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Opinion: The Freewheeling John McCain — An Appreciation

Flawed, but still the embodiment of honor, civility, patriotism and bipartisanship

Arizona Sen. John McCain deserves to be ranked among the two or three leading Senate figures of the last quarter-century, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Arizona Sen. John McCain deserves to be ranked among the two or three leading Senate figures of the last quarter-century, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For all their outward cynicism, campaign reporters tend to be closet idealists who dream of covering a candidate who will summon forth the better angels of the American people. Such a mythic candidate is not aloof like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, but rather is a flawed figure who transforms himself in the act of running for president.

The doomed Bobby Kennedy of 1968 was that kind of uplifting candidate for an earlier generation of reporters. For a few short months during the primaries, Kennedy rose above his life of privilege and his reputation for ruthlessness to become the tribune of the poor and the dispossessed of all races.

For me, and many of my peers in the press pack, the John McCain of the 2000 GOP primaries was our version of that once-in-a-lifetime political crusader.

Those magical weeks in New Hampshire and South Carolina — witnessing the birth of the Straight Talk Express — should not be lost amid the torrent of well-deserved appreciations as McCain battles brain cancer.

In early 2000, with the Republican establishment unifying around Texas Gov. George W. Bush, it looked like the fix was in. McCain was where he wanted to be — cornered, outgunned, animated by an issue (campaign finance reform) and willing to employ a high-wire media strategy to compensate for his limited ad budget.

McCain, always media friendly, began holding nonstop press conferences at the back of his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express. No topic was off-limits from his rage against Mitch McConnell (the leading foe of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill) to his campaign strategy. At rallies inside New Hampshire high school gyms, the ebullient McCain jokingly referred to his traveling press corps as “Trotskyites” and “Marxists.”

The maverick

Other presidential candidates have been accessible to the media in brief bursts, including Donald Trump for parts of 2016. But with McCain, it was different because the stunt seemed to reflect who he was — the maverick who wanted to emulate Teddy Roosevelt in the White House and bring a spirit of bipartisanship to Washington after the scorched-earth battles of Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

McCain was no plaster saint. He had voted to remove Clinton from office. And his sense of honor was forever stained by his reprimand from the Senate Ethics Committee for showing “poor judgment” in trying to pressure government regulators in the late 1980s on behalf of Charles Keating, a shady Phoenix savings-and-loan operator.

After upending Bush by 18 percentage points in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, McCain headed for South Carolina with a clear shot at the nomination. The scenes aboard the Straight Talk Express resembled bedlam with a reporter from The (Charleston) Post and Courier wedged on a luggage rack and McCain gleefully discussing military strategy (long answers about the destruction of the French officer corps in World War I allowed reporters to close their eyes for a few seconds or change tape-recorder batteries).

For baby-boomer reporters like me, whose college days had been spent protesting the Vietnam War, McCain’s candidacy allowed us to belatedly do homage to the patriotism of those who served and suffered almost beyond endurance. Yet McCain, who with John Kerry had championed diplomatic recognition of Vietnam, also symbolized the spirit of reconciliation over that wrenching period in our national history.

McCain’s 2000 dreams died in South Carolina. Bush, in a head-spinning turnabout, boldly repositioned himself as a “Reformer with Results” to take away the campaign finance issue from McCain. And scurrilous leaflets, demeaning McCain and his family, were anonymously slipped under car windshield wipers in church parking lots.

What could have been

There is an alternate history to be written about how the 21st century might have played out had McCain won the South Carolina primary and gone on to the White House against an overly programmed Al Gore.

As a former POW, McCain would have embodied patriotic unity in the anguished days after 9/11. President McCain would never have permitted torture and waterboarding to poison American values. And for all his hawkish instincts, McCain almost certainly would not have invaded Iraq without a realistic plan for what to do after Baghdad was captured.

As a balanced-budget conservative, McCain would also not have squandered Clinton’s budget surplus. Not only did McCain as a 2000 candidate propose a smaller tax cut than either Bush or Gore, he also deviated from GOP orthodoxy in 2001 to vote against the Bush tax cuts. In contrast, Democrat Dianne Feinstein voted for them.

McCain retained his maverick reputation to a sufficient degree during the Bush years that Kerry courted him as his vice presidential running mate in 2004. It would have been difficult to see how McCain, a proud man, could have repudiated his economic conservatism and his anti-abortion voting record. But it was another moment when McCain could have altered political history.

There were glimpses of the old McCain during his successful bid for the 2008 GOP nomination. But, too often, the efforts to revive the Straight Talk Express and the freewheeling spirit of 2000 resembled an aging rocker on a greatest-hits tour.

McCain’s second shot at the presidency was doomed by the mid-September economic collapse that left the Arizona senator out of his depth amid the plunging stock market.

During that 2008 race, I realized that I had spent more time alone with McCain during private breakfasts and lunches in the Senate dining room than I had with anyone who has ever sought the presidency. But for all that access — for all the days on the Straight Talk Express — I didn’t recognize the hard-edged John McCain who believed that Sarah Palin was a fitting vice-presidential running mate for a 72-year-old candidate.

Maybe these memories of McCain are as much about me as they are about the six-term senator now fighting for his life. But that is the secret of transformative political figures like McCain who touch something deep in us.

Even before Trump sullied the White House, there was a hunger for a politics based on honor, civility, patriotism and bipartisanship. This is what McCain has embodied — with a few unfortunate exceptions — during his long political career.

Whatever the future holds for McCain, he deserves to be ranked as one of the two or three leading senators of the past quarter-century. Like fellow giant of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, he reminds us that greatness can be achieved without ever reaching the White House. 

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