but there I sat, earphones and all, interviewing my hero, John McCain.
It was back in 1988 or ‘89. I was editing the Fort Apache Scout for the Tribe. Chairman at the time, Reno Johnson, had invited Sen. McCain to a ceremony. The Tribe wanted to honor him as a warrior. I was invited to cover the event at Sunrise Park Resort for the Scout. What a break for me! I could interview Sen McCain and get a free dinner besides!
I had heard that the senator was friendly to the press, but did that include the unknown editor of a small tribal periodical in the wilds of the White Mountains? We may not have degrees from Harvard, but most journalists can spot a phony as far as they can see them.
When the senator stepped out of the jet onto the runway at Whiteriver, there was no smiling for the camera, no glad-handing tribal officials that greeted him, no nervously looking at his watch. No, he walked straight over to the line of seated tribal elders who had been waiting to welcome him. He nodded politely to me, then stopped a moment at each Apache elder, shook hands and thanked them before going out to the helicopter that would take him to Sunrise. He was in good spirits.
The ceremony was beautiful with speeches by tribal officials honoring his military service and prayers in Apache and English. I asked Phillip Stago, the lone Republican there, why the Apaches held Sen McCain in such high esteem when they were nearly all Democrats? “We honor him as a warrior,” he said.
Then it was over and the McCain people started to move out. I caught up with John and reminded him he had promised me an interview. He said, I’ve got to leave, but can you fly in a helicopter?” “Yes!” I said before he could change his mind. A lot was going on with the tribes and he was on top of it, always looking out for the interests of Native people. I said, “Why are you doing all these things for the tribes when they don’t vote for you?” He thought an instant and said, “Sometimes it’s just the right thing to do.”
That summed up his philosophy. I saw him again about a year later at a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. I had gone with my friend Claudeen Bates Arthur, the tribal attorney, to do a story involving the Indian Child Welfare Act. John was head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. We nodded to each other and he probably wondered where the heck he had seen me before. In those two brief incidents I had the privilege of knowing courage, integrity, simplicity and honor first hand.
John McCain belonged to the world, and fought the good fight to the end. He will always be my hero.
JoBaeza is an author and former reporter for the White Mountain Independent. She lives in Pinetop.