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Commentary

Who has the courage, honesty & fortitude to take McCain's place in our civic life?

From a distance of nearly two decades, U.S. Sen. John McCain stands out on America's political landscape in distinctly different ways.

We got to know him as a fiery disciple of Goldwater conservativism who took on difficult political battles in league with high-profile Senate Democrats. He later embraced the same faction of the GOP's alt-right base that savaged him with cruel lies in the 2000 presidential primary race with George W. Bush, and ultimately, in stark contrast to his legacy as a straight-talking maverick, played the reluctant usher of the alt-facts movement we see today.

Through it all, he was steadfast in his campaign to promote public service over self-service. It is that John McCain who I came to know and choose to remember.

As a political writer for a newspaper that no longer publishes, I got to know Arizona's senior senator during his first try at winning the White House. It was aboard the "Straight Talk Express" that I and an ever-growing crush of reporters from around the nation and the world came know the man who succumbed to brain cancer on Saturday.

In February of 2000, the Tucson Citizen flew me to New England to join McCain's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in Nashua, N.H. In that cold-filtered Currier & Ives place, Arizona's political maverick announced himself to the nation in a way that defied partisan politics as we suffer them today.

The son and grandson of Navy admirals and former prisoner of war entered that campaign with a well-documented record of working with prominent Democrats to bring about reforms to campaign finance laws, health care and climate change. He worked with Democratic senators Russ Feingold, Ted Kennedy and Joe Lieberman with mixed legislative results, but with a bipartisan spirit that is nonexistent today.

His campaign seriously out-financed by the Texas governor and former First Son, McCain cozied up to the national news media, inviting them on board his campaign bus to take great and unscripted advantage of "earned media" while the Bush campaign spent millions on paid media.

I was among a relatively small cadre of reporters who joined McCain at the Ronald Reagan Library in California for his delayed and well-anticipated presidential campaign announcement. After the campaign debut rolled up the West Coast, on the return trip from Washington I was the lone reporter on a charter jet with McCain, his wife and his campaign manager. It was the last time I would have such exclusive access to the man, who routinely referred to me as "boy," despite the fact that I was in my early 40s.

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At the start of the campaign in New Hampshire, the Straight Talk Express was a single bus. By the time it moved to South Carolina, it was a small fleet. At one point, I was not afforded a seat on any of them because of the mass of national media that had joined. I was steered to a minivan and told I could travel with a New York Times reporter and Sen. Lindsey Graham.

I let myself into the rear seat of the bus, and in a display of my inexperience as a political writer, I tapped the older fellow in the seat in front of me and said "Hello Senator Graham. I'm C.T. Revere with the Tucson Citizen."

The Times writer turned with an incredulous look on his face and pointed to the young man next to him.

"This is Sen. Graham," he said, turning away to leave me with my embarrassment.

Each day, an ever-changing crowd of more experienced political writers, television correspondents, pundits and political surrogates helped shape the day's news through off-the-cuff conversations aboard the Straight Talk Express. In a state that loves a maverick and a longshot, McCain used his press gaggle and jam-packed town halls to stun Bush with a lopsided 18-point victory that turned the contest with his own party distinctly mean.

When the campaign arrived in South Carolina, McCain's hope of appealing to a robust military population was dashed by lies from the Bush camp that he had fathered a child with a black prostitute. His adopted daughter Bridget, who was born in Bangladesh, was at the center of a phone campaign asking voters if they would be less likely to support a candidate who had fathered an illegitimate black child.

All of us saw how hurt and infuriated McCain was to be falsely accused by members of his own political party. It was the beginning of the end of his campaign and of McCain as we knew and admired him.

Bush scored his first primary victory in South Carolina and a short while later, in California, the Arizona senator's White House bid ended.

With the W era underway, McCain re-established himself as the "Lion of the Senate," lending his considerable voice to the national political dialogue.

But his ambition to be president was not extinguished.

My late uncle, himself a Vietnam combat veteran, knew counselors in Arizona's veteran's affairs community who observed that the famous former POW took little advantage of resources to help him cope with the trauma of more than five years of captivity and torture.

Rather than turning to counseling, they opined, McCain's therapy took the form of his political ambition.

It was that ambition that led him to his most costly misstep when he returned to the campaign trail in 2008 against Barack Obama. In his second bid, McCain courted the same faction of the GOP that mistreated him so badly eight years earlier out of political expediency.

And, despite his better instincts, McCain introduced Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. It was Palin's crass and baseless observations that truly launched the era of "alternative facts," waking up a disenfranchised population of extremists who were fully mobilized with the rise of President Donald Trump.

By this time, I had traded my 22 years of reporting the news for a new path in public service. I heard Sen. McCain repeat his mantra of service over self so many times that it took root and when the opportunity came to work in a political office, I made the leap.

I have never regretted my change of career and I can truthfully say that my travels with Sen. McCain had something to do with it.

McCain presented a mixed bag of the old maverick and the loyal Republican during the first 18 months of the Trump administration, but his independent nature came through at critical times and restored a bit of my old admiration for the man.

Now that he's gone, I wonder who – if anyone – has the courage, honesty and fortitude to take his place.

C.T. Revere is a former political reporter and columnist for the Tucson Citizen.

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McCain at a 2015 political rally.