When you think about Arizona politics, two names loom larger than the rest. One is Barry Goldwater, the five-term Senator, one-time presidential candidate. The second, and more recent is the man who won his first Senate seat after Goldwater retired, John McCain, the six-time Senator, two-time presidential candidate.
McCain passed away on August 25, four days shy of his 82nd birthday. He’d been battling brain cancer for just over a year. During this year, McCain put up a valiant fight–fitting for McCain who has always been known as just that—a fighter.
The description goes back to his five and a half years as a Prisoner of War in Vietnam. There at the Hanoi Hilton, the North Vietnamese knew his father, John S. McCain, Jr. was an Admiral with US Navy and Commander of the Pacific fleet. So, they offered John Sidney McCain, the third an opportunity to leave the prison early. Knowing their offer was propaganda and because he believed in the military code that said prisoners of war should be released in order of capture, McCain turned down their offer.
It was that honor and duty and love of country in which McCain found meaning. It probably saved his life back then. And once he was released in 1973, it’s the same honor, duty and love of country he devoted his life to. It was this theme that won him national recognition during his speech at the 1988 Republican Convention.
He approached both his time as POW and his eventual time in Washington as a fighter. Sometimes that got McCain in trouble.
I first met McCain, the fighter, during his second Presidential run. I had traveled to Iowa in November of 2007, in the lead up to the 2008 primaries. There in the first state to caucus in the primary, my colleague Darrell and I found ourselves at a John McCain town hall event in some small room, in some small Iowa town with a small crowd asking the Arizona Senator about illegal immigration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McCain was polling third or fourth at this point in the primary. Still, there he was in frosty Iowa answering questions.
He answered some of our questions as well after the event was over. I started by asking him a question in a press gathering. I can’t even remember the question. I do remember his response though. McCain snapped, who are you with? I replied blah blah blah radio station out of Phoenix. The Senator instantly warmed up. Oh, ok and then went on to answer my question and a follow up. McCain was in his groove, doing what he did best, talking like he was on the Straight Talk Express during the 2000 campaign. Loose and friendly with the media.
Then, Darell, my colleague and friend chimed in. He asked McCain two or three questions about illegal immigration. It was hot issue at the time, especially in Arizona. Darrell and I had both moved to the border state less than a year prior to finding ourselves in Iowa with McCain. Right after the third question, McCain looks at Darrell and says if you have any real questions, I’d be happy to answer them. Darrell followed up with another question on immigration. McCain snapped something like, we’re done here and walked off.
Quite the first impression.
We weren’t the first to run into McCain’s temper. Nor would be the last. The McCain temper is the stuff of legend in DC.
It wasn’t just his temper that was the stuff of legend, it was his fighter pilot degradation of his friends. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham was one of McCain’s best friends. He took the Senate floor last week to remember his friend. Graham said, McCain ‘would constantly tell me, Lindsey I wish you were in my naval academy class…you know why Lindsey? I said,’No John, why?’ …if you’d be in my class I’d be sixth from the bottom, not fifth. Graham added, ‘humiliation and affection were common companions. The more he humiliated you the more he liked you.’
Not many knew McCain as well as Graham did. So no doubt, he received plenty of good natured barbs from McCain thrown his way. We’d hear them in the radio studio from time to time during commercial breaks. Good natured jokes about our roles as talk show host.
So, yes the Senator was known for hacing a temper from time to time, he was known for joking around, but McCain was also known as being feisty, smart and self deprecating as well. And he told amazing stories.
After 2007, I’ve met and interviewed the Senator countless times. All of them were completely cordial, even when we disagreed. It’s interesting to look back, because I can’t even really remember anything that stood out during those interviews. They were policy driven. Probably mostly about his disagreements with President Obama, his opponent in 2008. Disagreements about foreign policy or health care.
It’s not those moments I remember. I remember trying to keep up with him walking down the hallways at my radio stations. There he was, scooting into a studio at 78 or 80 walking faster than everyone else, including me. I’m 41 years younger than him, racing to keep up.
This is the McCain who traveled to war zones well into his 70s.
I also remember the stories, including one he told 550 KFYI’s Mike Broomhead how he and the other POWs communicated as Prisoners of War in the Hanoi Hilton. They used what McCain called a simple tap code to ‘talk’ to each other and pass messages from cell to cell.
McCain told Broomhead he could still tap as fast as he can talk, saying the code they invented was vital for their survival.
Fast forward to President Trump’s inauguration in January of 2016. Broomhead and I were in DC sitting in McCain’s spacious office. We were talking to him about the transition of power, his conversations with President Trump, which weren’t super friendly. He even talked about his post-election conversation with Hillary Clinton. He told her to keep busy. McCain knew. He’d been there before.
Knowing McCain knows more about foreign affairs than most anyone else on the planet, I asked him about Rex Tillerson—the former ExxonMobil CEO becoming Secretary of State. McCain seemed hopeful. I asked him about offering Tillerson help. The Senator, having just won his sixth-term himself, said of course adding, but they never follow up.
There was McCain giving a little insight into behind the scenes politics.
After business was settled we toured his office. He showed us a photo of him being pulled out of the lake in Hanoi he ejected into after his fighter jet was struck. McCain recounted the story of how one of the men who pulled him from the lake, stabbed him in the shoulder with a bayonet. Others beat him and spit on him. McCain seemed to hold no ill will as he recounted the story. Instead while pointing to the photo, he seemed delighted he had a picture of it, saying, with a smile, ‘I never knew this even existed until a few years ago.’
Sitting there in his office the day before another McCain rival, Donald Trump, was set to become the 45th President of the United States, I got the sense he never took any of this for granted. It, too, was his duty and his honor.
Also, there in his office are two photographs taken by the man Senator McCain replaced, Barry Goldwater. Though, McCain was an Arizona transplant, like so many of us here are, he loved the state as much as Goldwater. He dedicated his life to serving it and this nation. And in doing so, through his 35 years in Congress McCain eclipsed Goldwater as Arizona’s most beloved.
Over the 20-years I’ve been covering politics, I’ve interviewed several state lawmakers, Congressman and women, several Senators and Presidential candidates. None of them have been like Senator McCain.
His last appearance at 550 KFYI in Phoenix came the same day he received treatment for glioblastoma. McCain, and his daughter Meghan showed up at the station immediately after leaving the hospital. He arrived with his usual brisk walk, as if he was trying to keep up with the Earth’s rotation. McCain sat for 30 minutes answering questions about President Trump, national issues and foreign affairs as if it was just another Tuesday for him. Even through this diagnosis he cared more about his country than he did his own health.
During a commercial break, I walked into the studio, shook his hand and said, Senator, I just have to tell you…you are a bad ass. McCain smiled and laughed.
And that’s exactly how I’ll remember him.