Postmodern John McCain: the presidential candidate some Arizonans know — and loathe

I once stood in John McCain's kitchen and watched Cindy cook eggs for their kids.

It was still dark outside when I arrived at the McCains' north-central Phoenix house on a winter day in early 1994. I remember terra cotta tile and overstuffed plaid couches and wondering whether Mrs. McCain regularly got up before dawn to make breakfast.

I was following her husband around for the day, for a story I was working on about his role in Arizona Republican politics. I'd been gathering examples of McCain's strong-arming, and I needed some face-time with the senator, to ask about that and also to describe his personality. That day, we drove to Tucson so McCain could sit in as guest host on a local talk-radio show.

For three hours, with the same piece of gum in his mouth, McCain took calls from listeners. There was no set topic. I got the anecdote I needed for my story in the form of a call from "Rosemary," an obviously elderly woman who wanted to express her concern about nuclear proliferation.

"You make some excellent points, Rosemary, and I wish that everybody were as concerned about the issue as you are. And I appreciate the call," the senator told her. Then he announced a station break, took off his headphones, and leaned over to me (his BFF for the day) with a Grinch-like grin on his face.

"I believe that Rosemary has a bumper sticker that says 'Visualize World Peace,'" he said.

Vintage McCain.

A few months after that story was published, a good friend of mine who knows the senator well pointed out an error in my anecdote about John McCain and Rosemary.

In the story, I wrote:

Although his demeanor is even and cordial throughout the radio shift, his hands betray the storm that lurks beneath the surface. His hands wring constantly, as if every bit of nervous energy, every distraction, every unspoken slam, is channeled through them.

"Uh, he doesn't wring his hands because he's mad," my friend said. "He does it because he's in pain from the injuries he got as a prisoner of war. His hands hurt constantly, so he rubs them together."

It was a good lesson for a young reporter. Never assume anything. For years, I was embarrassed by the gaffe. But looking back, I've got to say that it's pretty darn likely that handwringing was the product of McCain's desire to control both pain and anger.

That's the thing about covering John McCain. Someone always wants you to give him the benefit of the doubt. And there's usually a pretty good case for why he deserves it, though that doesn't mean he should be let off the hook completely.

Even now that McCain's the one whining that Obama's getting all the good press in this presidential race, you still don't see a lot in the national media really damning the guy. It could be that in this postmodern political world, there's not much you can say anymore that will get the attention of the American people. Ever since Monica Lewinsky crawled under that desk in the Oval Office, it's been hard to shock this country.

Or it could be that, like me, no one really expected John McCain to make another run at the White House. The man is old, and there's no way his war injuries — far more extensive than cramped hands — don't age him further. I didn't think he'd be in the Senate in 2008, let alone on practically every television screen, front page, and magazine cover.

If nothing else, that cameo in Wedding Crashers should have signified the end of McCain's presidential aspirations.

And yet, here we are.

I've been a writer and editor at New Times for 15 years. For much of that time, I wrote about Arizona politics, which is to say that I wrote about John McCain. It's still odd to see the guy in the spotlight, because for quite a while, I was pretty much the only one covering him.

I never did fall for him in the way reporters fall for politicians, probably because he wasn't much to fall for back in the early 1990s. In those days, McCain was still rehabilitating the image he'd later sell to the national media. He was known then for cavorting in the Bahamas with Charlie Keating, rather than for fighting for campaign finance reform and limited government spending.

No one seems to remember Keating much, anymore. Amazing. McCain and his fellow Arizonan, Democrat Dennis DeConcini, were hauled before the Senate Ethics Committee along with three other senators to explain their actions on behalf of Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan.

Keating gave the senators hefty campaign contributions, then called on them to meet with bank regulators to pressure them to go soft on an investigation of Lincoln. There were two infamous meetings. McCain attended both.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.