A Marine for McCain

"He's finished," I thought to myself as I read the headline on Drudge Report: "McCain Out of Money." It was mid-July last summer, and I'd been holed up in my parents' basement for days, passing the time in front of the computer as I waited to hear back from a hedge fund I'd interviewed with the week before. It was becoming clear with each passing day that they wouldn't call, and now this: John McCain was done. He'd run as the incumbent, hoping to secure the backing of the Bush machine. But it never came, and now he was out of money. Loyal longtime advisers were abandoning ship. I didn't know which hurt more: not getting that hedge fund job or watching the wheels fall off my hero's presidential campaign six months before the first primary.

John McCain is the reason I joined the Marine Corps after surviving the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. When the first plane hit the North Tower I was working as an investment adviser for Morgan Stanley in the South Tower. I ran down 61 flights of stairs. I was halfway down when the second plane hit—and then I ran west, dodging burning debris and body parts, toward the Hudson River. I climbed a fence and clung to it, unable to make the plunge into the river as the dust cloud from the falling towers engulfed lower Manhattan. It was there, clinging to that fence, covered in soot, that I decided to join the Marines.

Why was I inspired by McCain? To me, he is the only politician running for president who lives by the axioms described in Teddy Roosevelt's famous speech, "The Man in the Arena." McCain's been in the arena. He risked his life there and understands its consequences. But too often we've been led by men who haven't had to face those consequences, who lack the personal experience to truly know what's at stake, and the consequences of that have been on full display for the last five years, as the botched war plans of men like Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney, men who sent the country to war without ever having been themselves, play out to tragic results. I went into the arena because I believed in men like John McCain. During my seven-month tour in Iraq in 2005, I wore my McCain 2008 T-shirt under my desert-camo blouse almost every day.

I am an unabashed national security voter. To me it trumps all other factors in 2008. What's the point of a great economy if Wall Street gets nuked? I guess combat veterans have a certain way of seeing things. Prevent failure at all costs; bring your rain gear to the field even if sunny skies are forecast. America, when it needed him the most, had a chance to be led by a president who not only talked the talk but walked the walk—a man who knew from the get-go that the Rumsfeld nightmare was correctable with more troops and better equipment (something that become painfully clear when I was a Marine on the ground in Iraq). But no one had listened, and now McCain was out.

I needed a new candidate to support. So a few balmy days later I walked into Rudy Giuliani's campaign headquarters in downtown Manhattan. I told them I was a McCain guy but that this was about winning the war, and the mayor was my next best choice. The Giuliani people were happy to have me. A Bronx native who made it out of the towers and served in Iraq, I was good as gold to them. So they took me in, invited me to fund-raisers, had me film a commercial with a bunch of other 9/11 survivors on why Rudy should be president. They talked with glee about how they were set to reap the benefits of McCain's mismanaged campaign. But nobody ever disrespected McCain; it was obvious he was their biggest fear.

The tone in the Giuliani office that summer was incredibly confident. Not that it surprised me: Rudy had spent the better part of the last year as the Republican front runner. He'd established himself as the true-blue national security candidate, and now that McCain looked to be out, all they had to do was sit back and wait for all the McCain supporters, guys like me, to come rushing to Rudy. Deep down it still felt as though I'd walked out on my best friend to go hang out with the popular kids.

On Sept. 10 I went on CNN to discuss Gen. Petraeus's congressional testimony and defend President Bush's "surge" of troops to Iraq. Immediately afterward, a producer from "Hardball" called and asked me to be the pro-Rudy guy on a 9/11 panel they were putting together for the next day. I said sure, and they sent over the question they were going to ask me: is Rudy Giuliani more of a hero than John McCain? I knew how I had to answer: not by a long shot. I forwarded the question to the Giuliani campaign, knowing it would raise red flags with them. They quickly wrote back saying they would appreciate it if I didn't go on "Hardball."

It was then that I realized what a mistake I'd made, stumping for a candidate I couldn't be truthful about. A couple of weeks later I moved out to Phoenix for a job, and I spent the entire fall stewing. I got angry hearing the Republican front runners talking tough about the war and the surge when they had no idea what war was like. Neither Rudy nor sudden contender Mike Huckabee has ever been to Iraq. It struck me as increasingly tragic that while the front runners pecked at one another and puffed out their phony national security credentials, all the while the true war hero, the man who had it right the whole time, who'd not only been to war himself but whose son was in Iraq, sat relegated to the sidelines.

But then a funny thing happened. McCain started to surge. The more the country learned about the other candidates, the more they said, "Oh yeah, we kind of like John McCain." The national security voters, veterans and hawks like myself who grudgingly shifted to Giuliani after McCain seemed buried, have now come back in force for the man. A comparison of his national security credentials to Rudy's isn't much of a contest. McCain wins hands down. He wagered his campaign on the success of the surge and has seen his own flesh and blood sent to the front. While Giuliani showed courage on 9/11, like the Rumsfelds and the Romneys of the world, he doesn't know what it's like to be shot at. Once it was clear that Mac was back, the candidate who got shot down defending America was the clear choice over the man who gave roaming interviews after a terrorist attack. Never count out a POW.

On the night of the New Hampshire primary I sat watching the results come in while sitting on my hands in my Phoenix apartment, quietly pulling for McCain. After the pundits called it for him, I was thrilled, but I felt terrible. I should have been happy, but it was like watching my favorite team win after betting against them. The next day I called the McCain headquarters in Virginia and told the intern who answered the phone, "This is Cpl. Finelli. I'm a Marine, a 9/11 survivor and an Iraq War veteran. I need to talk to the campaign manager." "Right away sir," the kid said and gave me Rick Davis's cell phone. I immediately called Davis, and when he answered I started in: "I've been backing Giuliani because I thought you guys were out. I'm sorry. Please let me help." "Absolutely," he said. It feels good to be home.