The Real McCain

Standing in front of the U.S. Navy flag, before an audience of uniformed military cadets in Jackson Hall at the Virginia Military Institute in April 2007, John McCain defended the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq. Many Americans wanted out. McCain told them America had to stay—and probably for a while.

“We have a long way to go,” he said. Wearing a blue suit, a light blue shirt, and a gold tie, McCain made a detailed case for the strategic importance of victory in Iraq, dwelling on the responsibility Americans have toward the Iraqis who suffered under Saddam Hussein and were struggling still under the uncertain young Iraqi government. If the United States had such obligations, McCain believed he did, too.

“Having been a critic of the way this war was fought and a proponent of the very strategy now being followed, it is my obligation to encourage Americans to give it a chance to succeed,” he said, pumping his left arm for emphasis as he spoke of his “obligation” to make the case McCain continued: “To do otherwise, would be contrary to the interests of my country and dishonorable.”

McCain spoke often of such ideals—honor and commitment, service and sacrifice, duty and responsibility. Many politicians do, of course. But unlike many other politicians, there is little question that McCain believed them. He was a patriot not because voters like patriots or because aggressive flag-waving can be an effective political tool. McCain believed in these things, and his country, because it’s what he’d seen from his role models, it’s what he’d learned at the Naval Academy, and it’s what he’d lived as a sailor.

With his passing, many will recall McCain’s time as a POW or his crusade for campaign finance reform as chapters in his life that shape his legacy and help us understand him. Others will remembers his freewheeling 2000 presidential campaign and the “Straight Talk Express” that came to define it. Still others will note his decisive vote on partial repeal of Obamacare or his frequent clashes with members of his own party.

I’ll remember his 2008 presidential campaign. No doubt that’s partly because I spent a lot of time with him and it’s when I came to know him best. But it’s also because that campaign, with its unanticipated struggles and unlikely triumphs, provided a unique window into McCain—his flaws and his strengths.

“For my part, I’d rather lose a campaign than a war,” McCain said at VMI. It was a line he would use frequently in his speeches over the course of 2007 and 2008, and it often seemed that his second presidential run was designed to test the claim.

Throughout much of the spring of 2007, McCain was considered a leading candidate for the GOP nomination in 2008. He wasn’t the early frontrunner—Rudy Giuliani led every major poll from late January through June of 2007. But McCain was usually in the top three. A CNN poll in the field when McCain gave his VMI speech had him trailing Giuliani 27 percent to 24 percent, with Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson far behind.

Hints of the troubles to come were evident to many of those close to McCain at the time of the VMI address. Despite high name ID, his fundraising was weak. The day before he visited VMI, his campaign laid off several staffers in anticipation of poor money numbers to come. He clashed regularly, and angrily, with the media that he used to call his “base.” He was a leading advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, despite the unpopularity of his position with his party’s actual base.

His campaign was riven with internal strife. Most of his top advisers opposed the candidate’s determination to run on the Iraq War. Republicans had lost badly in the 2006 midterms due largely to voter dissatisfaction with the frustrating war and stories of corruption in the GOP. One top adviser wanted McCain to run as the Republicans’ anti-corruption candidate, keying on his campaign finance crusade. Another pushed McCain to make himself the candidate of energy, emphasizing renewables and the country’s growing independence to help McCain make energy a national security issue.

McCain didn’t buy it. He would run on Iraq and American leadership. His fortunes flagged. By early summer, with his poll numbers dropping and his money running out, the campaign bottomed out. The lede on the New York Times story captured the grim reality. “The presidential campaign of Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who once seemed poised to be his party’s nominee, plunged into political and financial uncertainty today as a fundraising collapse forced it to dismiss dozens of workers and aides said there were signs of his campaign hemorrhaging support among Republicans across the country.”

Members of Congress who’d endorsed McCain suddenly refused to take his calls. A conference call with outside policy advisers, meant to buck them up and reassure them that the campaign would continue, had only one participant. One Sunday show broadcast a graphic of GOP candidates and forgot to include McCain. Charlie Cook, the highly respected campaign analyst, pointed to the Iraq War as the cause. “Republicans’ intensity of support has waned as the war has become an albatross around their party’s neck,” he wrote. “For all intents and purposes, McCain’s campaign is over. The physicians have pulled up the sheet; the executors of the estate are taking over. Paying bills and winding down—not strategizing, organizing, and getting a message out—will be the order of the day.”

By late summer, McCain was regularly polling fourth in the GOP field. A Fox News poll from mid-August had McCain in single digits, barely ahead of the fringe candidacy of Ron Paul.

McCain didn’t drop out. And he redoubled his emphasis on Iraq. In September, he launched his “No Surrender Tour,” the double meaning clear to everyone. His speeches pointed out, correctly, that he’d been advocating for years the kinds of policy changes known together as “The Surge.”

