- McCain says Hillary Clinton should have resisted the temptation to write a book dissecting the 2016 election so soon
- ‘You can’t rewrite history,’ he carped in an ‘Esquire’ interview
- ‘What’s the f***ing point?’ the salty senator asked: ‘Keep the fight up?’
- McCain is only now working on a memoir that will encompass the 2008 campaign in which he lost the White House to Barack Obama
John McCain says Hillary Clinton should just get over it.
Comparing his post-2008 doldrums with Clinton’s current struggle to understand how she lost to Donald Trump, the Arizona senator tells Esquire that unlike Clinton, he resisted the instinct to play Monday morning quarterback after Barack Obamabeat him.
The failed Democratic presidential nominee quickly began promoting a memoir called ‘What Happened’ after the 2016 election, blaming dozens of people and factors for her defeat, but never herself.
‘You’ve got to understand that you can’t rewrite history,’ McCain said in an interview published Monday.
‘The hardest thing to do is to just shut up’: Sen. John McCain tells Hillary Clinton in an ‘Esquire’ interview that she should stop re-litigating the 2016 election
Clinton lost the White House to Donald trump in stunning fashion and then launched a book tour to blame a long list of offenders – but never herself – for the result
‘Game Change’ dissected McCain’s loss to Barack Obama, blaming in part his decision to make Sarah Palin his running mate
‘One of the almost irresistible impulses you have when you lose is to somehow justify why you lost and how you were mistreated: “I did the right thing! I did!” The hardest thing to do is to just shut up.’
McCain had the Senate to fall back on when his presidential aspirations went belly-up.
Hillary had only a series of sympathetic TV interviews and her book tour.
McCain suggested she got back on the horse too quickly.
‘What’s the f***ing point?’ the salty former naval aviator asked: ‘Keep the fight up?’
‘History will judge that campaign, and it’s always a period of time before they do. You’ve got to move on.’
‘This is Hillary’s problem right now: She doesn’t have anything to do,’ McCain said.
Clinton rushed to explain her version of history after she lost the 2016 election, with a memoir called ‘What Happened’ – something McCain says she did far too soon
The senator, now in declining health as he fights brain cancer, faced an unusual obstacle to his political rehabilitation as Obama began his presidency: a tell-all book of the kind that younger politicians seldom recover from.
‘Game Change,’ a book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, chronicled the 2008 election and was particularly brutal to McCain’s running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Revelations including her lack of awareness that South and North Korea were different countries and her belief that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 terror attacks made McCain’s vice presidential choice look amateurish in hindsight.
‘My own campaign manager was part of a book that trashed me. Steve Schmidt was one of the big contributors to Game Change,’ McCain recalled in his Equire interview.
Clinton’s list of scapegoats for her 2016 loss include then-FBI Director James Comey, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wikileaks and Bernie Sanders.
1. Dirty Habit
On a blue-sky Sunday in September, John McCain sat down for brunch at Dirty Habit, a sleek hotel restaurant in Washington, D. C. Dressed in a charcoal suit with a blue shirt and gold tie, he launched into a funny story. Back in 2008, he said, when he was running for president the second time, he was at a meet-and-greet on primary day in Michigan. The race came at a crucial time: Though McCain had won New Hampshire, he’d lost Iowa and Wyoming and was far from a clear front-runner for the GOP nomination. The only man who had come to see him at the event was a Mike Huckabee supporter. Someone suggested McCain try his luck at one of the stately houses across the way. “So sure, yeah, I’d like to get in out of the cold,” McCain told me. “I walk across the street, walk up the steps, and walk inside. It was a fucking funeral home.” Worse, he had a bunch of journalists in tow. “They had a field day,” he said. “The headlines were ‘McCain Dying to Get In.’ ”
Not just a funny story, then, but a funny story about dead people. It was also, in its way, a relief. Though only two months had passed since he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a tumor that is almost inevitably fatal, the old, blaspheming McCain was back, nothing maudlin about his mood. Anything he wanted to say about his looming appointment with mortality, the crumbling of the conceit of his famous indestructibility, would have to wait. First there would be jokes. And then a bowl of oatmeal.
An hour later, a young woman approached McCain. She asked if he’d say hi to her mother, who, as it happened, also had glioblastoma. Without blinking, the senior senator from Arizona rose and walked stiffly to their table. “It just makes me sad,” he said when he returned. “She’s in a wheelchair and you can see she’s in the later stages.” His pity was evident now, but it was all for the women. If he felt any fear at having glimpsed his own future, he didn’t show it.
