KUSA — "It was inspiring to meet someone with that amount of courage."
An admiration became a friendship between former Colorado Senator Gary Hart and Senator John McCain.
Despite being on different sides of the aisle, the pair built a friendship that lasted more than 30 years.
It spanned from 1980, when Sen. Hart was a groomsman in Sen. McCain’s wedding, to this weekend, when Hart will serve as a pallbearer during McCain’s funeral.
Hart represented Colorado in the U.S. Senate for more than 10 years before running for president in 1988. He described meeting McCain when the late lawmaker was the Naval liaison to the Senate in the 70s. It was shortly after McCain returned from Vietnam.
"When I was introduced to him, I wouldn’t say I was speechless, but I was certainly in awe" Hart told 9NEWS. "All of us knew of his service in jail in Vietnam for almost 6 years."
As Naval liaison, the then Captain McCain would escort lawmakers like Hart on international trips.
"The most vivid were the trips we made out into the Indian Ocean together, and the Mediterranean on board aircraft carriers," Hart recounted. "John arranged for me to fly on the backseat of some high-performance combat aircrafts. The carrier takeoff and landing is something you never forget."
The pair’s friendship continued over party lines once McCain ran for Congress. Hart is a Democrat and McCain was a Republican.
"I would suppose he had at least as many friends on the Democratic side as the Republican side," Hart said of his friend. He described working friendships with Democratic Senators Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold and former Vice President Joe Biden.
"He became very close with Joe Biden in the Senate, but also when Joe lost his son to the same brain cancer that finally caused John’s death. They became very close friends. And the list went on," Hart remembered.
Looking forward on continuing his friend’s legacy, Hart said McCain had a very straightforward message for us, as citizens and voters.
"Care for the country, participate in public events, pay attention, read the newspapers and watch thoughtful commentary on television. Just be a good citizen," Hart said. ‘Don’t just criticize, don’t stay home and not vote, don’t opt out of your duties as an American citizen."
Hart added he spoke with McCain before he passed with Cindy McCain’s help. He said it was a tearful conversation.
Hart wrote a tribute to his friend called "Let Us Now Praise a Famous Man." You can read it below:
Let Us Now Praise a Famous Man
Captain John McCain was the U.S. Navy liaison officer to the United States Senate when we first met in 1977. Thereafter, he was escort officer on a number of Senate delegation trips and my escort on board two aircraft carriers underway in the Indian Ocean. The most notable delegation included Senators John Glenn, Sam Nunn, William Cohen, and myself on a tour of Asian nations ending in South Korea.
Our report urged President Jimmy Carter not to carry out his proposed withdrawal of U.S. troops in South Korea and the President reluctantly conceded.
The solo aircraft carrier visits, thanks to John McCain’s arrangements, enabled me to fly off the decks in the radar operators back seat in high performance combat aircraft. For anyone who has shared that experience, it is one that is never forgotten.
Thereafter, in 1980, John persuaded the Navy to commission me as an officer (Lt. j.g.) in the U.S. Naval Reserves. My purpose was to gain insights on naval operations not otherwise available to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on which I served. I never put the commission on my bio and never referred to it for political gain.
Along with Bill Cohen, I was invited to be one of John’s groomsmen in his wedding to Cindy Hensley in 1980 in Arizona. Following his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, we served in Congress together until my departure in 1987.
Over the subsequent years I tried to maintain contact with John and Cindy and once was invited to speak to a weekend retreat they maintained for friends and supporters at their home in Sedona, Arizona.
The story of John’s bravery as a prisoner in North Vietnam for five and a half years is well known. He refused early release if he would endorse a statement that he believed the war to be wrong and received special punishment when his captors discovered his father, Admiral John McCain, was commander of fleet forces off Vietnam.
When John referred to his experiences in jail it was with an amazing degree of candor and lack of bitterness. Some stories he would tell were in fact humorous and humane.
The world knows that John is ill. The outcome is apparently not in doubt. With Cindy’s help, I managed to speak with him yesterday and did so through my tears.
John is a hero to me and millions of others. He ran for and could have been President. He has lived an abundant and remarkable life. With no provocation he was pilloried by a man who did become President, a man without an ounce of his courage, bravery, and service. It was one of the ugliest moments in our current ugly times. It is a mark of these times that it should have disqualified that man from holding any public office, but it did not. That is how far down we have descended.
It is the mark of a coward that he seeks to bring anyone above him down to his level. He cannot stand to see anyone respected when he himself is not respected and does not respect the high office that he holds. One has only to look at those around that man to know why he could not acknowledge John McCain’s patriotism, service, and honors.
Those of us who know John McCain pray for him and his family. Like most of us, John is not a man without faults. He is very human and the first to admit it. Despite those faults, though, he is an extraordinary human being.
He emerged from prison with broken bones badly set, walked with a limp, and saluted awkwardly. Those were marks of distinction and honor. Despite his afflictions, he laughed often and saw humor in the ridiculousness of the human folly we call politics.
Like many, many others, I am a better man for knowing John. I consider it a privilege to have had the honor.
When John enters the next life, his flight will be straight and level…and very fast. His laugh will be light, but he will mourn for the political chaos that is not his fault but that he could not cure. The rest of us left here have no choice but to try.
Anchors aweigh, John. Set your course for the horizon and your friends will join you soon.