As news arrived Saturday evening that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had died from an aggressive form of brain cancer, it ended the career of a ‘maverick’ Senator who managed to frustrate both major politcal parties at times during his almost 36 years of service in the U.S. Congress.
“John’s voice will be missed in the Senate and around the world,” said former Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who admitted “I had my differences with John,” but like many other colleagues, they saw a Senator who cut a unique path through the Congress.
“I traveled the world with John, particularly to Iraq and Afghanistan, many times and the way he was respected around the world and among the US military was always so inspirational,” Chambliss said soon after word of McCain’s death was announced.
First elected to the House in 1982, and then to the Senate in 1986, McCain was one the few veteran members of Congress who could honestly say they drew intense scorn from Democrats and Republicans along the way, especially during his two bids for President in 2000 and 2008.
“I want to do the hard things,” McCain told voters in 2008, as his “Straight Talk Express” bus gave reporters all sorts of access to the candidate in early primary and caucus states, while the Arizona Republican rumbled from town to town.
On the campaign trail, he delighted in doing town hall meetings – especially in New Hampshire – where he relished the give-and-take with voters that most candidates seem to avoid.
“You come to the town hall meetings because you want to see the candidates, you want to examine them,” McCain said in 2008 gathering in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
In Congress, he broke with Republicans on campaign finance reform, over torture after the Nine Eleven attacks, and more. But he routinely didn’t go far enough for Democrats on a host of issues, especially with his hawkish views on the military and defense.
“When I’m President of the United States, the first pork barrel bill that comes across my desk, I’m going to veto it, and make the author of it famous,” McCain said in 2008.
Most Republicans don’t like to admit it, but McCain was a “Tea Party” Republican on wasteful spending well before many now in the Congress, as he routinely took to the Senate floor to verbally barbecue his colleagues on provisions they had stuffed in spending bills.
“$15 million to establish a new grant program to quote ‘improve’ the U.S. Sheep Industry,” McCain said on the Senate floor, as he laid into the details of a major farm policy bill, mocking provisions that funded everything from pine tree testing in Florida to moth pheremones.
“I have no clue what a moth pheromone is,” McCain admitted during his farm bill diatribe. “When did it become a national priority to study moth pheromones?”
While McCain would attract press attention as he railed against various items in giant bills, his speeches would often come just before the Senate would overwhelmingly reject his arguments, as the Arizona Republican was often a lonely voice on spending.
His colleagues in both parties often bristled when McCain would go on one of his anti-spending rants on the floor, but the Arizona Republican actually lived up to his word, always telling voters that he never asked for a home-state spending earmark during his time in office.
In the halls of Congress, McCain was a favorite of reporters for a variety of reasons – first, he took positions which often were at odds with his own party, and second, he could always be counted on for a sharp-nosed quote, as the quick-witted McCain clearly enjoyed the back and forth with reporters.
For a number of years when Bob Schieffer of CBS sat across from me in the press gallery, McCain would often stop by to chew over the latest happenings in Congress, and dispense some wisdom as well.
Told by his Press Secretary that I was having trouble on the dating scene, McCain had a quick suggestion.
“Why don’t you come by the office and see the new crop of interns we’ve got, McCain said with a big grin.
“Maybe that will change your luck.”
Despite his good-natured ways with the press and his colleagues, McCain didn’t suffer fools gladly.
“Maybe the Senator from Kentucky should know the rules of the Senate,” McCain said to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a frequent target of his verbal barbs.
“Get out of here, you lowlife scum,” he barked at a group of Code Pink protesters at a Senate hearing in 2015, threatening to have them arrested.
McCain almost always stopped to talk to reporters in the hallways – the above photo (taken by Melina Mara of the Washington Post) was a great shot of him expressing his outrage over something, with me in the background getting the latest quote on tape.
McCain’s scrums with reporters were often rapid fire sessions that delved more deeply into actual details of policy debates than most of his colleagues – but he also had a bit of a “Get off my lawn” feel to him as well.
“I’m not talking about President-Elect Trump,” McCain said pointedly to reporters pursuing him in the Capitol, in November 2016. “I will not talk about Donald Trump.”
Of course, McCain did end up talking a lot about Donald Trump, with one of McCain’s final legislative moves being a late night vote against a last-ditch GOP health care bill in 2017, dooming the President’s efforts to overhaul the Obama health law.
Mr. Trump – who famously said that McCain was not a war hero, because he was captured after being shot down over North Vietnam – constantly refers to that health care vote by McCain at campaign rallies, but almost never says the Arizona Senator’s name.
The President paid tribute to McCain soon after his death was announced.
The final irony of McCain’s life came in the timing of his death – as he died nine years to the day that Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) died – both from the same form of brain cancer.
Like Kennedy, those who worked on Capitol Hill watched McCain struggle with his health problems – much as one would watch the decline of a family member – as McCain’s departure in December of 2017 was a difficult sign of what was coming.
“The idea that he and Senator Kennedy can go back to arguing over policy however makes me smile,” said Kennedy’s long time aide Jim Manley, who acknowledged a ‘complicated’ relationship with McCain.
That was true of both Democrats and Republicans, one reason the ‘maverick’ McCain will be remembered for years in the U.S. Capitol.