The Arizona senator lost the presidency; always larger than life


John McCain had so perfected the art of narrow evasion, in politics and in life, that it was almost possible to believe he could defy the odds once again.

During the 2008 campaign, when his bid for the Republican presidential nomination imploded months before any real vote, the Arizona senator was strapped for cash and on the unpopular side of the big issue of the day, war. in Iraq. But he wasn’t ready to give up.

He decided to take a stand in New Hampshire, a state politically as iconoclastic as himself. His high-profile entourage was gone, replaced by a single assistant and a borrowed SUV. The first event of his stripped-down campaign took place at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Concord. In his new book, he compared the political reporters gathered at the back of the ballroom to “crows on a wire, watching the unfortunate roadkill breathe his last before descending to collect the remains.”

He wasn’t wrong. I was covering the July 2007 speech for USA TODAY. We were watching to see if he really plans to stay in the race he has mishandled to date – and, if so, how in the world he plans to turn things around.

“In what scenario would you suspend your campaign? I asked him during a press scrum that followed his lunchtime speech – which had been devoted, of course, to defending his position on Iraq. He looked at me as if I had asked the dumbest question imaginable. (To be fair, that’s a look he’s often given reporters, not to mention some fellow senators. The occasional president, too.) “Only if I succumb to a life-threatening illness before the day of the New Hampshire primary “, he replied.

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He didn’t suspend his campaign, of course. He ended up winning the primary in New Hampshire, which propelled him to win the next big contest, in South Carolina. Eventually, he claimed the Republican nomination, the prize that had eluded him eight years earlier. He would lose the November general election to Barack Obama, but he did not resign. Not then. Never.

Ultimately, McCain’s battle with brain cancer was a fight he didn’t win, but then again, he saw no shame in losing, just not trying. In The choppy wave, the book he co-authored with Mark Salter and which was published in May, he praised those who pursued “the toughest causes,” who refused to acknowledge even certain defeat. “They don’t despair,” he said. “They persist.”

The larger-than-life personalities in Washington tend to be presidents. After all, there have only been 45 in the country’s history. But there are a handful of others who, by dint of character, vision, achievement or personal history, become influential beyond the particular job they held, who become iconic. Ted Kennedy, for his part. John lewis. Robert Dole. Eleanor Roosevelt.

And John Sidney McCain III.

Part of that was his five-year survival story as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, emerging with lifelong physical scars but a spirit that remained remarkably exuberant. This brutal experience gave him the moral authority to speak out when the debate turned to issues such as the use of torture. Part of that was his credentials as a maverick – his willingness to break with his own party and forge alliances across partisan lines. He stubbornly stuck to his positions on issues, especially national security, even when they got inconvenient.

He was hardly perfect. It could be caustic. His anger could flare, raising questions even among some admirers as to whether he had the right temperament to be president. He was one of the so-called Keating Five, senators embroiled in a savings-and-loan scandal, though the Senate Ethics Committee found him guilty only of poor judgment, not wrongdoing.

That said, it was almost impossible not to like John McCain. He was smart and funny and a master storyteller, and he only harbored a handful of grudges. McCain rarely dodged reporters, even when he knew the questions they were about to ask would be uncomfortable, and even though he thought the media coverage in 2008 was tilted in Obama’s favor. Baltimore Sun journalist Robert Timberg wrote an extremely candid portrait of McCain and four other Naval Academy graduates; McCain was one of two out of five to show up at the book party when The nightingale’s song has been published. Twenty-one years later, the senator spoke at the memorial service for Timberg, himself a graduate of Annapolis.

During the 2016 campaign, when Donald Trump was on the rise, I interviewed McCain for USA TODAY’s Capital Download newsmaker series. He questioned Trump’s national security credentials, but declined to say he wouldn’t vote for him over Hillary Clinton. “I’m voting for the Republican candidate, obviously,” he said, though he didn’t look happy. Trump had already made his own contempt for McCain clear.

Last year, I spoke to McCain again, at an informal dinner with a group of Washington bureau chiefs. He had just returned from a tour that had taken him from Australia to Vietnam via Singapore. The leaders of those countries had peppered him with questions about the perplexed new American president. The senator struggled to explain President Trump’s friendly outlook on Vladimir Putin, but he tried to be reassuring in speaking of the strength of American institutions.

Sitting next to him that night, I thought McCain seemed to miss a step. A few days earlier, he had stumbled while questioning former FBI Director James Comey during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. At dinner he looked exhausted; he repeated a story twice without realizing it. A month later, he was diagnosed with brain cancer that would cost him his life.

Even so, Susan Goldberg of National geographic, who before that evening had never met McCain in person, was delighted. After he left, she said, “Wasn’t he amazing?”

Yes. Yes he was.