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"What A Ride!" — Four Decades of Campaigns With John McCain

"What A Ride!" — Four Decades of Campaigns With John McCain

By Sunday, 26 August 2018 06:43 AM Current | Bio | Archive

When the sad news came on Saturday night that John McCain died, I kept trying to recall at what point I began reporting on the six-term senator from Arizona and 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

It was, I finally remembered, in December of 1980, when Captain John McCain was U.S. Navy liaison to the Senate and planning his own leap into politics.

Arriving for lunch at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C., I was met by a friend who said he had just “walked up the stairs with Captain McCain. He told me he and his wife were moving to Arizona, that [the state legislature] was probably going to carve out a new congressional district where her parents live, and he’d run for it.”

The McCains did move to the Grand Canyon State in 1981, but the candidate-in-waiting didn’t wait for a new district to be created. When House GOP leader John Rhodes announced he was retiring from the Phoenix-area 1st District he had held for 30 years, McCain jumped into the race, despite living just outside Rhodes’ district.

Squaring off against three seasoned office-holders, McCain was often criticized for living in Arizona less than a year. At one public forum, a hostile questioner raised the issue of his brief residency. McCain was ready.

“We in the military service tend to move a lot,” he replied, recalling he had served 22 years in the Navy and that his father and grandfather were admirals. “We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the 1st District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”

What would later be dubbed “the most devastating response to a potentially troublesome political issue” by the Phoenix Gazette, it gave the first-time candidate swatches of publicity and was key to his topping the primary field.

“And that line of John’s was actually suggested to him by [former wife] Carol,” a McCain family friend who requested anonymity told Newsmax.

As a House Member for four years and after he succeeded Barry Goldwater in the Senate in 1986, McCain was in demand as a speaker primarily because of his status as a war hero.

There was little in his record to distinguish the Arizonan from fellow conservative Republicans, such as John Kasich of Ohio who came to Congress with him in 1982. He backed Ronald Reagan’s economic agenda and supported the president’s doctrine of backing anti-Communist fighters such as the Contras in Central America and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

If there is any genesis for McCain’s status as a maverick, it is the Keating Five affair in the late ‘80s. Having received more than $112,000 from the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association headed by Charles Keating and accepted trips on Keating’s private jet, the Arizonan was devastated by reports he and four other senators had spoken to federal regulators to discuss the government’s plan to seize Lincoln.

“It was the wrong thing to do,” McCain declared in a televised address in Arizona, promptly returning all funds to Keating and apologizing to constituents for the appearance of wrongdoing. Later vindicated by the Senate Ethics Committee for everything except “poor judgment,” McCain was re-elected with 56 percent of the vote over two opponents.

The  Keating Five affair, McCain-watchers agree, launched him on the crusade with which he would be most identified: greater regulation of campaign contributions, something that turned off many conservatives to him and turned on the liberal media to him. Favorable articles on McCain began to appear in The Washington Post and New York Times.

To a person, McCain’s friends and fans prefer to discuss his 2000 race for president — in which he lost the nomination to George W. Bush — to that in 2008, when he actually became the Republican nominee but lost to Barack Obama.

Proclaiming himself the head of a crusade “to take our government back from the power brokers and special interests, and return it to the people,” McCain in 2000 took retail politics to a new high in New Hampshire. He held numerous town meetings, and on his Straight Talk Express bus he talked with reporters on subjects ranging from the Korean War to religious right leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (“merchants of hate,” he called them). In the New Hampshire primary, he clobbered opponent Bush by a margin of 49 to 30 percent.

In South Carolina, however, Bush stopped McCain’s momentum by a decisive (53 to 40 percent) margin. Bush backers credit their rallying the support of the evangelical community and to the well-oiled organization headed by the late former Gov. Carroll Campbell. McCain backers still swear that rumors of his fathering an illegitimate black child (he and wife Cindy adopted an orphan from Bangladesh) were his undoing and that the smear was the work of Bush campaign manager Karl Rove.

“Because Al Gore was the Democratic candidate, we were confident John would win in November if he made it to the nomination,” recalled Orson Swindle, McCain’s fellow Vietnam POW and frequent surrogate campaigner. “But that smear really hurt him in South Carolina. No question about it.”

Although family members continued to blame Rove and the Bush campaign for the mean-spirited rumors, McCain personally forgave Bush and stumped hard for him. As president, Bush paid close attention to his former rival and — in a move that stunned conservatives — signed into law the McCain-Feingold legislation that imposed greater regulation of campaign finance.

McCain finally did become the Republican nominee for president in 2008. But after the Wall Street panic in September, the chances of a win by McCain — or any Republican who could have been nominated — were eviscerated overnight.

During an interview on his campaign plane in October of that year, I asked McCain how he dealt with the fact that running mate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin disagreed with him on climate change and on oil drilling in her state.

“Hey, pal,” he replied, using the nickname he favored for reporters, “when you have a ticket with two real mavericks, you’re bound to have disagreement, aren’t you?” (In his final years, McCain would voice regret he picked the controversial Palin instead of his personal choice, Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, whose liberal record on everything but foreign policy would have almost surely led to an uprising on the GOP convention floor had McCain actually tapped him.)

Much like his final vote killing the Trump Administration’s plan to replace Obamacare, the Lieberman ploy was just one more case of an unusual and unexpected political maneuver that came not from any political consultant but John McCain’s inner self. It has been quite a fascinating experience to watch him, know and report on him. I can say without hesitation, what a ride!

And like just about everyone who knew him, I will miss John McCain very much.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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When the sad news came on Saturday night that John McCain died, I kept trying to recall at what point I began reporting on the six-term senator from Arizona and 2008 Republican presidential nominee.It was, I finally remembered, in December of 1980, when Captain John McCain...
john mccain, death, john gizzi, campaigns, triumphs
Sunday, 26 August 2018 06:43 AM
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