Lindsey Graham has been brothers in arms with McCain since 2000, when he supported McCain’s first run for president. Graham, a senator from South Carolina, was among the first to learn about his best friend’s brain cancer. “John was the one to say, ‘No more woe is me. I’m going to fight as hard as I can, and let’s get back to business,’ ” Graham recalled of their first conversation after the diagnosis. “ ‘Buck up, boy.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll buck up.’ ”
McCain’s admonition was no empty pep talk. In July, just eleven days after surgeons in Phoenix removed the cancer, he returned to Capitol Hill. As he walked onto a full Senate floor, his colleagues honored him with a standing ovation. He received hugs from leaders of both parties. Then he stood up and excoriated them all, Republicans and Democrats alike, for abandoning the “regular order” of debate. The Senate, he warned, was in danger of failing the country if it didn’t remember the importance of bipartisanship and compromise.
It was arguably the most electrifying speech of his career, but McCain was just getting started. Three days later, past midnight one early Friday morning, he sabotaged the Republicans’ increasingly desperate quest to gut Obamacare. A bill dubbed the Skinny Repeal for its scarce details was set to pass as long as McCain cast a vote in favor.
Instead, he entered the chamber, jabbed a thumbs-down, and killed the thing dead. Two months later, McCain thwarted his party again. In September, Lindsey Graham, along with Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, hatched another bill to overturn the 2010 health-care law. McCain’s opposition once again doomed the bill.
That McCain’s defiance of the GOP health-care plans surprised just about everyone, including his best friend and the leaders of his own party, says something about the state of the maverick image he’s long cultivated. For many observers, his reputation as a common-sense centrist with an independent streak wore thin long ago, the tired strut of a one-trick pony.
But to his most loyal allies, the health-care standoff was a characteristic demonstration of principle and courage by the same senator who had bucked his party to sponsor a campaign-finance-reform bill in 2002, and bucked it again to push several times for bipartisan immigration
reform. “I think McCain will shove the priest giving him last rites out of the way so he can cast one last vote,” observed Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who was involved in McCain’s 2008 campaign. “He was born to serve.”
2. Last Best Hope
Now eighty-one, McCain is well aware that he’s always been the vessel for too many hopes of too many people. Over a four-decade congressional career, he’s disappointed and enraged them all. Centrists and liberals say that his voting record hasn’t come close to backing up his reputation for independence, while conservatives consider him a traitor for reaching across the aisle. “I think that’s been my history,” McCain says. “People have been disappointed that I wasn’t tougher on fill-in-the-blank, and others say, ‘You betrayed Bush,’ or whoever it is.”
McCain is the son and grandson of four-star admirals, and he loves to talk about the mischief that landed him fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy. But as McKinnon suggests, McCain was all but fated for a career in public service. During his two decades as a naval aviator, he earned a Purple Heart and spent five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison, where he suffered solitary confinement and torture. In 1982, a year after he left the Navy, voters in Arizona elected him to the House of Representatives. Four years later, he won the Senate seat previously held by Barry Goldwater, the archconservative whom he’d long counted as a mentor.
The night McCain won election to his sixth Senate term last November was also, of course, the night Donald Trump won the White House. Trump and McCain had traded jibes during the campaign, but none were so vicious as Trump’s comments at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa. “He’s not a war hero,” the future president said. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” Given that history, it was natural that many of Trump’s opponents—within the Republican party and without—would look to McCain as their last best hope.
For McCain, the matter was not so simple. Whatever fantasies are projected on him, after all, he is a conservative Republican in the Reaganite mold, a defense hawk who supported the Iraq War long after it became unpopular. A veteran of the military and of the Senate, he feels an enduring loyalty to his country and also to his party. When we met for the first time in May, at his office in the Russell Building in D. C., McCain told me that he felt “totally compelled to do everything I can to help” Trump, with one exception: “I’m not going to change what I believe is best for America.”
As a matter of principle, this was fair enough, if a bit vague. But what, I asked him, did it mean in practice? In the early months of Trump’s term, it appeared that the greatest test was going to be Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia last year. At the height of Watergate, in 1974, Goldwater had marched up to the White House and told Richard Nixon it was time to go. Would it fall to McCain to do the same? Or would his role be more modest, a check against the president’s most dangerous whims?
