Kissinger’s Gift

06.04.13

John McCain’s Surprising Toast at Kissinger’s 90th Birthday Party

At Henry Kissinger’s 90th birthday party, the assembled VIP guests learned a piece of the past shared by the imprisoned Navy pilot and Nixon’s secretary of state.

Henry Kissinger’s 90th birthday party on Monday night at New York’s most glamorous dining room in Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel drew an astonishing lineup of luminaries, including former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, former French president Valéry Giscard D’Estaing, former chief of staff James Baker, former secretary of state Colin Powell, Gen. David Petraeus, and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Many of them, such as a visiting French dignitary fresh off a plane from Paris at the age of 103, proved that 90 is the new 30. Former president Bill Clinton, former secretary of state George Shultz, and current Secretary of State John Kerry all came to the podium to toast what Kerry called America’s “indispensable statesman,” as did as Kissinger’s two children, David and Elizabeth.

But it was Sen. John McCain’s remarks that had the room buzzing. McCain, shot down as a bomber pilot over North Vietnam on October 26, 1967, was brutally treated by his captors. He was tortured, beaten incessantly, his arms rebroken in the notorious Hanoi Hilton. Part of the McCain legend has always been how he declined an offer of early release rather than jump ahead of his fellow prisoners on account of his father’s impending promotion to admiral in charge of the U.S. Pacific fleet. On Monday night, for the first time, he told of a role played by Henry Kissinger.

The full text follows.

Sen. John McCain:

To do justice to the life and accomplishments of Henry Kissinger would take—as Henry would be the first to agree—a vehicle longer than my few brief remarks. A mere single-volume biography couldn’t really manage the task competently, could it, Henry?

So I’ll limit my remarks to recalling one anecdote that I think illuminates the character of my friend.

For several years, a long time ago, I struggled to preserve my honor in a situation where it was severely tested. The longer you struggle with something, the more you come to cherish it. And after a while, my honor, which in that situation was entirely invested in my relations and the reputation I had with my fellow POWs, became not just my most cherished possession, it was my only possession. I had nothing else left.

When Henry came to Hanoi to conclude the agreement that would end America’s war in Vietnam, the Vietnamese told him they would send me home with him. He refused the offer. “Commander McCain will return in the same order as the others,” he told them. He knew my early release would be seen as favoritism to my father and a violation of our code of conduct. By rejecting this last attempt to suborn a dereliction of duty, Henry saved my reputation, my honor, my life, really. And I’ve owed him a debt ever since.

So, I salute my friend and benefactor, Henry Kissinger, the classical realist who did so much to make the world safer for his country’s interests, and by so doing safer for the ideals that are its pride and purpose. And who, out of his sense of duty and honor, once saved a man he never met.