There was something different about the torrent of grief, well-wishes and wistful anecdotes that greeted John McCain when his staff announced late Wednesday night that the Arizona senator had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Perhaps it’s because of the extraordinary heroism McCain showed as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Or maybe it’s his penchant for a delightfully barbed quip, or his habit of making shows of personal integrity in an age of partisan rancor. Maybe it’s because, unlike the scripted and staid politicians all around him, he “acts somewhat in the ballpark of the way a real human being would act,” as one scribe quoted in a famous Rolling Stone about McCain essay once put it. Maybe it’s because to many, he seems to be everything America’s current president is not.
All of the best stories about John McCain over the years have chipped away at this thing that made him feel like a different politician—authentic, an image his aides cultivated with the famous Straight Talk Express campaign bus; and honorable and brave, which the tales of his brutal torture at the hands of North Vietnamese and his refusal to leave his Hanoi prison without his comrades underscored. Here is a little bit of what has stuck with people about the maverick Arizona senator over the years—articles, videos and stories that all highlight a quality that seems vanishingly rare in American politics today:
David Foster Wallace: “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub: Seven Days In The Life Of The Late, Great John McCain”
The late David Foster Wallace plumbed the subject of McCain’s authenticity, and the inevitable question of just how authentic it was, in his 2000 Rolling Stone essay “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub: Seven Days In The Life Of The Late, Great John McCain.” Wallace was initially struck by McCain’s unique non-politician quality on the 2000 campaign trail, marked first by the contrast of his non-dweebiness in a sea of dweeby politicians: “a guy who graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis and got in trouble for flying jets too low and cutting power lines and crashing all the time and generally being cool.” Given the inherent inauthenticity of these politicians and the campaign machine around them, Wallace asks:
And who wouldn’t fall all over themselves for a top politician who actually seemed to talk to you like you were a person, an intelligent adult worthy of respect? … Who wouldn’t cheer, hearing stuff like this, especially from a guy we know chose to sit in a dark box for four years instead of violate a Code? Even in AD 2000, who among us is so cynical that he doesn’t have some good old corny American hope way down deep in his heart, lying dormant like a spinster’s ardor, not dead but just waiting for the right guy to give it to?
In the end, it becomes an essay on the fight between a voter and his cynicism, but not before a line that reminds us just why we might especially need McCain today: “Spring 2000—midmorning in America’s hangover from the whole Lewinsky-and-impeachment thing—represents a moment of almost unprecedented cynicism and disgust with national politics, a moment when blunt, I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-you-elect-me honesty becomes an incredibly attractive and salable and electable quality.”
Michael Lewis, “The Subversive”
A 1998 Michael Lewis profile of McCain begins with an anecdote about John McCain calling freshman Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold right after the 1994 elections. The talk soon turned to campaign finance reform, but the phone call was notable in itself because it underscored another quality of McCain’s that gets remembered often today: His ability to work with members of the opposing party—and befriend them. McCain told Lewis he called Feingold because of his friendship with another Democrat, Arizona Rep. Morris Udall, who reached out to McCain during his first year in the House in 1982.
“Mo reached out to me in 50 different ways,” McCain recalled. “Right from the start, he’d say: ‘I’m going to hold a press conference out in Phoenix. Why don’t you join me?’ … In the middle of it all, Mo would point to me and say, ‘I’d like to hear John’s views.’ Well, hell, I didn’t have any views. But I got up and learned and was introduced to the state.”
For the article, Lewis goes with McCain to Udall’s hospital room, where he lay dying and where, the nurse says, he gets almost no visitors, despite Udall’s once-towering public stature. “This is the reason McCain keeps coming to see Udall even after Udall has lost his last shred of political influence,” Lewis writes. “The politics were never all that important.”
Andrew Ferguson, “Reagan, McCain, and Sam McGee”
No politician is gotcha-proof, but McCain once looked pretty close to it. Ferguson, a writer for the Weekly Standard, recounts watching McCain answer a question posed by a Comedy Central crew on the 2000 campaign trail about the candidate’s favorite poet. He answered fairly easily to that question—Robert Service—and the follow-up, about whether he could recite any of it. He proceeded to recite “The Cremation of Sam McGee”—all 14 stanzas of it. But the kicker came later, when McCain explained to the Comedy Central team exactly how he had come to memorize the poem. “The guy in the cell next to me,” he said, according to Ferguson, “it was his favorite poem. He used to tap it to me on the wall, in Morse Code.”
During the raucous late stages of the 2008 presidential campaign, when a woman began asking a question about then-candidate Barack Obama, she prefaced it by explaining why she couldn’t trust him. “He’s an Arab,” she said into the microphone, which McCain promptly took from her hands. “No ma’am,” he said, shaking his head. “He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s about.” In September 2015, a Trump supporter’s comment about Obama being a Muslim at a town hall event in New Hampshire went uncorrected by the candidate—just one reason everyone was sharing that McCain video this week.
The Joe Biden/John McCain friendship
McCain and former Vice President Joe Biden have been close friends for almost 40 years, since McCain was the Navy’s liaison to the Senate in the late 1970s and Biden was a young senator representing Delaware. “John’s been my friend long before he was a senator,” Biden has said. “Jill and I were with John when he met his wife, Cindy, and he was staffing me on a trip to China.” During the 2008 campaign, Biden told a story about coming back from a dinner in Greece with the country’s prime minister to find his wife Jill dancing drunkenly on a concrete table on the beach with John McCain. “I’m thinking, ‘I’ve never trusted John since then, Jillie,’ Biden said.