It was near the end of 2007, and the presidential campaign of John McCain, left for dead six months earlier, was beginning to show signs of life. With no money, a skeleton, unpaid staff and a press corps taking bets on the date of his surrender, the Arizona senator was drawing the kinds of crowds in New Hampshire that had propelled him to a primary victory there in 2000.
“So, senator,” I asked him half-seriously. “Is there something about you that requires you to be dangling off a cliff with a fraying rope before you can start to succeed?”
“You know,” he said with a laugh, “there might be something to that.”
In a sense, much of McCain’s adult life can be defined by Vince Lombardi’s observation that “the real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back.” The rebellious, sometimes reckless Naval pilot found astonishing courage and resilience in his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. The United States senator faulted for meeting with federal regulators on behalf of a felonious banker (and campaign contributor), the late Charles Keating, turned what he called “the worst moment of my life” into a years-long fight for campaign finance reform. The presidential candidate who went from front-runner to dead man walking in 2007 staged an improbable comeback to win his party’s nomination a year later.
That’s one way to measure John McCain. But there is also this: He never reached the White House because, in one key sense, he was a man out of his time, fated to miss the presidency because, in two different campaigns, he was out of synch with his party, and then the broader citizenry.
McCain’s first run for president in 2000 will always be remembered by those of us who covered it as one of most exhilarating campaigns ever. As an all-but-ignored underdog, he took his New Hampshire campaign from town hall to town hall, jamming reporters into his “Straight Talk Express,” where he proclaimed at the start of our journey that “everything is on the record,” regaling the press with jokes and good-natured insults (“Good morning, Trotskyites!”), while generating passionate responses from audiences with his calls for a politics that spoke to “something greater than ourselves.” His landslide win in New Hampshire over George W. Bush seemed to give him a plausible case for the nomination, and suggested he would easily defeat the presumed Democratic nominee, former vice president Al Gore.
But McCain was running as an apostate, and not just by joining with one of the country’s most liberal senators Russ Feingold, on campaign finance reform. He also broke with his party on tax cuts, demanding that some of the surplus (remember when the government ran surpluses?) be used to shore up Social Security. Like his hero Theodore Roosevelt, McCain had earned the enmity of the Republican base through such moves; however much they wanted the White House back, they did not want to put it in the hands of a heretic. (Indeed, a century earlier, Republicans never would have nominated Teddy Roosevelt; they put him in the vice presidency to ensure ghat he wold be a powerless figurehead. It was Leon Czolgosz’s bullet, not the GOP, that put Roosevelt in the White House.)
McCain was out of step too, on matters of war and peace. His heroism in Vietnam and his focus on defense and national security were of marginal significance in the post-Cold War, pre-al Qeada campaign of 2000. It’s often forgotten that Bush ran to Gore’s left on foreign policy during the general election, criticizing the Clinton administration for bogging down the mighty U.S. military with peacekeeping missions in marginal areas of the world.
Eight years later, after more or less making his peace with the Republican Party, McCain managed to leverage another New Hampshire primary win and a splintered opposition into the nomination. But he still remained a public figure with a unique, complex set of beliefs. He backed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq—passionately—but deplored the incompetence of the occupation that followed. He urged an increase in troop levels at a time when the country had soured on the war, and was looking for the exits; but he was also a fierce critic of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used on prisoners—which the former POW flatly called “torture.”
McCain’s attempt to reach beyond party lines indirectly led him to one of the worst mistakes of his career. In Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, his “best friend in the Senate”—he saw a brother in arms (when McCain asked him in 2004 if he’d consider joining Democrat John Kerry’s ticket, he said no, because their national security beliefs were too far apart. “But if they’d nominated Lieberman,” he added,” I’d have had a real decision to make”) and seriously considered asking the hawkish Connecticut senator to jump party lines and become his running mate. But he ultimately decided not to trust his instincts: Convinced that tapping a Democrat would trigger an all-out revolt at the convention, he and his team looked instead for a different, out-of-the-box, shock-to-the-system game changer. And they got Sarah Palin.
McCain has never publicly offered any second thoughts about that choice. But it shocked and dismayed many of his longtime admirers, who could not understand how he had made such an important decision in so slapdash a fashion. (He may have supplied the answer when, being told by an advisor that it was a “high-risk, high-gain” option, he replied, “You shouldn’t have told me that; I’ve been a risk-taker all my life.”)
Fundamentally, McCain’s shot at the White House was doomed by the financial crisis in September. McCain was always more focused on global matters than domestic, and when questions of economics and credit liquidity took center stage, they left him out of his depth. (Stunts like his call to pause the campaign after the collapse of Lehman Brothers didn’t help.) Had 2008 been dominated by a foreign policy crisis—the Russian invasion of Georgia, unfortunately for McCain, didn’t resonate with voters—it might well have left him a much more formidable foe against an inexperienced Barack Obama.
If timing deprived him of the ultimate prize, McCain’s decades in the Senate still stand as testimony to the resilience that let him survive imprisonment, torture and grievous physical and emotional pain to become one of the most recognized members of that body. In his blend of irascibility and good humor, political accommodation and political rebellion, angry feuds and peaceful reconciliations, he is, in this age of wax-figure animatronic politicians, a man in full.