McCain and Ifshin
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
It’s hard to remember a more moving moment in college oratory than the one that came yesterday when Senator McCain, speaking at Columbia College on the subject of division and unity in American politics and war, suddenly started telling a personal story. “I had a friend once, who, a long time ago, in the passions and resentments of a tumultuous era in our history, I might have considered my enemy,” Mr. McCain said. “He had come once to the capitol of the country that held me prisoner, that deprived me and my dearest friends of our most basic rights, and that murdered some of us. He came to that place to denounce our country’s involvement in the war that had led us there. His speech was broadcast into our cells. I thought it a grievous wrong and I still do.”
“A few years later, he had moved temporarily to a kibbutz in Israel. He was there during the Yom Kippur War, when he witnessed the support America provided our beleaguered ally. He saw the huge cargo planes bearing the insignia of the United States Air Force rushing emergency supplies into that country. And he had an epiphany. He had believed America had made a tragic mistake and done a terrible injustice by going to Vietnam, and he still did. But he realized he had let his criticism temporarily blind him to his country’s generosity and the goodness that most Americans possess, and he regretted his failing deeply,” Mr. McCain said.
The man of whom the senator was speaking was an American idealist named David Ifshin, whose life has much to teach us all. “When he returned to his country he became prominent in Democratic Party politics,” the senator said. “He still criticized his government when he thought it wrong, but he never again lost sight of all that unites us. We met some years later. He approached me and asked to apologize for the mistake he believed he had made as a young man. Many years had passed since then, and I bore little animosity for anyone because of what they had done or not done during the Vietnam War. It was an easy thing to accept such a generous act, and we moved beyond our old grievance,” Mr. McCain said.
“We worked together in an organization dedicated to promoting human rights in the country where he and I had once come for different reasons. I came to admire him for his generosity, his passion for his ideals, for the largeness of his heart, and I realized he had not been my enemy, but my countryman . . . my countryman …and later my friend. His friendship honored me. We disagreed over much. Our politics were often opposed, and we argued those disagreements. But we worked together for our shared ideals,” the senator said. “David remained my countryman and my friend, until the day of his death, at the age of 47, when he left a loving wife and three beautiful children, and legions of friends behind him. His country was a better place for his service to her, and I had become a better man for my friendship with him. God bless him.”
The senator’s remarks are something for all New Yorkers to think about at a time when many are grappling with the problem of political healing, which has rarely needed more thinking about. Ifshin, who was counsel to both the 1992 presidential campaign of Governor Clinton and to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, died 10 years ago. With his wife and his children, he spent one of the last nights of his life in the Lincoln Bedroom, courtesy of the president he’d help elect. Mrs. Clinton did not attend Ifshin’s funeral and, according to an article by Morton Kondracke in the Weekly Standard, had “hatred” for Ifshin. But we’d like to think the lessons of his life were not lost on her either. Her husband sat up late into the night, talking with Ifshin and his children in the room where Lincoln slept. And it’s a testament to Ifshin’s memory that a decade after he died a candidate for president is pausing to tell some of our finest graduates what his life meant for his country.