Each of our several conversations throughout the spring, summer, and fall touched on this conundrum. In May, McCain praised Trump’s national-security team and his bombing of Syria, and he cautioned against judging Trump by what he said instead of what he did. He told me that even Trump’s insult in Iowa had bothered him not because it belittled his own experience in Vietnam but because it slandered the other American POWs who had suffered with him.
But McCain was also quick to scold Trump for inviting Rodrigo Duterte, the strongman of the Philippines, to the White House. And in the ensuing weeks and months, he would not hesitate to publicly criticize the president for any number of offenses against decorum and decency: for what Trump said, or failed to say, about the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville; for his pardon of former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio; and for his suggestion that Vladimir Putin wasn’t so bad for killing journalists, since America had also done some killing of its own.
In May, not long after my first meeting with McCain in the Russell Building, Trump fired James Comey, the director of the FBI. Two days later, in a phone interview, McCain told me that he’d been giving a speech at the State Department when the Comey news hit the wires. He called the firing “hard to comprehend” and the way it was handled farcical. “It’s just a comedy of errors,” he said.
Our second in-person meeting came a few days later, at a gala dinner thrown in his honor at the Willard hotel in D. C. Earlier that day, memos had surfaced suggesting that Trump had once asked Comey to shut down an investigation of his former national-security advisor, Michael Flynn. There was a new, ominous mood in Washington, and it was evident in the faces of Graham and Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who were also at McCain’s dinner.
That evening, in a conversation onstage with former CBS anchor Bob Schieffer,
McCain shocked the room by suggesting the Trump–Russia scandal was nearing “Watergate size and scale.” When the guests left, I asked him to explain. “Watergate took down a president,” he said, before adding a cautionary note: “This does not have that dimension yet.” I asked whether he thought Trump, like Nixon, would one day face party elders demanding his resignation. “We’re a hell of a long way from that level,” he said.
This was classic McCain, wanting to have it both ways: the dramatic announcement and the tepid follow-through. Before his diagnosis, he could claim that he was keeping his powder dry for the battles that really counted. But since the appearance of his cancer, he’s known his time to act is running short. With death staring down from the brow of the hill, only now will do.
McCain is the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and for decades, his polestar in foreign policy has been Ronald Reagan’s doctrine of “peace through strength.” That Trump is no Reagan hardly needs saying. At the annual Munich Security Conference in February, McCain warned that the West was at risk of foundering, and when we spoke in May he told me that he feared the president would cause America to abandon its active engagement in the world. “America First was the slogan of Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the isolationists of the 1930s,” he said. “When you put it in the context of history, it’s a throwback.”
McCain’s concerns about Trump’s foreign policy prompted him to embark on a series of international trips meant to reassure America’s allies. In the early months of the administration, McCain seemed at times like a surrogate secretary of state, clocking some seventy-five thousand miles abroad between January and June. The role is an easy fit for him—as it hasn’t been for the actual secretary of state, Rex Tillerson—because McCain genuinely cares about America’s alliances abroad.
At the end of May, McCain flew to Australia, the first stop on a nine-day tour of Asia and the Pacific. Australia has long been one of America’s closest allies, but since Trump took office, the Australians have been especially nervous. In January, Trump pulled the U. S. out of the twelve-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which had been drafted in part to thwart China’s designs on the region. Five days later, Trump had a fractious first phone call with Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian prime minister, in which the two tangled over an Obama-era refugee agreement.
In June, I asked McCain how he’d found the Australians’ mood. “ ‘Whiskey tango foxtrot’ is what they are asking,” he replied.
“What does that mean?” I said.
“What the fuck.”
3. The Diagnosis
McCain recognized that he was off his game from the moment he returned from the Asia trip, but he didn’t suspect something serious might be going on. “I was dead tired,” he told me. “I thought it was fatigue from the traveling and just being worn out, rather than thinking I’ve got something wrong with me.” McCain’s aides noticed that he’d broken his usual habit of arriving at his office by seven in the morning to read the papers. “He never sleeps in,” one associate recalled. “That hadn’t changed in thirty years, and it was changing.”
Even I thought I noticed something. On June 7, three nights after McCain came home from Asia, we spoke by phone. McCain was in his office and seemed lucid, for the most part. But there were a few times he lost the thread, muddling events and people.
