Jules Witcover: On the loss of John McCain
WASHINGTON — The death of John McCain at 81 leaves a huge void in the Senate, in the country and most importantly in the ranks of truth-tellers in American politics. As such, his passing is a particular loss to my news-business fraternity, which depends on his like to sort out the wheat from the chaff of chattering public officeholders.
I first encountered him nearly 30 years ago when he found himself in an Arizona savings and loan scandal in which he acknowledged having used “poor judgment.” He received only a mild rebuke from a Senate ethics committee and admitted that “the appearance of it was wrong, and it was the wrong thing to do.”
The incident also involved four other senators in what was known then as “The Keating Five” after the S&L operative convicted of bank fraud in the case. It embarrassed McCain, proud of his reputation as a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War, shot down over Hanoi, seriously wounded, captured and imprisoned for more than five years. He later dubbed the unfortunate S&L case “my asterisk.”
McCain went on to build one of the most illustrious records in the Senate and won the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 as a man of demonstrated integrity. He had the unfortunate luck then of running into a Democratic phenomenon named Barack Obama, who became the first African-American president.
McCain in that campaign added what many considered a second asterisk by choosing as his running mate the little known and not-ready-for-prime-time governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. The choice was made on the advice of campaign aides who decided that only the political equivalent of a “Hail Mary” pass in football could possibly bail out his struggling campaign.
The colorful and quirky Palin proved to be a hit on the stump among conservative Republican voters. But her obvious inexperience in national affairs was a poor reflection on McCain himself in placing her as a potential president, not even knowing her at the time.
Nevertheless, he picked himself up after their defeat, and he went on to cement his standing and public admiration as an often acerbic but straight-shooting Senate advocate of old Republican values and standards. This was to the end especially so in the realm of foreign policy and national security.
In various McCain campaigns over the years and notably when his traveling entourage included his “Straight Talk Express” bus, McCain seemed to get a kick out of needling me as the old man aboard, 10 years his senior.
The minute he would spy me there, he would mock-seriously call on the younger fellers in the press contingent to get up and surrender a seat nearby to the old guy who earned the deference only by longevity.
He and his chief political tactician of the time, a much younger Mike Murphy, would while away the hours on the bus, exchanging quips with and at the expense of their traveling press companions, and otherwise keeping us informed as their jobs and ours required. Never did either of them disparage us as enemies of the people.
McCain was particularly close to a Baltimore Sun colleague of mine, the late Bob Timberg, a seriously wounded Vietnam War veteran from the Marine Corps and Naval Academy alumnus. The last time I spoke to McCain was at Timberg’s memorial service at the National Club about two years ago. He was there, as could have been expected, as an old combat warrior playing tribute to Timberg’s uncommon service to the country to which both gave their last drop of devotion.
After funeral services for McCain at the Arizona Capitol Tuesday, he will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Thursday. He will be buried at the Naval Academy Sunday. Among the speakers will be two previous presidents who defeated him in prior presidential campaigns, George W. Bush in 2000 and Obama in 2008.
Absent at McCain’s request will be the sitting president, who once said he preferred heroes who were never captured. It is safe to say he will not missed by the assembled men and women who knew John McCain best, and knew what had made him a true American patriot.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.