McCain Would Make History, Attend Army/Navy

In his only public comments prior to the Rutgers game, the Republican nominee for president, Sen. John McCain, spoke with about the overwhelming reception his family received at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. McCain also addressed what will become a popular question in Annapolis if he is elected president: Would he sit on the West Point side of the field at the Army/Navy game?

John McCain has been to plenty of Navy football games in Annapolis in his lifetime.  As a midshipman in the 1950s he was required to attend every home game; and since graduation, he has been back to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on several occasions.  However, it's a good bet that he never had the kind of welcome he and his family received prior to the Rutgers game on Sept. 20.

As McCain, his wife Cindy, and their son Jack – a senior at the Naval Academy made their way into the tent where the class of 1958 was gathered outside the stadium, the scene became very moving for the presidential candidate.

"It's pretty emotional in a way," said McCain. "Seeing all of my old friends and classmates – guys I served with.  It was very nice…very heart warming."

And even though there must have been a toss-up state or two he could have been campaigning in on that day, it was evident, with his son in his military uniform by his side, that McCain was more than content to be just a classmate and a father for a day.

"I'm glad to be here," the Arizona senator stated firmly.

Of course, it is also widely known that the Annapolis graduate is a die-hard Navy football fan, who according to Jack, "bleeds blue and gold" every Saturday when the Midshipmen play.

"I'm not even as diehard of a fan as my dad," said Jack McCain in a previous interview with  "He lives and dies with Navy football.  He's been in the locker room a couple of times to talk to the team.  Not only does he love [Navy] football, he knows how hard they work."

Navy football is a popular topic amongst the McCains.  In fact, last December when the younger McCain found out that Paul Johnson had taken the job with Georgia Tech, it didn't take long for him to talk about the possible ramifications with his dad.

"I called him pretty much immediately after I found out," said Jack.  "He was sad to lose him to Georgia Tech, but [my dad] knew it was going to happen."

However, when asked about Navy's new coach, Ken Niumatalolo, Sen. McCain was confident in the first-year head coach's ability to lead the Midshipmen to a sixth- consecutive bowl game.

"I'm sure they can [win six games].  They've lost some good players as we all know, but I think he is a very fine coach, and I think we have a good solid basis.  It's going to be a long season and we need to win this one today."

Navy of course went on to win the game in thrilling fashion over Rutgers, and after the game, a certain fullback said Navy's number one fan is welcome anytime. Specifically when Tyree Barnes, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, and Eric Kettani were asked at the post-game press conference who would like to ask Sen. McCain to come to another game for good luck, senior Eric Kettani responded with an immediate, "I will."

Perhaps McCain was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina this past Saturday as Navy beat previously unbeaten and nationally-ranked Wake Forest, 24-17.

One game that Kettani probably won't have to ask the presidential candidate to attend is the Army/Navy contest.  A frequent attendee at the classic rivalry, McCain said if elected president he would not only go, but he would gladly spend half the game on the West Point side of the field – a tradition dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.

He called such a decision to sit with Navy's arch-rival an "easy" one.

"When you become president, those things [like the Army/Navy rivalry] recede into the background," said McCain.

It turns out if Sen. McCain attends the Army/Navy game, he would be setting a new precedent for service academy graduates who held the highest office in the United States since the rivalry began in 1890.  According to Jack Clary, an Army/Navy game historian and noted author, neither President Dwight D. Eisenhower (West Point – 1915) nor President James Carter (Annapolis – 1947) attended the game while they were in the Oval Office.

"Eisenhower was scrupulous in a sense that he didn't want to show prejudice.  He put aside his own rooting interest and decided to cheer for [West Point] from afar," Clary told "He couldn't go to the game and sit like a stone and not show interest."

Clary wrote the following about Eisenhower's decision in the book, Army vs Navy, published in 1965.

Dwight David Eisenhower, former player, assistant coach, and cheerleader, was occupying the White House and, rather than desplay his natural feelings of loyalty only for his Alma Mater, or disloyalty to his Alma Mater, by assuming a role as a neutral--the plight of the Commander-in-Chief--he reluctantly stayed away and watched each game on television from his retreat on the Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia.  It was his custom to send telegrams to each team, wishing them good luck.  Prior to the 1957 game, he sent one to [Navy coach Eddie] Erdelatz which read:

    "Please express my personal best wishes to each member of your squad as it goes into the big game today.  I know that regardless of the outcome every American will be proud of them and that they will richly deserve a 'well done.'  Good luck to you and your team."    Dwight D. Eisenhower

     [Army coach Red] Blaik also receive a telegram which read:

    "I have just sent the following telegram to the Navy coach and team . . ." and he quoted the telegram he sent Erdelatz.  Then, his telegram continued:

    "The requirements of neutrality are thus scrupulously observed.  But over a span of almost half a century, on the day of The Game, I had only one thought and one song: On Brave Old Army Team.  Best regards."    Dwight D. Eisenhower

Although Eisenhower did not attend an Army/Navy game, he did attend the 150-pound football version of the classic in Annapolis on Oct. 26, 1957. 

