Former U.S. Senate candidate Adm. LeRoy Collins reflects on John McCain’s transformation from Navy officer to politician beginning with a posting as Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate
Irreverent View: You and John McCain both served as Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate. Did that pique your interest in a career in politics?
It was of special interest because my friend, Navy Captain, and a fellow submariner, Jim High, preceded John McCain in this Navy Liaison Officer billet in the Russell Senate Office Building; as a Navy Reserve Commander, I was in that job for two weeks in 1976…..less than a year before John McCain arrived. That job had a similar stimulus to me, but alas, I was not able to convert it into political success like Commander McCain did.
Irreverent View: How did you get the job? What was it like?
I arranged for two weeks of Naval Reserve annual active duty in this post through a fellow Floridian, Rear Admiral (later 4-star Admiral) Gus Kinnear, who at the time headed the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA). While the Navy is not permitted to “lobby” Congress, an informed Navy Officer on Capitol Hill is in a good position to readily answer questions from Members of Congress and their staffers, most of whom have not served in the U.S. Military. Accordingly, all Armed Services wisely place officers in such jobs who have broad operational experience in the field. Most of the questions involve explanations for Department of Defense budget requirements, arrangements for exposure of Members to the respective Services, and follow-up to constituency queries involving the respective Services.
Irreverent View: What was your impression of the Senate?
Aside from the usual orientation, I asked Capt. High to arrange for me a visit to the office he considered the “most efficient” so I could see how they handled the enormity of daily mail. The office he chose was that of Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., who was not there at the time of my visit. I was highly impressed with what his staff showed me at the time in 1976. When I came back to the same office 20 years later, there had been an almost complete change of staff, but the procedures were about the same, only now the office was totally computerized, so it was more efficient than ever. But this time Sen. Hatfield was there so his Executive Assistant asked if I would like some time with the Senator. You bet I would!
Well, when I strode into the senator’s palatial office, now in the Dirksen Building (reflecting his longevity and senior committee status). He looked up and did a double take. “Admiral Collins, you look exactly as I recall your father when we were governors together in 1959,” Sen. Hatfield said. We had a wonderful chat for perhaps 20 minutes. Dad had died five years before that moment, so I could not relay that occasion to him afterwards. Sen. Hatfield retired shortly after that.
Irreverent View: When did you meet John McCain?
John McCain and I were in the same 5th Battalion at the Naval Academy. He was in the Class of 1958, and I was in ’56. He was better known since he came from a long legacy of Naval Academy graduates who became admirals, and by John’s own admission, he was noted for his participation in hi-jinks to the delight of all, but to the detriment of his class standing. John was noisy wherever he was during those years, and I had little contact with him until he relieved my friend, Jim High, on Capitol Hill in 1977. On some occasion back on Capitol Hill in 1977, I checked in with Commander John McCain in the same space where I was the year before with Captain High. He received me quite graciously. I was especially interested how he had resumed his Navy career after being a POW for six years. He handled my questions in the same stoic way he does it today – he had become a very different person than I recall at the Naval Academy over 20 years earlier – quieter, more contemplative and clearly wiser.
Irreverent View: When did you see him next?
The next time I saw John McCain was during an Inauguration Parade in Tallahassee after he had become a Member of Congress. While our time together was fleeting at best, he was all business and wanted to know what I thought Floridians thought about some National issues. By that time I was so immersed in my own business there was nothing I knew which was responsive to his queries. So it became one of those “Howzitgoin?” greetings; polite but not substantive.
Irreverent View: Did Sen. McCain support your run for U.S. Senate?
When I ran for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2006, our mutual friend, Bud McFarlane, tried to get John to endorse my candidacy, but there was never any evidence he ever got the message. While I was disappointed, it has not diminished my desire to support John McCain for President in 2008.
Irreverent View: What do you think of Sen. McCain’s prospects for the 2008 presidential race?
He is the only candidate qualified to be the Commander-in-Chief, and he has displayed more courage in his life than perhaps all Members of Congress combined. While I agree when he places National Security as the highest priority on his platform, I disagree with his immigration policy which is a form of amnesty as far as I am concerned. But I agree with far more of what he represents than any of the others; the man has character which has been forged over a hot flame which has been very intense for over half a century
Retired Admiral LeRoy Collins, Jr. was a Republican Primary candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2006. He lost to Kathering Harris. In 2007 he was appointed Executive Director, Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs by Florida Governor Charlie Crist. E-mail Admiral Collins at: LeRoy@LeRoyCollins.org.