My puzzlement over McCain’s lapses was compounded the next day, when almost 20 million people watched Comey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey’s testimony made news for several reasons, including the details it provided about the ex-director’s private interactions with President Trump. But the part many people remember came near the end, when it was McCain’s turn to ask questions. He set out on a bewildering line of inquiry that appeared to have something to do with why the FBI was still pursuing an investigation into Russian meddling even though it had terminated its inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Never mind that the two probes had nothing to do with each other.
“I’m a little confused, Senator,” Comey said. He wasn’t alone. McCain’s floundering—at one point he referred to “President Comey”—triggered a storm of speculation. Was it jet lag from his just-completed tour of Asia? Or was it exhaustion, as McCain suggested shortly after the hearing? (“Maybe going forward I shouldn’t stay up late watching the Diamondbacks’ night games,” he joked in a statement at the time.)
Three months later, at Dirty Habit, McCain would suggest another reason for his confusion. Just as he was about to launch into the questions that he and his staff had prepared, he said, he was inadvertently knocked off course by Lindsey Graham. “I had these questions laid out that I had discussed, and two minutes before it was my turn to speak, [an aide] hands me this app from Lindsey.”
As it happened, Graham, who was in meetings during the hearing, had a question he thought McCain should ask Comey. A staffer delivered the message to McCain.
But while McCain was reading the phone the staffer had handed him—aides said that it was an email, not an app—the screen went black. “I was looking at it and, naturally, the message fades,” McCain recalled. Without a passcode, he couldn’t keep reading. “I think, What the fuck am I going to do here?”
Though McCain might have reverted to the questions he’d prepared, he said he pressed on out of respect for Graham. “I can’t tell you how important our relationship is, and I knew that this must be important. So I started out trying to remember what was on the app, and, anyway, to make a long story short, I fucked it up.”
Graham, for his part, clearly doesn’t enjoy the notion that he derailed his friend with the whole country watching. “They wanted my input, I gave it to him,” he later told me. “I don’t think he quite understood. Kind of lost in translation more than anything else.”
Whatever the case, McCain’s chagrin about the episode was evident. “It was a colossal screwup. That was such an important hearing. That wasn’t just an ordinary Senate hearing.”
When McCain is not traveling abroad, he often spends weekends at his ranch in the Arizona hill country, near Sedona. A month after the Comey hearing, on the evening of July 13, he flew back to Arizona. He stayed in Phoenix that night, and had his annual checkup at the Mayo Clinic the next morning, a routine he hasn’t skipped since being diagnosed with melanoma in 2000.
After the testing was finished, he got in his car and set out for the ranch. McCain likes to drive himself when he’s in his home state, and this time he was alone; Cindy McCain, his second wife, was in San Diego. He was two thirds of the way to his ranch when his phone rang.
“The doctor called and said, ‘John, you’ve got to come back right away,’ ” he told me. “I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘It’s something really important. It can’t wait.’ So I just turned around and drove back.”
The doctors began prepping him for surgery as soon as he returned to the clinic. “I didn’t realize it, but the operation was five hours and forty minutes,” he said. “That’s a long time.” McCain speaks about the incident with a detached calmness, but even now he can’t help casting himself as no ordinary patient. “They say I’m the first guy who, after an operation on the brain, knew exactly what day it was.” By three o’clock the next afternoon, he was discharged and allowed to return home to the family’s apartment in Phoenix.
Three days later, the pathology results arrived. The news could hardly have been more bleak: What the Mayo doctors had hoped was only a blood clot was in fact associated with glioblastoma. The same form of cancer had taken the lives of McCain’s friend and sparring partner Senator Edward Kennedy in 2009 and Beau Biden, the son of former vice-president Joe Biden, in 2015. Survival rates for glioblastoma are extremely low; most patients are given fifteen or fewer months to live.
Throughout his life, McCain had traded on his ability to dodge death. Besides surviving skin cancer, he had escaped two plane crashes as a Navy pilot and a deadly fire aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Forrestal, fifty years ago. In turbulence on campaign planes, or on trips to dangerous places like Iraq, the same jokes were always told: Stick with McCain and you’ll be okay, because he’ll die quietly in his bed.
