MANCHESTER, N.H. — Emotions are palpable in the New Hampshire political community.
Friends of Sen. John McCain are thinking of him with deep affection in the wake of an announcement by his family that he has now chosen to discontinue medical treatment, 14 months after he announced that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.
“In the year since, John has surpassed expectations for his survival,” the family said in a statement Friday morning. “But the progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict.”
McCain’s “family” in New Hampshire continues to pull for him. That family includes thousands of people who got to know him during his two successful first-in-the-nation primary campaigns, in 2000 and 2008.
“It is with great nostalgia I come back to my second-favorite state,” McCain said in 2014, when he returned to New Hampshire to campaign with then-U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown. He repeated the phrase often, most recently when he returned a year later to campaign with his friend, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, as Graham tried his hand at running for president.
Arizona is McCain’s home. New Hampshire has been his home away from home.
“The more time he spent in New Hampshire, the more he fell in love with the state,” said Michael Dennehy of Concord. Dennehy was a senior advisor to McCain in 2000 and 2008 and accompanied him daily on the campaign trail — in 2008 aboard McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” bus.
“He enjoyed the scenery of the mountains and looking at the wildflowers along the highway. But, most importantly, John McCain loved the people.”
What was it about McCain that made him connect so well with the people of New Hampshire?
“At a time when voters had lost trust in politicians because of Bill Clinton fatigue, McCain offered them something they needed to hear: the truth,” Dennehy said. “New Hampshire and the country wanted ‘straight talk’ from their new leader and McCain gave it to them. He often disagreed with voters on policy in his now famous town hall meetings but he told them that he would always tell them the truth.”
McCain perfected the art of retail politics, although to him it was not contrived or staged. It came naturally.
He didn’t invent the traditional New Hampshire town hall-style question-and-answer meeting, but he was a master at it.
Dennehy recalled that McCain held 114 town halls in the 2000 campaign and 106 eight years later. Questions were never screened and McCain would stay until everyone who wanted to ask a question got their chance.
“There will never be a better political story in New Hampshire than the one of John McCain and the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation primary in 2000 and 2008,” Dennehy said.
No group of Granite Staters connected with McCain as closely as veterans. McCain, a former U.S. Navy pilot, was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years.
“We met him early on when he was in the Congress, and got to know him,” recalled Paul Chevalier of Hudson, a retired 30-year U.S. Marine and former state commander of the New Hampshire Veterans of Foreign Wars. “That was long before he ran for president.
“When he announced for president and came to New Hampshire, I was happy to get veterans together to support him. We became good friends. My job was taking his cellmates from the Hanoi Hilton and Medal of Honor recipients around to the VFWs and American Legion halls, and setting up town halls for him.
Chevalier, who has been a political activist for many years, said, “He campaigned differently than anybody else in New Hampshire.
“He was funny. He spoke about himself in a self-deprecating manner, and he made a lot friends.”
“He talked to anyone in a crowd like they were next-door neighbors. If he met someone twice, he had to see them a third time.”
Chevalier said McCain enjoyed being called a political maverick, “and I think he has held true to that definition throughout his life.”
“I certainly didn’t appreciate when Trump said that he was not a war hero,” Chevalier said, referring to comments made by then-candidate Donald J. Trump in 2015.
“He definitely was a hero, and he will always be a hero in my mind.”
Although former Gov. John H. Sununu did not support McCain in the 2000 and 2008 primaries, he still appreciated the deep bond forged between McCain and the state.
“John McCain understands the importance of the New Hampshire primary and he adopted the state as his second home in his 2000 and 2008 races,” Sununu said.
“He got to know the state as well as any political figure from outside of the state as I’ve ever seen. He grew to love the state and its people, and anyone involved in politics in New Hampshire grew to respect him for the hard work he put in and for his values.”
Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard, a 2008 McCain supporter and national convention delegate, said with a laugh that McCain’s humor was the reason he was successful on the campaign trail.
“If you were a supporter, or even if you weren’t, he’d pull a prank on you,” Hilliard said.
I’ve been reflecting all afternoon about a lot of things that I remember about him, and they’re mostly funny.
“I admire that about him, after all that he has been though,” Hilliard said.
Hilliard also admired McCain’s energy. He said that after campaigning with McCain for 12 hours, Hilliard would be dropped off from the bus in Concord exhausted, but McCain would move on to more events.
“And after each event all day long, John would pour a cup of black coffee and chat with the press until the next event. And after that event, he’d go chat with the press again,” Hilliard said. “He would amaze me.”
Hilliard said McCain was popular in New Hampshire because “he was so down to earth. You may not agree with him, but you could talk to him, and he treated people with respect.”
Sarah Crawford Stewart, commissioner of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, was McCain’s deputy state campaign manager in 2008.
“Not everyone has the chance to meet their hero, let alone spend the better part of several years with them,” she said in an email.
“I started working for Sen. John McCain a week after graduating from college, in June of 1999. I worked for him again when he ran for president the second time.
“For me, Sen. McCain has always been both larger than life and incredibly human and accessible. While many people can point to big moments, speeches or events where John McCain did or said something profound and inspiring, I was lucky enough to have spent time with him in between those moments.
“I learned from him that humor is a great way to get through a tough day. And I was with him during a lot of tough days providing ample opportunities to crack jokes as a way to keep things in perspective.
“I learned from him that it’s better to speak directly to someone who disagrees with you in an effort to find common ground,” Stewart said. “I learned that having faith in a cause creates a steady path forward and that it is OK if at times it is a lonely path.
“Conviction should not be measured with popularity. I send my love to his family and friends.”
Jayne Millerick, chief of staff to Gov. Chris Sununu, was another early McCain supporter.
“When Sen. McCain campaigned in New Hampshire, it didn’t matter if the crowd was five people or 500 people. His passion and dedication to the primary process was unwavering,” Millerick said.
“Every voter got their question answered, and although it was not always the answer they were looking for, he gained their respect. That was a rare achievement and one that left a positive and lasting impression on many.”
Brown, who is now the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, served with McCain in the U.S. Senate.
He called McCain “a true mentor and friend of mine. He is someone I consider a national hero, and he treated me and others like equals. I shared many great times with him and the lessons he taught me were invaluable.”
Concord’s Steve Duprey is one of McCain’s closest personal friends, after serving as a national advisor through his 2008 presidential campaign. Duprey, a Republican National Committeeman and former state GOP chairman, has visited McCain several times during the past year. He said he planned to visit McCain again on his 82nd birthday Tuesday.
After news surfaced that McCain had decided to discontinue treatment, Duprey said in a statement to WMUR:
“John McCain has faced this grim prognosis and disease over the past year the same way he has faced every other challenge in life – straight on, and with humor, fighting it every inch of the way. He has led a remarkable life that has made this country and world a better place and he is confident the causes he has championed will be taken up by others.
“He is in the place he loves most in the world, in Hidden Valley near Sedona, at his beautiful cabin surrounded with his family.
“I know my friend is at peace and that he is sustained by his faith. He faces the future unafraid.”