As for former President Jimmy Carter, he too decided to stay away from the Army/Navy game while he lived in the White House.  However, the reason for his decision is not as clear.  According to former Naval Academy athletic director and one of Carter's classmates at Annapolis, J.O. "Bo" Coppedge, an invitation was extended to the 39th President of the United States.

"It never came up [as to why he did not attend].  He was offered the opportunity to go [to the Army/Navy game] obviously, but he did what he wanted," said Coppedge. "I know him well, but I don't know why he didn't come."

Carter's daily diary not only confirms that he did not attend the game while President, but it reveals all of his activities on the first Saturday in December each year.  For instance, instead of going to the Army/Navy game on December 2, 1978, President Carter "participated in a fitting for ski equipment with Robert Cissly, salesman for Hudson Bay Outfitters" and "played tennis" with his physician. 

Carter did however attend a Navy football game while serving in the Oval Office.  On November 12, 1977, the 1947 Annapolis graduate went to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to watch the Mids play Georgia Tech.  Ironically, Carter attended the Atlanta-based college for a year prior to receiving his appointment to Annapolis.

In a move that mimicked the tradition of the Army/Navy game, Carter sat with Georgia Tech fans for the first-half and then, after walking across the field at halftime, sat with Navy fans for the remainder of the game.  His decision to do that, did not sit well with Jack Clary.

"It was phony…to sit on one side and then walk across the stadium," said Clary.  "Carter was a strange dude...who can figure him out anyhow?"

Did Coppedge, the athletic director at the time in Annapolis, think it was a good idea for his classmate to copy that particular Army/Navy game tradition?

"He told me it was a good idea," said Coppedge. "I guess my feeling was he would do whatever he wanted to do.  He was the President."

Coppedge did acknowledge that his friend was "very helpful to the Naval Academy" and that the school "could count on him for his help."

One group of midshipmen who would agree with that statement was those who were on restriction during the game attended by Carter in 1977.  According to his diary, Carter went to the press box during the second half and "made a statement over the public address system granting amnesty to midshipmen who had been awarded extra duties for infractions of U.S. Naval Academy regulations."

One president who took great pride in attending the Army/Navy game was John F. Kennedy.  Although the late president did not graduate from either service academy, his service as an officer in the U.S. Navy from 1941-1945 is well documented.  And Kennedy had no hardship in acknowledging his partiality to the football team from Annapolis according to Tom Lynch, a retired rear admiral and captain of Navy's 1963 team.

"President Kennedy was a Navy guy like us – a lieutenant in PT 109 in World War II…and his PT buddy and close personal friend, ‘Red' Fay was the Under-Secretary of the Navy.  Red attended every one of our games and knew us all personally," said Lynch.

"In the summer of 63, we were practicing at Quonset Point, Rhode Island and the President arrived early [prior to meeting his wife] for a vacation, and he came over and took photos and chatted with the team.  So we had this bond between us and the President as well," continued Lynch.

Kennedy attended both the 1961 and 1962 Army/Navy games – both Navy victories – and prior to the 1963 contest he sent a telegram to Navy coach Wayne Hardin that said, "I hope to be on the winning side when the game ends."  Of course Kennedy knew he would be sitting on the Navy side for the second-half.

"It was [another] clue to us that he was in our corner," said Lynch.

Kennedy was assassinated a few days after the telegram was read to the team, but his considerable involvement with the Army/Navy game lives on – and could very well be replicated in the coming years.

"I'm sure if John [McCain] becomes the Commander-in-Chief he will go to the game, and he will do like Kennedy did.  [Like Kennedy] he will be an unabashed Navy fan," said Clary. "I think the fact that he wears his Navy hat [everywhere]…that's more for the Academy than the Navy itself.  I think he has that emotional tie to the Academy."

Lynch, who is supporting McCain's campaign in Pennsylvania, added, "I think it's a shame the Presidents don't go [to the Army/Navy game] as they used to.  The President should show the support he has for both service academies.  It would be great to have John there as Commander-in-Chief to show how it should be done."

And even though Lynch acknowledges that McCain would sit on the Army side for one half, he doesn't believe the presidential nominee's allegiance to the blue and gold would waiver.

"I'll know where his heart is."

"Besides you could have a West Point graduate in the White House eight years from now and we wouldn't want them to show a preference," added Lynch. Top Stories