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What the Devil won't tell you

All too human: John McCain was the senator we wish we were - or at least hope to have

His triumphs & failings were as recognizeable as our own

Johnny, we absolutely knew ya.

If there was a great thing about U.S. Sen. John McCain, it was that he was what he was, whether he — or we — liked it or not. When he tried not to be, he sucked at it. He was the worst political sell-out — just plain bad at it every time he tried — in modern U.S. history because no one had a worse poker face.

McCain died Saturday, as glioblastoma remains undefeated. With him doesn’t go one of a kind, but one of 300 million. He was a wildly human politician and that made him the original disruptor in the Age of Disruption.

He wore it all on his sleeve, collar, shirtwaist, slacks and shoes. He wanted to be above the game but succumbed to it regularly. His every mood swing was as recognizable as our own.

His buddy from South Carolina, U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, can wink and nod with a southern drawl when he throws in with the far right of his party, as if to say “Look, I gotta deal with South Carolina Republicans; cut me some slack here. I’ll be moderate again in a few months.”

Not John Sidney McCain.

He couldn’t pretend to fall in line when partisan duty commanded him to crude political spin. And when he was being petty, he just couldn’t pretend he was being anything else.

His political life was a three-act play. A heroic rise, then wrestling with the very demons he criticized for afflicting others and in the end, redemption. At every turn we knew exactly what he was thinking. We had no choice. 

But first, an epilogue

President Donald Trump has strangled and stomped and tweeted any news that's not about him right out of the public's attention span.

The nominal Republican's presidency has reached its nadir at the very moment a nation remembers a rock-ribbed conservative with rose-colored glasses. The stories will abound of McCain’s most transcendent moments just as Trump suffers from flippers and leakers turning state's evidence against him, not to mention political guilt by association as his closest confidants plead guilty to real crimes.

It’s not just that Trump who will suffer by comparison, it will be Republicans at large. Measured against the inevitable global tribute to McCain’s principled stands, the GOP are suddenly left to cheer-lead Trump’s moral relativism, economic protectionism and picking fights with NATO while cozying up to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. Never mind how the whole party spent decades pursuing exactly the opposite goals.

The contrast will be striking heading into an election season.

And now, after Gov. Doug Ducey appoints a temporary replacement, Republicans will have to defend McCain's seat in 2020, with Trump on the ballot if he's still in office. If the Donald's approval rating continues to be stuck between 39.5178 and 42.2942 percent, that will be another huge fight for the Democrats as they try to pick up a seat in Arizona.

Politics is going to stay wild in Arizona for a while. That's a fitting end for America’s first disruptive brand.

Flags at half-mast

I’m going to be a bit contrarian because I will fondly remember Bad John.

(Isn't being contrarian fitting in a remembrance of McCain?)

Remember when John was running for president in 2000 and the issue of the Confederate flag fluttering atop South Carolina’s statehoues began to dominate the GOP primary? Captain Straight Talk took the politically expedient position and called it a state issue and waffled. But it was how he did it that was so rich.

He stood in the middle of an iron ring of mic booms and TV cameras and read from a sheet of paper. He read like he just learned how to read. He practically vomited his words. If he'd have won that GOP primary in the Palmetto State he would have sunk George W. Bush’s campaign. South Carolina was still fighting the Civil War and didn’t want any president born in Panama telling them they shouldn’t.

McCain caved, giving in to advisors who pressured him.

After the primary, unprompted, he went back to South Carolina and said reversed his decision. He copped to being politically expedient and cynical. Yeah, it was pretty obvious the first time around but who goes back to give primary voters the bird after the fact? 

"Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you guys to bite me!"

''I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary,'' McCain said just two months later. ''So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.''

He would win South Carolina eight years later.


Then there was the time he said “I never called myself a maverick,” when his entire marketing plan was rooted in him blazing his own trail and tempting the fates.

Here’s a classic McCain pouty dodge, as described by Politico in April 2010:

When POLITICO asked McCain about the contradiction at the Capitol this week, the Arizona Republican grew visibly irritated and snapped: “I’ve been called a thousand things. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

He said 48 percent of the homeowners in his state are underwater on their mortgages. He said he’s always “done what’s best for my state and the nation.” Then he said it again, adding, “People can consider me whatever they want.”

