John McCain may have lost the presidency, but still became larger-than-life

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John McCain chose the United States Naval Academy Cemetery as the place he will lay rest. He’ll lie next to his former classmate and lifelong best friend.
USA TODAY

John McCain had so perfected the art of the narrow escape, in politics and in life, that it was almost possible to believe he might defy the odds one more time.

During the 2008 campaign, when his bid for the Republican presidential nomination imploded months before any actual voting, the Arizona senator was out of money and on the unpopular side of the day’s big issue, the war in Iraq. But he wasn’t ready to quit.

He decided to make his stand in New Hampshire, a state with politics as iconoclastic as he was. His front-runner entourage was gone, replaced by a single aide and a borrowed SUV. The first event of his stripped-down campaign was at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Concord. In his new book, he likened the political reporters gathered in the back of the ballroom to “crows on a wire, watching the unfortunate roadkill breathe its last before they descended to scavenge the remains.”

He wasn’t wrong. I was covering the July 2007 speech for USA TODAY. We were watching to see whether he really planned to stay in the race that he had mismanaged to date — and, if so, how in the world he planned to turn things around.

“Under what scenario would you suspend your campaign?” I asked him during a press scrum that followed his luncheon speech — which had been devoted, of course, to defending his stance on Iraq. He looked at me as though I had asked the dumbest question imaginable. (To be fair, this is a look he often gave reporters, not to mention some fellow senators. The occasional president, too.) “Only if I succumb to a fatal disease 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 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 general election in November to Barack Obama, but he didn’t quit. Not then. Not ever.

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

The larger-than-life figures in Washington tend to be presidents. There have just been 45 of them in the nation’s history, after all. But there are a handful of others who by dint of character or vision or achievement or personal history become influential beyond the particular job they held, who become iconic. Ted Kennedy, for one. John Lewis. Robert Dole. Eleanor Roosevelt.

And John Sidney McCain III.

Part of that was his story of survival through five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, emerging with lifelong physical scars but a spirit that remained remarkably ebullient. That brutal experience gave him the moral authority to speak out when the debate turned to such questions as the use of torture. Part of it were his credentials as a maverick — his willingness to break with his own party, and to forge alliances across partisan lines. He stubbornly stuck with his positions on issues, particularly on national security, even when they became inconvenient.

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

That said, John McCain was almost impossible not to like. He was smart and funny and a master storyteller, and he nursed only a handful of grudges. McCain rarely ducked reporters, even when he knew the questions they were going to ask would be uncomfortable, and even though he thought news coverage in 2008 was tilted to favor Obama. Baltimore Sun reporter Robert Timberg wrote a searingly honest portrait of McCain and four other Naval Academy graduates; McCain was one of just two of the five who showed up for the book party when The Nightingale’s Song was published. Twenty-one years later, the senator spoke at the memorial service for Timberg, himself an Annapolis grad.

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 credentials on national security, but refused to say he wouldn’t vote for him over Hillary Clinton. “I vote for the Republican nominee, obviously,” he said, although he didn’t sound happy about it. Trump already had made clear his own disdain for McCain. 

Last year, I talked to McCain again, at an off-the-record dinner with a group of Washington Bureau chiefs. He had just returned from a tour that took him from Australia to Vietnam to Singapore. Leaders from those countries had peppered him with questions about the perplexing new U.S. president. The senator was at a loss to explain President Trump’s friendly view of Vladimir Putin, but he had tried to be reassuring, talking about the strength of American institutions.

Sitting by his side that night, I thought McCain seemed to be missing a step. A few days before, he had stumbled in questioning former FBI director James Comey at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. At the dinner, he looked exhausted; he repeated a story twice without realizing it. One month later, he was diagnosed with the brain cancer that would take his life.

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

Yes. Yes, he was.

 

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