Rob Simmons reflects on his relationship with McCain

John McCain celebrates with Rob Simmons at Groton-New London Airport in November of 2000 after McCain flew in to support Simmons' successful candidacy for Congress. (Photo courtesy of Simmons' 2000 campaign for Congress)
John McCain celebrates with Rob Simmons at Groton-New London Airport in November of 2000 after McCain flew in to support Simmons' successful candidacy for Congress. (Photo courtesy of Simmons' 2000 campaign for Congress)

Stonington — It was 1979 when now-First Selectman Rob Simmons was told by his boss, the late Rhode Island Sen. John Chaffee, to set up a trip for him to a half-dozen Middle Eastern countries.

That meant Simmons, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, had to make his way over to a basement office of the Navy’s liaison officer to the Senate, a Capt. John McCain.

When Simmons entered, an enlisted woman told him he had to talk to a Marine Corps major who then said he had to talk to McCain.

“I began to feel like I was getting the runaround,” Simmons recalled on Sunday.

When he pushed open the door to McCain’s office, Simmons said he was overwhelmed by the cigar smoke.

All he could see were two feet up on the desk and someone hidden behind the newspaper he was reading.

Simmons first coughed to get McCain’s attention. When there was no reaction, he coughed again. Then he spoke up.

The two feet stayed on the desk, but the newspaper slowly lowered.

McCain looked at Simmons for a few moments and then took the cigar out of his mouth.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked Simmons.

It wouldn’t be the last time the two military officers would meet, as Simmons said they worked on veterans and other issues together when Simmons served three terms as U.S. representative from the 2nd District from 2001 to 2007. McCain died Saturday after battling brain cancer.

Soon after Simmons went to work as staff director for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and its chairman, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, McCain announced he was running for congressman from Arizona.

Opponents pointed out he had lived in the state for less then two years, but McCain countered by saying the longest he had lived anywhere was the Hanoi Hilton, a reference to the six years he was held captive and tortured by the North Vietnamese after being shot down during a bombing mission.

First as a son of Navy officer and then as a Navy aviator, he frequently moved around the country. As a small child, McCain lived on Ocean Avenue in New London and attended Harbor School.

“He was just a natural politician, a people person,” said Simmons, who worked with McCain’s staff while he was with Goldwater.

“I don’t claim to be a close friend of his. But he did some things over the course of our careers that were helpful to me,” Simmons said.

One of them came in 2000 when Simmons was in a close contest with incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson. The national Republican Campaign Committee organized a group of Republican senators and congressman who were flying around the country to support GOP candidates and would be stopping at Groton-New London Airport to speak on behalf of Simmons.

Just before their arrival, two of Gejdenson's staffers leaked comments Simmons had made in the past about never torturing Viet Cong prisoners but using subtle pressure of persuasion when he worked with the CIA in Vietnam and southeast Asia during the war. Two college students then accused Simmons of being a war criminal.

“It was a blow to my campaign,” Simmons said. “I had closed the gap from 25 percent to within the margin of error.”

Simmons said that when the plane landed just a few days before the election at Groton-New London Airport, the door opened and just one Republican member of Congress walked out — McCain.

All the others had abandoned Simmons in light of the last-minute allegations.

Simmons said a fiery McCain then strode over to the reporters and cameras to speak.

According to a report in The Day, McCain said he was proud to stand with Simmons at the rally, which attracted 600 of Simmons’ supporters.

“He is good and decent American and he serves our support,” McCain said of Simmons.

“'When is America going to come to grips with the fact that the war is over? Good people served in Vietnam. When the war was over, Rob Simmons and a whole generation of people should have been treated with the respect they deserved,'” Simmons recalled McCain saying on Sunday. “That’s just the way he was.”

A photo of confetti raining down on Simmons and McCain hangs in both Simmons’ Town Hall office and in his home, the latter signed by McCain.

Simmons said that during his six years in Congress, he and McCain worked a lot on veterans' issues, and McCain, who headed the Senate version of the U.S.-Vietnam caucus, inspired Simmons to start the House version. They then worked on improving relations with Vietnam and bringing the country into the World Trade Organization.

A short time later, McCain came to Simmons’ aid again after Simmons had convinced the House to designate New London as the site of the proposed national Coast Guard Museum. But New York Sens. Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer had passed a Senate version of the bill that designated New York, which was promising more funding, as the host location.

The House and Senate then jointly heard testimony from Simmons, Clinton, Schumer and others. McCain presided.

After the hearing, Simmons said he went to McCain’s office to press his case for New London.

McCain reminded Simmons that he had lived in New London and attended school there as a child. More important, he felt the museum should be where the Coast Guard Academy is located. Simmons said McCain’s influence was enough to sway members to support New London. Fundraising and planning for the $100 million museum continues with construction slated to begin in 2021.

“When I think of John, I think of a guy who was outspoken. Like most vets he was frustrated by their experience in the war, its political ramifications and how veterans were treated after the war,” Simmons said. “But he turned that sense of anger into public life and tried to make the country better.”

Simmons said he was honoring McCain by lowering the American flag in his yard to half-staff.

“It’s sad day for me,” he said.

 j.wojtas@theday.com

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