Top of the Ticket

Political commentary from the LA Times

« Previous Post | Top of the Ticket Home | Next Post »

John McCain, after a dose of politicking, takes time to listen

March 31, 2008 |  4:40 pm

The potential power of John McCain's appeal to those who've directly experienced the sacrifices inherent in military service -- including the ultimate loss -- was on display today as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee kicked off his much-touted "biography tour."

After a visit to Meridian, Miss., where many of his forebears grew up and where his grandfather and namesake, John Sidney "Popeye" McCain, served at an air base, the candidate spent the 20-minute ride to the airport talking on his Straight Talk Express with Rachel Lee. Her son, Dustin Lee, 20, was killed in Iraq a year ago while attached to a Marine reconnaissance unit in Anbar province.

The Times' Maeve Reston was the designated pool reporter, and she relates that Rachel Lee told McCain that after her son's death, the military allowed the family to adopt Lex, an explosives-detecting dog that trained with his unit and was with him the day he died. The dog had been wounded and was later given an honorary Purple Heart, according to a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign.

During the ride, Lex stretched across the red faux velvet couch at the back of the campaign bus, resting against Lee’s thigh as she told McCain and his wife, Cindy, about her son’s service. Her two other children, Madyson, 16, and Camryn, 13, sat silently on the other side of Lex, petting his fur.

Lee told McCain she was "very honored" to meet him, "not because ...

you’re running for president but because you are a veteran, and everything that you’ve been through.” Her voice breaking, the fourth-grade teacher added, “My family is military all the way down too, and our mission now in Dustin’s honor is to visit soldiers at the hospitals, visit veterans, because I think that’s what we can give back.”

Gesturing to Lex, Lee said, “He’s a wounded soldier also, and I think it does well for other soldiers to see him.”

McCain, who held a card with pictures of Dustin, his family and his grave, gently asked Lee about her son, who was raised in Stonewall, Miss., and was just two months shy of his 21st birthday when he was killed.

At one point, McCain said, “We have a son in the Marines too.” But he then quickly turned back to questions about Dustin.

At another point, McCain also expressed his appreciation to Lee for her son's service. And, as he does consistently in his public comments, he offered an upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq (while giving a nod to days of fighting between rival Iraqis in Basra that finally appeared to subside Sunday).

"I think we are winning the war; we’ve had a problem here in the last few days, but hopefully the Anbar province will stay quiet,” McCain said.

As Lee told the story, Cindy McCain’s eyes filled with tears. She cried silently throughout the rest of the ride.

Lee said Dustin surprised her by joining the Marines even before he graduated from high school. The last time she spoke to him, he was “very upbeat” and excited because he was coming home in six weeks, she said. He had already started planning a career in law enforcement, possibly specializing as an instructor of police dogs.

“He had grown tremendously from the time that he left ... it’s amazing the way he talked,” she said.

Since her son’s death, if she sees soldiers at the mall, “I just feel like they’re part of me. And I know you guys understand,” Lee said as Cindy nodded.

“Once we got Lex, everybody started to heal,” she added, rubbing her pet's ears. “Because we can look in Lex’s eyes and see [Dustin’s] spirit, because I know how much he loved this dog.”

-- Don Frederick