It’s that narrative, he says now, that gives him strength. He knows he’s had the luck of the devil, and jokes that no one ever expected him to make it out of his thirties, let alone his seventies. His instinct now is to be grateful. “The greatest impulse you have is self-pity, you know? ‘Oh my God, why me?’ They say there’s a lot of people who, once they’re diagnosed, just sit there waiting to die. That’s not what life should be about, and that’s not how I have approached the issue. Every once in a while, do I feel sorry for myself? Hell yeah! It’s fun. It’s really a pleasant experience to feel sorry for yourself. But overall, all I have is gratitude for a life well lived.”
“Mortality has always driven McCain,” says McKinnon, McCain’s former aide. “I think he’s animated by life itself. He didn’t expect to be here—not just now but decades ago. He came so close to death, I think he cherishes every blessed second he has on earth. And I think his cancer diagnosis only fuels his fire to light as many flares as he can while he’s here.”
4. Cleanup in Aisle Five
Of course, more than a few of McCain’s flares have exploded at his feet rather than offering illumination. Now that he’s entered the final stretch of his life, he is not afraid to admit that he has regrets. Some, including details of his two marriages, he keeps to himself. Others, including his history of temper tantrums, he shares. “I’ve raised my voice,” he says. “That has, I am happy to say, lessened over the years.”
McCain’s confession might seem understated to anyone who’s been at the receiving end of his anger. “He can throw some elbows,” recalled John Weaver, a veteran Republican consultant who worked on both of McCain’s presidential campaigns. “I’ve received a number of calls from him over the years: ‘John, can you clean up the mess in aisle five?’ The calls would start, ‘Johnny, hey Johnny, you may receive a call from the Speaker’s office.’ I’d say, ‘And why is that?’ ‘Well, I may’ve had some short words with him.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ ‘Well, I think I told him to go fuck himself.’ ” On another occasion, Weaver said, McCain lost it with Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
“Cornyn had said something to McCain, and I think McCain called him a motherfucker.”
McCain’s temper is surely one reason he has often cut a lonely figure on the Hill. But Weaver has a different take on it. “I don’t think it’s because of the outbursts. I think it’s because of his principles,” he said. “If you have no principles, which more and more members of the Senate don’t, you look askance at someone who does.” Weaver went on: “He is marooned. And he has a sense of honor. Even the way he treats Donald Trump is very honorable, given what I believe his true feelings are, because of the military background he comes from.”
Beyond his tantrums, McCain is also ready to concede that he has sometimes fallen short of his own cherished image as a politician who prizes honor, country, and integrity above all else. It’s a reputation he earned at great cost. In 1968, the North Vietnamese government offered him an early release because of his family’s military standing. He refused.
McCain ticked off the examples one by one, starting with the Keating Five scandal nearly three decades ago. At its heart was Charles Keating, whose savings-and-loan bank collapsed, costing taxpayers $3.4 billion. Keating was based in Phoenix, and he’d been a key benefactor to McCain and some others in the Senate, including Dennis DeConcini, McCain’s colleague from Arizona. The affair blew up when it emerged that McCain, DeConcini, and three other senators had met with federal regulators and pressured them to back off an investigation into Keating’s bank. Things became even worse for McCain when it was reported that he and his family had vacationed at a spread Keating owned in the Bahamas, and that his relatives had invested large sums in a Keating real-estate development. Keating would later serve time in prison.
Though it is largely forgotten now, and though McCain was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing by the Senate Ethics Committee, the scandal almost killed his political career. Does he remember it that way? “Oh, you’re telling me,” McCain replied, mouthing an “ooof.” Yet the senator only repents so far. “I honestly got to tell you that if the same circumstances prevailed tomorrow, I would probably go to the meeting. If your colleague from Arizona says, ‘Look, we’re trying to help out this guy. He’s being mistreated by the bureaucracy.’ You know.”
Fidgeting with his fork, McCain says, “I have made a lot of mistakes, and we could continue to go over them, and it would take many hours. But my motivation, I think, has usually been the right motivation. There have been other times where it was the wrong motivation.” He paused before volunteering: “I’m sure we will talk about the flag in South Carolina.”
In 2000, before the primary in South Carolina, McCain equivocated about the Confederate banner flying on the grounds of the state capitol in Columbia. “It was the wrong thing to do. I’d love to tell you I’ve always stuck to my principles and, by God, I’ve always done the right thing, but the flag in South Carolina is probably the best example,” he says, of when he didn’t.
