Politics is often a grind, but once in a while, a moment of pure exhilaration can smack you with what’s possible.
One of those moments for me was a John McCain rally on the snowy banks of the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth, NH John Fogerty’s Center field yelled across the park (“Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play, today”) and McCain was flanked by his partners in anti-establishment mischief – the senses. Lindsey Graham and Fred Thompson.
“He’s one of the worst movie actors I’ve ever seen,” McCain joked of Thompson. “No negative campaign!” the late senator, indeed a movie actor, fired back.
They were stunned, and rightly so. The February 2000 primary in New Hampshire was almost upon us, and McCain would almost certainly offer a reward to the Bush dynasty.
After that massive victory over Texas Gov. George W. Bush, McCain and his campaign and his politics itself quickly fell to earth with a thud – in the weeks following in South Carolina and over the next 15 years and more. But at the time, he was the purest distillation of a maverick I’ve ever seen in politics. As he liked to say, “Gov. Bush is going to be there raising a lot of money. I will raise a lot of hell.
That instinct – to rebel, to protest, to tell the truth as he saw it – never left him. You saw flashes of it even as he was part of the Republican establishment and its 2008 presidential nominee.
McCain 2000 was a continuous “West Wing” season
There was no categorization of John McCain, who died Saturday at age 81. I first spent time with him in 1997 on a trip back to Arizona as he prepared to run for re-election to the Senate and toyed with the idea of a presidential bid for 2000. . He memorably called for capping the CEO’s salary at that time, a theme he revived when Wall Street collapsed at the end of his White House bid in 2008. He also demonstrated what I thought was contrarian impulses as he freed himself from the seat belt as he drove us around Phoenix. (Was the senator break the law?)
In response to my anxious “seatbelt?” whispers in the back seat, his press secretary said he had trouble putting it on because of arm injuries from torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. I felt mortified, and even more anxious, when she told him about it and he clumsily buckled up while driving.
McCain’s first presidential campaign was like a continuous season of west wing: idealized and idealistic, an unlikely seat of the pants business that operated on a primary-to-primary basis, the next steps to be planned on the fly. John Weaver, his top strategist, compared it to match-point golf. The campaign’s trademark symbol was the Straight Talk Express bus, on which McCain chatted with reporters about the movies he liked and the books he read, made jokes and news far too often for anyone to sleep and entertain visiting editors. and other hotshots that meant they had been on that magic bus at that magic moment.
But the outspokenness went far beyond the name of the bus. Listening to McCain interact with voters was often heartwarming. When a worker at a New Hampshire textile factory wondered if his son would be able to get a job in a factory, McCain said he should aim higher for his children, maybe in the high technology rather than in a factory. When a woman complained about health care, he told her she would have to leave the White Mountains for a big city if she wanted quality care.
McCain’s biography, honesty, humor, and crusades against special interests and big bucks in politics have won him wide appeal to all kinds of people—up to a point. I will never forget his rousing populist speech to a horde of fans and guests at a fancy hotel. An out-of-town couple cheered wildly on their way to speaking out against abortion and for gun rights. “Oh for Pete’s sake,” the woman said angrily, and walked out of the ballroom with her husband. The same thing happened several years later, minus the anger and the hounding, when my New York liberal parents came to hear McCain speak at the National Press Club in Washington. It was more of a nostalgia: we love this guy so much, we wish he were on our side.
In fact, he’s often been on their side, and mine, over the years. He was concerned about climate change and took a hard line against torture. He wanted to limit corporate wages, corporate welfare, and corporate money in politics. And he’s worked across the aisle on issues ranging from campaign finance reform to immigration to veterans and the environment. Some of his bipartisan plans came to fruition, some didn’t, but he was still in the middle of things trying to make Congress work. That was the difference between McCain and so many Republicans today.
Zigs and zags, but a maverick all the way
McCain had his zigs and zags. His selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate will be studied for decades, if not centuries, as a disastrous example of the first major decision a presidential candidate must make – and in this case a decision which inadvertently served as rocket fuel for a nascent conservative movement away from facts and towards tribalism. His reaction to the financial collapse at the end of the 2008 campaign was less than reassuring, as were his right-wing swings to win the Senate primaries against Tea Party opponents.
In the age of Donald Trump, McCain had to endure — of all things — Trump’s outrageous insults to his military service. In his final months, he helped block the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, tried to impress on Trump that Russia was not our friend, and begged the Senate to regain its greatness or dumb it down. least a semblance of thoughtful procedure. In other words, he’s gone back to his usual mode of pleasing some people once in a while and pissing off a lot of people all the time.
His latest book with longtime collaborator Mark Salter, The choppy wave: Good times, just causes, great fights and other appreciations, is both inspiring and unforgiving. As John McCain told me over 20 years ago, he didn’t want to have any regrets “the day I leave the Senate or lose my ability to influence events.” Mission accomplished, senator.