As Senator John S. McCain rounded 80, it looked like he might have his mother’s DNA: she is still alive at 106. When he died on August 25 (the same day Ted Kennedy died), I realized he was as mortal as the rest of us. But that doesn’t quite capture his magic, so I turned to Hamlet: “He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.”
In 2016, I invited the Senator to come to Arizona State University to be the subject of my YouTube interview series in front of a student audience. It was during the middle of his reelection campaign, and he wasn’t feeling the love: “it’s going to be a tough one, Jeff, right down to the wire,” which, of course, he won by 6%.
McCain lived up to his sobriquet of a maverick whose second favorite thing was confounding the grand poobahs of either political party. But his favorite was to unite the country through his brand of Trumanesque tell it like it is. That’s the message he brought to my twenty-something students. They heard a globe trotting review that began with an airport story, classic McCain: “Total stranger walks up to me at Sky Harbor (Phoenix airport) and asks, “‘Anyone ever tell you that you look like that guy McCain?'” I said, “Yeah, I hear that a lot.” The guy says, “‘Don’t it make you mad as heck?'”
McCain survived more than insults. He outlived plane crashes, POW prison and torture, and over three decades of Washington D.C. Throughout his storied career, from the time he jumped into a Navy cockpit in 1958 to his becoming a senator in 1986, the most palpable part of his legacy was that America was his life force, and nobody loved her more.
‘Six degrees of separation’ was a phrase that could have been invented to describe McCain’s network, which ultimately included me. I met the Senator through a man McCain adored, Michael Crow, ASU president and America’s profoundest education philosopher, and a protégé, former NATO Ambassador, Kurt Volker, who runs the McCain Institute. My induction ceremony was listen to jokes, laugh, and if you like bird watching, better.
John McCain telling stories during our interview (photo: Arizona State University)
If you hung around McCain you caught on to his bag of one-liners. Some were ice breakers and others conveyed affection. For instance, he would introduce Senator Sheldon Whitehouse as “my Communist friend” or mimicked Senator Heitkamp’s Norwegian lilt, “heard you had anudder nice vinter in North Dakota der Heidi, ja.”
And if he hadn’t seen you in a while, his favorite was, “where’ve you been? Betty Ford Clinic?”
McCain’s ironic view of humanity also came out during moments of emotional intensity. When one student asked about the worst thing he experienced in Vietnam, he said, “My great piloting, which enabled me to intercept a surface-to-air missile with my wing.”
He loved young people. He even got along with their hero, the Senator from Vermont: “Bernie and I co-authored a bill for veterans’ medical care choice. This was before he started combing his hair.” He also recognized the intelligent cynicism of the next generation: “If anyone here thinks a 14% congressional approval rating is good, I don’t want you driving an automobile, as you are a danger to yourself.”
McCain had no illusions about the world we live in. Humans are capable of shocking, horrible things. He was Lincolnesque in this way, his enemies hated him dearly because his sheer good nature and candor inspired victories over the bad guys. The result was a lifelong Quixotic battle in which he stockpiled American values and carpet bombed opponents with humor.
Every spring, McCain would host the annual Sedona Forum at his McCain Ranch, a typical McCain hoedown where Davos mingles with High Noon. The guest list would make Queen Elizabeth jealous.
It’s called the McCain Ranch for a reason. The food is ranch cooking and the music is cowboy. But not according to McCain’s youthful colleague, Senator Jeff Flake, who informed us, “I grew up on a real ranch, and the most ranch-like thing you’re going to find at the McCain Ranch is ranch dressing.”
Flake was right. The McCain Ranch didn’t have cattle or sheep. But ranchers mend fences and fix things that are broken, so McCain was a rancher.
There were so many things McCain wanted to fix, and he spent 60 years working on a punch list. It included North Korea’s Kim, “the rotund ruler,” and women getting raped by human traffickers in Moldova, “the evilest thing you can imagine.” McCain wanted to help the Kurds’ quest for an independent nation, “the largest ethnic community in the world without a country.” His passions ranged from terminating ISIS and helping refugees, to putting Putin and Syria in their place. If you could help him take care of our Veterans or educate Arizonans, he was your best friend.
In the same spirit, he stood up to bullies, which of course, is an old rancher term. He came down hard on China’s Xi for imprisoning opponents to remove political obstacles. But he also criticized Obama for pulling out of Iraq prematurely because the polls said so, which opened the door for ISIS.
McCain said the hell with the polls, and then again, he would add, “that’s why I’m not the president.”
He thought Trump was deeply flawed. If anyone had a right to blast Trump, it was McCain, but he had an aviator cool. His comments were measured and he left the door open. That Trump didn’t take the opportunity is one of the saddest moments of the 45th president’s choppy tenure. Trump could have learned a lot from McCain, including a few jokes.
Winston Churchill said history would be kind because he intended to write it. McCain had the same philosophy. He published six history books, and the last one just came out in May. It is titled The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations. The book is filled with reflections about power and geopolitical insights. It will be a difficult read for sentimental reasons, but there will be a lot of laughs.