While he’s talking regrets, I raise a campaign ad he cut at the Mexican border for his 2010 senatorial campaign. McCain has often advocated immigration reform: In 2005, he joined forces with Kennedy to push a doomed bill, and seven years later he tried again with the so-called Gang of Eight, which included four senators from each party. But in the 2010 campaign ad, McCain invoked the dangers represented by immigrants crossing the border without permission. “Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder,” he intoned. “Complete the danged fence.”
I asked how this differed from Trump’s smear against Mexicans. (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” the future president had said back in June 2015.)
“Oh, yeah,” he responded glumly. “Listen, I’ve been living with that statement for all those years. At my funeral there will be somebody who will flash that up: ‘See? This is what he was really like!’ ”
I asked him about another reversal, from earlier this year. In April, Mitch McConnell had announced his intention to change the rules of the Senate so that Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, could avoid a Democratic filibuster. McCain blasted the Senate leader for suggesting that the so-called “nuclear option” would return the chamber to normalcy. “Idiot, whoever says that is a stupid idiot who has not been here and seen what I’ve been through,” he blurted to reporters. “They are stupid, and they’ve deceived their voters because they are so stupid.”
Yet just forty-eight hours later, McCain voted in favor of the rules change. What happened? “You don’t explain it,” McCain admitted. “It was obviously a lot of pressure and a lot of team spirit and all of that. You know.”
McCain’s regrets do not include picking Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. When he announced his decision, just days before the Republican National Convention, he shocked the American political universe. Aides had told him that the choice would prove he was a real maverick. But Palin was so obviously unqualified that to many observers it suggested that a hollowness, even a cynicism, had corroded his “Country First” reputation.
Palin resigned the governorship of Alaska less than a year after she and McCain lost to Barack Obama and Joe Biden. She reinvented herself as a TV fixture, mostly on Fox News, and helped stoke a gathering populist wave that manifested itself as the Tea Party movement. In 2011, a little-known conservative filmmaker named Stephen Bannon made a documentary about Palin called The Undefeated; he was convinced she could win the presidency itself in 2012 if she tapped into the country’s growing anti-establishment fervor. In the end, of course, it was Trump whom Bannon helped storm the Oval Office, but for many, Palin was the prototype. And it was McCain who brought her to the national stage.
Palin is a “wonderful person,” McCain told me. He says he lost his presidential run because of his own shortcomings, the near-implosion of Wall Street toward the end of the campaign, and a “biased” and unfriendly press, particularly when it came to Palin. “To blame things on Sarah Palin is a cop-out,” he said. “The fact is that they were out to get her. They ridiculed her. They denigrated her.”
He still festers about the pasting she got for her infamous attempt to demonstrate familiarity with Russia. “She can see Russia from her backyard. She can. She can,” McCain insisted. I asked if he was joking. I’ve been to the house she lived in at the time. “She was making a point about the proximity to Russia,” McCain went on, “and that happens to be true.” He wanted it noted that Palin pulled off her biggest moment in the race, the vice-presidential debate with Biden—an assessment that was not widely shared at the time. “She beat him,” he told me. “She outperformed him.”
McCain’s loyalty to his old associates is often returned with deep affection. “The first time I went out with him on the road, one of his assistants handed me a bag,” McKinnon recalled. “I asked what it was for, and was informed it contained a hairbrush and a couple other personal-grooming items. Later, when at our first stop, McCain shielded himself by the car door and leaned over to me, kind of bowing. It was only then that I realized because of the injuries he sustained as a prisoner of war, he could not raise his arms high enough to brush his own hair. So I combed his hair, and then he turned and waded into the waiting campaign crowd. And then I turned and wiped tears away.”
One relationship that has not survived the test of time is McCain’s chumminess with the media. He had long counted journalists, who appreciated his candor and humor, among his biggest fans—“my base,” he joked in 2005. “I had always had this excellent relationship with the media,” he told me. But that changed in 2008, when the special attention he once received transferred abruptly to Obama. McCain now sounds almost plaintive, like a spurned suitor, when describing his treatment at the hands of the press. “Frankly, I thought that I was not being treated fairly by the media. I really did. That frustrated me to the point where I stopped talking to the media. We felt we had to do it just because every question was a gotcha question.”