And then he darted into the Senate chamber without explaining himself further.

Cranky, cranky, cranky; get away from me and let me pander, fucker.

Graham tried to pour some syrup on it, in defense of his BFF:

“When you’re running for president, you show the public at large that I’ll put the country ahead of the party,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, McCain’s closest friend in the Senate and the Republican who has played the deal-maker role ceded by the Arizonan. “When you’re in a primary, you’ve got to prove to people you’re a good conservative. That’s the difference in the forms. John has a record of conservatism that’s being highlighted now because he’s in a Republican primary. When you’re running for president, you highlight that part of your record, and it shows you’re willing to govern the country as a whole.” 

That McCain was juvenile about his flip-flops was oddly refreshing. What’s dangerous are the politicians who can look you straight in the face and say “I was never a moderate” (Martha McSally) or “I was never a liberal” (Kyrsten Sinema).

When he was good, he was very, very good. And the moments are well-known. Taking the mic from a woman who called Barack Obama “an Arab.” “No ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with,” he said. His speech on the Senate floor ahead of the repeal of Obamacare; his decision to go all-in on the troop surge in Iraq when no one thought Bush’s plan would work; his effort on campaign finance reform and his brutal self-awareness after the fact. McCain called himself an imperfect servant and meant it.

When McCain was bad, he was obvious — and at his best, he knew it.

How to own up

McCain cheated on his first wife Carol, and dumped her for a younger, prettier (and richer) Cindy Hensley in 1979. The subject was not off limits and he owned his own failings.

"My marriage's collapse was attributable to my own selfishness and immaturity more than it was to Vietnam, and I cannot escape blame by pointing a finger at the war. The blame was entirely mine," he wold tell the Arizona Republic years later.

And that was that. McCain frequently said, during the heights of his public elevation that his first wife could give them an earful about how he’s no hero.

McCain got wrapped up with Charles W. Keating, head of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan. He got way too chummy with Keating during his first term in office. There were private jet flights on board Keating’s ride in the sky on trips to the Bahamas. When Lincoln went bust and Keating came calling, well, McCain didn’t intervene on the banker's behalf but boy did he look bad.

He had allowed himself to be seduced by the trappings of office.

As the banks and S&Ls slowly imploded in the late 1980s, McCain joined banking regulators and four other senators including Dennis DeConcinci, the senior senator from Arizona, John Glenn, of Mercury program fame, Alan Cranston and Don Riegle (a couple of guys who can best be described as Alan Cranston and Don Riegle) in meeting with Keating about his regulatory troubles. McCain wasn’t found to have done anything wrong during the meeting but just being there with a guy who secured $112,000 in campaign donations for McCain over the years looked pretty damn bad.

The "Keating Five" made headlines for some time.

"I faced in Vietnam, at times, very real threats to life and limb," McCain told the Associated Press. "But while my sense of honor was tested in prison, it was not questioned. During the Keating inquiry, it was, and I regretted that very much."

"The appearance of wrongdoing, fair or unfair, can be potentially as injurious as actual wrongdoing," McCain told the CBS News, reflecting on what he said were his lessons from the scandal. "Also, when questions are raised about your integrity or for that matter anything involving your public career, even, for example, a controversial position on the issues, it is best not to hide from the media or public."

No "Witch Hunt!"

No "Fake News!"

No "No laws were broken."

He carried the mistake with him, and didn't attempt to dodge it. So how does an opponent whack him for it, if he whacks himself harder?

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And off McCain went to restore his reputation, fighting the good fight on a 10-year mission to secure campaign finance reform. With Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, he secured campaign finance limits in 2002. Eight years later, the U.S. Supreme Court pretty much torpedoed the law in Citizens United. And that’s when McCain went on a jihad to at least require federal disclosure … Ha, ha, ha …. Of course not.

McCain wasn’t done being imperfect.

Ambition, meet Obama

Barack Obama was president. Barack Obama beat McCain in Nov. 2008 and McCain would spend much of the next eight years being pissy about it. He wouldn’t support anything Obama could sign.

But we all knew why he was being pissy.