I joined him in New Hampshire for the “No Surrender Tour” kickoff. The “Straight Talk Express” had been replaced by a nondescript white rental van with two “McCain” stickers affixed to the back windows. The New Hampshire media dutifully covered his events, as much, I suspected, due to nostalgia for his victorious effort in New Hampshire in 2000, as to the possibility that he had any shot of repeating that accomplishment. Reporters from national outlets were skeptical—and scarce.

When I pitched him on an interview, his team seemed almost grateful for attention. McCain’s wife, Cindy, and daughter, Meghan, joined us. We were on the record for the entire three-hour meal and, as he almost always did, McCain answered questions without the kind of calculation and self-censorship typical of most politicians.

Dinner was fun. We laughed throughout. He “made news” on a variety of issues, most having nothing at all to do with the presidential race I’d come to cover. He’d been in a good mood all day on the campaign trail, joking with questioners at his town halls. It was odd behavior for someone whose campaign had collapsed because of his own mismanagement and his mulish insistence on campaigning on unpopular issues. And yet he was, to all outward appearances, having the time of his life. (It wasn’t just my imagination. In a subsequent interview recalling our time in New Hampshire for the tour, McCain told me: “Those were fun times. Those were the best times we had.”)

At dinner, I asked McCain about the surge. He had very tough words for his GOP rivals who, he believed correctly, were tiptoeing gingerly around the issue. “Some of these guys are sort of hedging their bets,” he said, growing angry. “Their advisers are telling them: Look, don’t get too closely tied to it because they may be pulling out in April.”

His answer had brought an abrupt change in tone to our light-hearted conversation. And when I invited him to name names, he seemed for a moment to want to return to the jovial discussion we’d been having. When the waiter delivered our order of dumplings, he offered one to his wife. “Have one, my little dumpling,” he said before breaking into a fit of fake laughter, slapping his knee. “Ho, ho, ho, ho. Ha, ha, ha. You are my little dumpling.”

I teased him for using his wife to get out of answering a hard question, which was not exactly the “straight talk” approach on which he’d built his reputation. “I think it’s fair to say that the Romney and Giuliani campaigns have tried to distance themselves from this issue. I think it’s pretty obvious.”

At a debate the following night, he went after them both for putting politics over national security. When Romney said the surge was “apparently working,” McCain pounced.

“Governor, the surge is working. The surge is working, sir.”

“That’s just what I said,” Romney protested.

“It is working. No, not ‘apparently.’ It’s working,” he said.

McCain was right. It was working. And he was right, too, that Romney was being cautious. In his performance that night, McCain made a passionate case for winning in Iraq—and for defeating jihadists more broadly.

That debate didn’t make McCain the frontrunner. His exchange with Romney probably didn’t change many minds on the surge—or on Iraq. And the “No Surrender Tour” was a campaign gimmick every bit as much as it was a reflection of principled resolve.

But it worked because it reminded these Republican primary voters that even if they didn’t always agree with McCain on policy, he was a man of conviction and principle. Just ten years ago, that mattered enough to GOP primary voters that they made McCain their nominee. Perhaps nothing has changed more in American politics over the past decade. Republicans today, with very few exceptions, have shown themselves willing to sacrifice principle in order to win. McCain was until the end willing to lose if losing was the cost of fighting for principle.

He seemed to enjoy those fights, almost preferring to be the underdog. I asked him about this when I interviewed again him in spring of 2008, aboard the new version of the “Straight Talk Express,” a well-appointed coach much closer to the 2000 edition than the white van of just a few months earlier. “It’s not that I like being behind,” he said. “I don’t think anybody in sports, in business, likes to be behind. But you also know, Steve, that in my life, I’ve always kind of relished the fight. Whether it’s coming to defend a little guy on the playground that’s getting picked on or whether it’s going to be telling the guard in the prison camp—yell the obscenities at him as we’re going to the latrine. There is something in my personality, I’ve got to admit to you, that I enjoy the fight. I enjoy the challenge. I just, I just do.”

Ryan Lizza, now chief political correspondent at Esquire, asked McCain to expand on his answer. “Do you enjoy losing?”

“I don’t think that’s the right description,” he said. “I don’t enjoy it. I’ve never enjoyed losing. I’m a passionate competitor and passionate competitors don’t like to lose. But I’m willing to stand on principle. Because I’ve found in my experience that if you stand on principle that stuff’s going to come around again. It’s going to come around again.”

When McCain lost to Barack Obama, he took the stage at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, to offer his concession. Wearing a navy blue suit, a light blue shirt and a gold tie, McCain congratulated Obama and encouraged his backers to support the president-elect, saying, “whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.”

He closed his speech with words as meaningful in these days after his passing as they were that night.

“I call on all Americans . . . to not despair of our present difficulties but to believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”