My Brother's Big Day
Watching Obama hand my brother Jack his diploma at the Naval Academy on Friday triggered my emotions about what it means to be an American-and a McCain.
Last Friday—appropriately, three days before Memorial Day—I attended my brother Jack’s graduation from the United States Naval Academy. He is officially the fourth generation of my family in a row to do so. In an ironic and somewhat serendipitous twist, President Obama was Jack’s graduation speaker and, therefore, the person who handed my brother his diploma and commission. The graduation picture circulating the Web this weekend was of the two embracing. Yes, there was something irreversibly bizarre about Obama giving Jack his diploma. But as his sister and an observer at the ceremony, I thought it was a beautiful way to put the events of elections past behind my family. In a weird way it felt like the end of an era—and obviously, the beginning of a new one. Even though my father lost, our family has a military legacy in a way Obama does not. And although he is sitting in the White House, the president came to a turf that could not be more quintessentially my father’s to recognize, firsthand, my brother’s commitment to his country.
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Sitting only a few yards away from Obama and Jack, I found myself getting very emotional. My family heritage is copiously documented in my father’s war memoir, Faith of My Fathers. (I have not actually read the book because I cannot bring myself to face the details of his experience being tortured in prison. I will when I am ready, but I can’t bear to think of my father in pain.) So much of our family legacy is tied up in my brother’s graduation. Jack will likely join my brother Jimmy, a Marine, in combat sometime in the near future. I’m busy continuing my father’s legacy within the Republican Party, albeit in my own way. And all the while my grandmother sat there watching her grandson, just as she once watched her son, graduate from the same academy her husband also attended.
My brothers’ decisions to join the military, while equally passionate, happened in very different ways. Jimmy elected to forgo college, instead enlisting in the Marines when he was 17. Like many Marines, he has a multitude of military and American-pride tattoos covering a considerable portion of his body. The night before Jimmy first deployed, I accompanied him to a tattoo parlor for sisterly support. I ended up getting a star tattooed on my foot as a visual reminder of my brother and what he gives up every day so I can enjoy all the benefits of being an American here at home. We have talked about getting matching “live free or die” tattoos when he gets home; it’s a slogan that has lots of patriotic meaning for both of us.
Jimmy fits the typical Marine personality and loves the Corps with every element of his being. He decided to enlist instead of going to college because, like many men and women who do so, he feels a strong, conscious passion to serve his country. There are so many stereotypes about men and women in uniform that the liberal media pushes forward. I remember when Jimmy deployed for his overseas tour (he previously served in Iraq) commenting to him that I was disappointed with MTV’s choice to cast an Army veteran on The Real World: Brooklyn. Maybe I should have known better, but it is sadly predictable that MTV would choose one of the few soldiers critical of the Iraq war to represent so many men and women who serve because they want to and believe in the cause. I had a hard time watching because, in my experience, The Real World veteran is the exception, not the rule. Jimmy and I attended the annual Marine Ball in San Diego right before he left, and it was amazing to hear everyone’s expectations for deployment and what it meant. I love hanging out with my brother and his friends because, first of all, no one knows how to have a good time quite like the Marines do, and second of all, it serves as a firsthand reminder of the faces and personalities giving up their lives serving overseas.
Jack is following such an extreme legacy I sometimes wonder how he does it. There is so much pressure to live up to my father.
By contrast, my brother Jack is a classic example of someone in the officer training program who loves the Naval Academy with the same luster Jimmy does the Marines. He’ll be going to flight school in Pensacola, Florida, to become a pilot, like my father, later this summer. Jack is following such an extreme legacy I sometimes wonder how he does it. There is so much pressure to live up to my father, but he has always impressed me with his ability to let it all roll off his back and focus on the task at hand.
Of all the things in my life of which I am proud, my family’s legacy to this country will always be the strongest. And it’s the one thing I get truly emotional talking about. Last summer, when everyone wrote my father off from being the Republican Party's nominee for president and no one wanted to touch his campaign, he went on the “No Surrender Tour” around VFW halls in the South. That tour, and the veterans he met along the way, brought back his campaign. My brothers give up so much for this country and I appreciate everything they, and so many other men and women, do every day.
I am constantly describing the differences between the world I come from and the world I reside in. I come from one of the more famous military families in the country, yet I live in Manhattan and am surrounded by people who have never even met anyone in the service. I understand the frustration my brothers’ friends feel about being misrepresented in the media, so much so that I speak out against it—and yet I work in New York media. Many of my conservative friends believe all liberals stereotype Republicans as gun-toting, Wal-Mart-shopping hicks without any perspective of the outside world. My liberal friends don’t understand how I can still stand by a party that, in their eyes, represents all the failures of the Bush administration. There is misrepresentation on both parts. I am always encouraging all my friends to go up to men and women in uniform and thank them for their service—and ask them about their experience, because they are more than happy to share. I’m not just trying to describe the different worlds I experience, I am constantly trying to reconcile them. The image of Obama handing my brother his diploma and commission on stage Friday is the perfect visual for that dichotomy.
Meghan McCain is originally from Phoenix. She graduated from Columbia University in 2007. She previously wrote for Newsweek magazine and created the Web site mccainblogette.com.