John McCain will be remembered as unafraid. Unafraid as a naval aviator to resist and survive five-and-a-half years in a North Vietnamese prison. Unafraid as a U. S. senator to challenge and defy the power-brokers who ran his Republican party.
McCain, 81, who died Saturday, was an increasingly rare and truly iconic American political figure. He was authentic.
He had his strongly-held views, and woe to anyone who got in his way. He could be irascible and temperamental, yet equally charming and collegial.
Long before big swaths of voters embraced the plain-spokenness of President Donald Trump or the give ‘em hell appeal of Bernie Sanders, McCain used his no-nonsense, don’t-mess-with-me style to build his own political constituency, one that helped him gain the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
John Sidney McCain was never one to take it easy. Even at age 2, his stubbornness was so intense he would hold his breath until he passed out. His parents would dunk him in cold water to “cure,” McCain wrote in his memoir, “Faith of My Fathers.”
“I have spent much of my life choosing my own attitude, often carelessly, often for no better reason than to indulge a conceit,” he wrote.
Not a role model at first
McCain’s path was established early. He was the son and grandson of admirals. He attended the Naval Academy, but was a poor student, ranked 894th in a class of 899, Robert Timberg wrote in “The Nightingale’s Song.”
He conceded he was hardly a role model. He enjoyed the party life, and got involved in several accidents as a naval aviator. But McCain’s skills improved and he was deployed to Vietnam as American involvement in the war escalated.
In October 1967, while on a bombing mission over North Vietnam, McCain’s plane was shot down. Reports said a mob spat on him and kicked him, stripped him of his clothes, crushed his left shoulder with a rifle butt and stabbed him.
He rejected a North Vietnamese offer of early release in 1968; his father was commander of U.S. forces in the region. The son would end up in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison and would be beaten, tortured and placed in solitary confinement for two years. He was released back to the United States in 1973, angry at American politicians who he felt had abandoned support for the war.
McCain had never been deeply involved in politics, but after his return to the U.S., he worked as a military liaison to the Senate. He had an office in a building adjacent to the Capitol, and it “became a late afternoon gathering spot where senators and staffers...would drop in for a drink and the chance to unwind,” Timberg wrote in “An American Odyssey.”
By 1981, McCain had remarried and moved to Phoenix, where he worked for his father-in-law’s beer distributorship. He now had the political bug, and his easy way with voters, war hero status and appeal to conservatives helped him win a congressional seat in 1982 and a Senate seat four years later.
McCain quickly became a familiar, if volatile, Washington figure. He was one of five senators said to pressure federal regulators to go easy on Charles Keating, whose savings & loan collapsed during the 1980s. McCain would later write in a memoir the scandal made him “wince,” and taught him a lesson in how to be careful.
On the national stage
McCain was becoming a national figure in the 1990s. He courted the media, often standing in Capitol halls as dozens gathered around him. He would hold makeshift press conferences seemingly daily about any topic.
He gained a reputation as a senator willing to not only work with the other party but actively oppose his own. Sometimes he went too far; he once told Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, “f--- you” in front of about 40 witnesses. A vote by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., made McCain so angry he wrote that he approached Shelby “to bring my nose within an inch of his as I screamed out my intense displeasure over his deceit.”
Voters, though, admired his willingness to fight whoever got in his way. Nothing was more emblematic of that combat than the campaign to rid politics of soft money, or contributions that could be given in unlimited amounts.
McCain teamed with liberal Democrat Russ Feingold to outlaw the practice, and used his bid to dilute the power of special interests as the centerpiece of a 2000 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Rival George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, spent much of his pre-2000 presidential effort courting GOP office-holders and millionaires. McCain roamed New Hampshire and other early voting states in his “Straight Talk Express” bus, spending hours at town hall meetings.
Typical was a foggy day in October 1999, at Walpole (N.H.) Elementary School, taking 19 questions from the 150 people attending. He visited a health class. He stood outside to greet war veterans.
The “Straight Talk Express” became a political, if not a cultural, phenomenon. McCain would sit in the back, on a semi-circular couch of sorts, and hold court about whatever was on his mind. In South Carolina, running early for a campaign appearance, he had the bus stop at a fast-food parking lot, where he and then-Rep. Lindsey Graham compared notes on baseball stadiums.
There was an authenticity to McCain’s campaign that voters had rarely seen. He beat Bush easily in that 2000 New Hampshire primary, but the results foretold his political vulnerability. He won only 35 percent of the Republicans. The rest were independents and Democrats. McCain was on to something, but Bush hit back hard, mobilizing conservatives and big donors and ultimately winning the nomination.
McCain would win the nomination in 2008, but his time had passed. He took public financing for the general election, while Barack Obama didn’t; Obama outspent him 4 to 1. McCain’s straight talk appeal was eclipsed by Obama’s charisma. The choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a running-mate, while popular with conservatives, was largely derided as a mistake and even an embarrassment. Most ironically, McCain found himself having to defend the policies of Bush, who by October had a 25 percent Gallup approval rating.
McCain struggled, not only among the independents who had once embraced him, but among many Republicans who branded Obama a liar, terrorist, and, in one Minnesota rally, and Arab.
“No, ma’am,” McCain replied, taking the mic back from a voter. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”
Obama won a comfortable victory, and McCain returned to the Senate, usually voting with Republicans but willing to work with Democrats. He was still feisty and outspoken, still hanging out in the halls of Congress talking to the media, to tourists, to whoever wanted a conversation.
Taking the high road with Trump
He still could be blunt; two years ago, he said Trump “fired up the crazies.”
Trump swung back, calling McCain “a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
McCain took the high road. “When Mr. Trump says he prefers to be with people who are not captured, the great honor of my life was to be in the company of heroes,” he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
McCain got some measure of revenge last year. Days after undergoing brain surgery in July 2017, he returned to Washington and cast the crucial vote against dismantling Obamacare. Trump was furious.
He told a radio interviewer McCain was “the only reason” the Trump health care agenda didn’t move forward. He tweeted McCain “let Arizona down.” He told rallies McCain’s vote was “sad.”
Trump wouldn’t relent, even as McCain left Washington in December to continue treatment in Arizona.
In February, he railed against McCain’s vote in speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
On August 13, Trump signed a massive military spending bill named in honor of McCain. Trump spoke for nearly half an hour and never mentioned McCain.
McCain didn’t respond. Chances are he wouldn’t have even if the Washington media horde had done what it always did, surround him as he held court in the Senate halls, because ever since Trump began his blasts, McCain would be asked repeatedly what he thought of the president.
McCain would not answer.
But he would get that trademark McCain look on his face, and you knew where he stood.