After McCain lost, his reputation for putting his country ahead of his ambition was further damaged by Game Change, a vivid chronicle that revealed his campaign’s desperate attempts to bring Palin up to speed. McCain says he resisted the temptation to immediately set the record straight with his own lengthy account, as Hillary Clinton did recently in What Happened. “You’ve got to understand that you can’t rewrite history,” he told me. “One of the almost irresistible impulses you have when you lose is to somehow justify why you lost and how you were mistreated: ‘I did the right thing! I did!’ The hardest thing to do is to just shut up. Listen, my own campaign manager was part of a book that trashed me. Steve Schmidt was one of the big contributors to Game Change.” And while McCain has lately announced plans for his own memoir, which will reach back to 2008, he suggested Clinton had erred in writing hers so quickly. “What’s the fucking point? Keep the fight up? History will judge that campaign, and it’s always a period of time before they do. You’ve got to move on. This is Hillary’s problem right now: She doesn’t have anything to do.”
5. The Last Stand
In late July, as McCain and his family were coping with the shock of what the surgeons had found, his Republican colleagues in the Senate were nearing a vote on a bill meant to accomplish one of their central 2016 campaign promises: repealing Obamacare. McCain wanted to be there. His doctors tried to dissuade him from flying, so he briefly mused about renting a Winnebago to make the trip. “How long would it take us if we drove back?” he recalled asking an aide, half seriously. Phoenix to Washington is twenty-three hundred miles door-to-door. Despite his doctors’ warnings, McCain decided to fly. He reminded his family and staff of the young American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. “I said, ‘These kids are out there risking their lives. I can at least go back to Washington and finish my work.’”
The McCain who returned to Washington on July 25 seemed reinvigorated. For decades, his maverick image had been a boon and an albatross, an ideal that promised both too much and too little. But now, with the clarifying force of his cancer diagnosis, the hero of the Hanoi Hilton appeared ready to take up one last fight, and he would do it in the name of his country, his principles, and . . . regular order.
At first blush, it’s hard to imagine two words less heroic than the ones McCain chose as the touchstone of his post-glioblastoma career. But in a speech before his colleagues, McCain made an impassioned case that regular order—ensuring open debate, soliciting amendments from both parties, drafting bills with a transparent process—was a necessary prerequisite to restore faith in Congress.
“Our arcane rules and customs are deliberately intended to require broad cooperation to function well at all,” he said from the Senate floor. “Incremental progress, compromises that each side criticize but also accept, just plain muddling through to chip away at problems and keep our enemies from doing their worst isn’t glamorous or exciting. It doesn’t feel like a political triumph. But it’s usually the most we can expect from our system of government, operating in a country as diverse, quarrelsome, and free as ours.”
Near the end of his speech, he reminded his colleagues that “whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president’s subordinates. We are his equal,” he said. “We don’t hide behind walls. We breach them.”
That McCain was saying something significant seemed to sink in with everyone. “When I give a speech and a hundred senators stay in their seats and listen to that speech and then stand and applaud and applaud and applaud . . .” he told me at breakfast. In his thirty-one years in the Senate, he said, “I have not met anyone who said they’ve ever seen anything like that. So I should be grateful.”
But while McCain has always been good with a sermon, his record of delivering on his own admonitions has been uneven. And despite the glowing reception he received in the Senate chamber, pundits noted that his speech had immediately followed his vote to help the Skinny Repeal clear a key procedural hurdle. It was, The Atlantic noted, “a surreal moment: a stemwinder denouncing fight-for-every-inch gamesmanship, hasty procedures, closed-door wrangling, and legislation that puts partisan gain over helping citizens, delivered moments after McCain cast the deciding vote to forward a bill that embodied every one of those tendencies.”
Just three days later, however, when the Senate leadership brought the Skinny Repeal bill to a vote, McCain made good on his speech. If they didn’t actually stay up until one-thirty in the morning to watch it live on C-SPAN, millions caught McCain’s thumbs-down gesture—with McConnell standing behind him, crossing his arms and drooping his head in despair—on the news the next day. Few were aware of the extraordinary pressure McCain had been under just before the vote. Vice-President Pence tried to persuade him both on the Senate floor and in his private office, where McCain took a call from Trump. “I said, ‘I thank you, Mr. President, for your involvement,’ ” he told me. “But I said, ‘I cannot vote for something called Skinny Repeal. I can’t do it. I didn’t even see the bill until today. I mean, this is insanity. I appreciate the call and now I have to go vote, and I’m sorry.’ ”
The pressure of the president was one thing, but in September, McCain faced a more serious challenge to his call for regular order. The Graham-Cassidy health-care bill was likely the last real chance for Republicans to pass an Obamacare repeal in 2017. Even though the bill was coauthored by his best friend, McCain once again withheld support from the legislation, which had largely been cobbled together behind closed doors. “I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats,” he said in a statement, “and have not yet really tried.” (Graham, for his part, said in a statement, “My friendship with John McCain is not based on how he votes, but respect for how he’s lived his life and the person he is.”)
