Guest Opinions

They had Hemingway in common. So John McCain put politics aside to help this Idahoan.

A mural featuring Fidel Castro shaking hands with American author Ernest Hemingway, left, at a parking lot in Havana, Cuba. Idaho scholar Marty Peterson and Sen. John McCain were Hemingway fans, and Peterson got McCain’s help preserving Hemingway’s Cuban estate.
A mural featuring Fidel Castro shaking hands with American author Ernest Hemingway, left, at a parking lot in Havana, Cuba. Idaho scholar Marty Peterson and Sen. John McCain were Hemingway fans, and Peterson got McCain’s help preserving Hemingway’s Cuban estate. AP

Much has been said about Sen. John McCain, who died last weekend. I want to share a personal experience I had with him that helps demonstrate why he was so widely respected.

I spent several years serving on the board of the Finca Vigia Foundation. This is a Boston-based foundation that has worked closely with the Cuban government to restore and preserve Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban estate, the Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm).

Part of our effort was to provide technical assistance, such as structural engineers, architects, and marine architects on loan to assist with the effort. This meant that we needed to obtain U.S. government licenses to allow these people to travel to Cuba. At the time, State Department decisions concerning Cuba related issues were in the hands of a group of passionately anti-Cuban bureaucrats who were opposed to anything remotely resembling normal relations between Cuba and the United States. As a result, they consistently turned down our requests for the necessary licenses, even though it is the Treasury Department, rather than the State Department, that issues such licenses. In this case, State was clearly in the driver’s seat.

One afternoon, I was listening to the NPR program “Fresh Air.” Host Terry Gross was interviewing Sen. John McCain. Discussing his years in captivity, she noted that many POWs who have had similar experiences have kept their sanity by reaching back into their childhood and recalling biblical scriptures and putting together portions of the Bible. McCain said that while he didn’t know any of the scriptures, his favorite novel was Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and that he did reconstruct the novel from memory. (It also appears on Barack Obama’s list of favorite books.)

Hearing this, it occurred to me that we might be able to enlist Sen. McCain in our efforts to get the licenses issued. We quickly got a meeting scheduled with the senator in his Washington office. In addition to myself, attending were Jenny Phillips, whose grandfather Maxwell Perkins was Hemingway’s long-time editor at Scribners, and Dick Moe, then president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Moe and I were both former Senate staffers and felt confident that we might be able to convince McCain to assist us.

The senator was extremely hospitable and, when he found out about our interest in Hemingway, promptly began quoting passages from “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He asked how he might help us. When we explained the difficulties we were having with the State Department, he said he would try to help us. He explained that he detested the Castro brothers and the Cuban government. But he also felt that differences in political philosophies should not be an impediment to a project of such importance. So he agreed to personally call Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and ask her to get the approval of the licenses expedited. He made the call and she agreed to accept his recommendation. The licenses were issued and the project proceeded.

I think that this helps to demonstrates what made John McCain such a respected Senator. In spite of politics, he was willing to listen and then do what he felt was right. Not what he felt was politically correct. I think that the future of our country depends on our ability to attract more John McCain like individuals to serve in public office. Unfortunately, they are currently an endangered species in national politics.

Marty Peterson of Boise serves as a community representative on the Statesman editorial board.
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