McCain was so into being president that for most of Bush’s two terms, he seemed to have little interest in representing Arizona in the U.S. Senate. Between 2005 and 2008, I could not get his press secretary to return a call. I could get junior Sen. Jon Kyl on the phone in 24 hours and his press secretary and I regularly grabbed lunch together. Gov. Janet Napolitano and I could talk. Members of Congress were a speed-dial away. McCain? Tucson wasn’t going to win him any national convention delegates.

We never even got word that he was coming to town. I spent three years watching and waiting with nary a sign of the maverick bull charging down I-10.

Barely a month after he lost that 2008 election, McCain did something he hadn’t done in about 10 years. He showed up at a Tucson Citizen editorial board meeting. Arizona was all he had left. I had been laid off a week before but newsroom friends met me for beers and recounted how pissed he was about his running mate Sarah Palin’s treatment by the media.

If any other candidate for president had yanked a clueless demagogue out of Alaska to campaign as a vice presidential candidate, McCain would have rolled his eyes and held forth. But that was McCain’s handiwork and it happened because he didn’t do his homework. Only with days to go before the 2008 Republican convention did his team finally convince him the delegates would not support former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate. It touched off a mad scramble for a wild card without time for vetting. Boy did he find one.

McCain knew he’d blown the selection process and was pissed at himself but in this case, wouldn't admit it. His defensive pettiness was too reminiscent of anyone who ever lived with or has been, a guy. He has since walked back his defense of the pick insomuch as he wished he'd picked Lieberman.

I guess that'll have to do.

Such would be his next eight years. He wasn’t being evil. He wasn’t serving dark forces. He was just being petulant that the new kid in town had beaten him for the White House, and more pissed that his old rival (Bush 43) had scuttled his ambitions by leaving a dying economy and unpopular wars. Who among us can’t understand that in the context of eventual redemption?

Thumbs down

Flash forward to 2017, and McCain is holding his thumb down in the Senate chamber, killing Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Here’s what people have already forgotten. McCain didn’t kill a well-thought-out overhaul of the health care system. He killed something called “Skinny Repeal,” which would have handed House Republicans a WMD to take down the whole health care system in America if they were crazy enough to pass it as the Senate sent it to them. It stripped away the mandates and taxes that let insurance companies (and the government) pay for the rest of Obamacare’s requirements. The idea was to pass anything out of the Senate and go to a conference committee to reconcile differences between a wildly unpopular House bill and a potentially catastrophic Senate bill. However, by passing a bill from the Senate, the House could have bypassed a conference committee by just passing Skinny Repeal themselves. The Senate had already approved it, so it would go straight to the president’s desk. They could say they did something.

The bill only had the prospect of passing because senators received assurances from House Speaker Paul Ryan it would never become law. That’s what McCain killed and it was all done hidden away in some cloistered corner of the Capitol before being rushed to the floor.

And he did so after one of his finest speeches, imploring senators to work together and pass bills the way Schoolhouse Rock explained to us. Go through committees. Hold hearings. Hear testimony. Vote on amendments. Vote the bill out of committee. It’s what’s known in the Senate as “regular order.”

McCain did it facing mortality, having freshly been diagnosed and begun treatment for a brutally undefeated kind of brain cancer. It brought out the best in him.

McCain found redemption in the eyes of people who believed in the American system. Politicians run for office projecting the soft glow of personal superiority. Look at the lit pieces arriving in your mailbox. Here’s a family man who’s success has not corrupted his working-class roots. There’s a mom just like you who still has time to walk the dog, bake cookies and serve as a civic leader. They float above us, better than us. They aren’t trying to be superheroes but if someone wants to call them that, then who are they to say no?

To be sure, John McCain sold his torturous Vietnam experience as part of his brand. It’s impossible not to think about the beatings and violence he endured without wondering “how would I have fared?”

Yet McCain became a superhero in part because he we saw in him our noblest selves and our darker angels. It’s said we campaign in poetry and govern in prose. I think politicians campaign thinking they are Abraham Lincoln. If they can govern as McCain, warts and all, they should count themselves lucky.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. He reported on John McCain for years, and then helped run a political campaign against him in 2010.

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U.S. Sen. John McCain at a 2011 town hall in Tucson.


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