In the course of my reporting, one former senior Democratic Senate staffer had said of McCain, “The only time I saw him trying to be cooperative during the Obama years was with the Gang of Eight on the immigration bill.” On that, the staffer said, “his effort was very genuine. But overall, he was a big critic of President Obama’s, and other than on that one issue I never saw him reach across the aisle. He just liked to scream and holler.”
Now, in the wake of his votes on the Skinny Repeal and the Graham-Cassidy bill, Democrats in the Senate praised him lavishly. “John McCain shows the same courage in Congress that he showed when he was a naval aviator,” said Chuck Schumer, the minority leader. “I have assured Senator McCain that as soon as repeal is off the table, we Democrats are intent on resuming the bipartisan process.”
As for Trump, McCain made news in October with comments that many interpreted, despite his protestations to the contrary, as barely veiled swipes at the president. In one speech, McCain criticized the “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” In an interview, he said it was wrong that young men from “the highest income level” had been able to avoid the Vietnam draft by finding “a doctor that would say they had a bone spur,” a description that just happened to fit the president.
McCain also spoke openly on the subject of Trump at Dirty Habit. “I don’t agree with the way he’s conducting his presidency, obviously,” he told me. “He’s an individual that unfortunately is not anchored by a set of principles. I think he’s a person who takes advantage of situations. He was successful as a builder, an entrepreneur, and all that. But I don’t think he has the fundamental underpinnings of principles and beliefs.” Still and all, McCain said, loyalty to his party would continue to inform his relationship with the president. “I don’t think there was any doubt about his views toward me. But I’m a loyal Republican.”
The time McCain has left to complete his last mission in public life is possibly even more limited than some imagine. He says he is not ready to accept a newly developed glioblastoma treatment, a kind of helmet that sends electrical fields into the brain. “I’m just not going to wear it,” he said, in a tone that sounded almost indignant. “I don’t want to walk around looking like that. There’s worse things than dying, okay?”
He also told me that he does not plan to linger in the Senate if the disease progresses sufficiently that his faculties start to fail. “I have enough close friends. They would probably get together, six or seven people who have been with me the last thirty years, and say, ‘John, go on up to the cabin and enjoy the sunrises and the sunsets.’ And I promise you I would go, and I would never come out again.”
McCain has it all planned out. When the appointed day comes, he will travel to Prescott, Arizona, to the same courthouse steps where Barry Goldwater, his mentor and predecessor in the Senate, declared his candidacy for president in 1964. There he’ll say goodbye. He’ll be brief. “Thanks a lot. Thank you very much” will be the gist, he told me with his crooked grin. And then he’ll vanish from public life.
That will be a hard moment. “He has such a zest for life and camaraderie,” says McKinnon. “I have a theory. He was in isolation as a prisoner of war for years and was denied human contact. So ever since he was freed, he soaks up interaction with people like a sponge. He loves to talk. He loves to trade gossip. He loves to tell jokes. What he hates is silence and solitude.”
Dreading that day too, surely, is Graham. I asked him whether the Senate without McCain will be a smaller place. He paused. “The Senate will be missing a voice that one seldom sees in politics,” he said finally. “The American people will be missing a champion and a fighter for solution over demagoguery. It will fall to the rest of us to fill that gap.”
Though it was barely five paces from our table to the door at Dirty Habit, it took McCain ten minutes to make it through the swarm of guests and waitstaff asking to shake his hand or take a picture. He was even handed a baby girl in her frilly Sunday best. Look at him, I caught myself thinking, basking in the adoration like he was back on the campaign trail.
Yet there was something to admire as well. A lesser man than McCain might have chosen to fade away after his loss to Obama in 2008, but that has never been the senator’s style. And the unexpected events of the past year—his dreadful diagnosis and the election of Trump—seem to have given him a new urgency. McCain has chosen a simple but daunting task for the time he has left, to turn the Senate back into the deliberative, incremental, old-fashioned, and somewhat dull institution he’s revered for thirty-one years. If there’s an irony here, it’s appropriate to the strange times in which we live: As his last act, the maverick makes a call for regular order.