John McCain rubbed his hands together a lot.
He did it all the time — on the U.S. Senate floor, during campaign events, standing around — hands cradled, moving. It wasn’t a casual gesture. You could tell he was putting some force into it.
Often, it looked like he was trying to quash his frustration, like one time in 1994 when he was guest-hosting a talk radio show in Tucson. It’s been nearly 25 years, but I can still picture giant black headphones over that shiny white comb-over and those hands rubbing, wringing, and clenching into fists as the senator listened to a constituent prattle on about nuclear proliferation, catching my eye and rolling his.
Could be that McCain rubbed his hands together to keep himself from snapping at a potential voter. It’s equally likely that a desert cold snap that morning made his bones ache — one of many unwelcome side effects of his infamous stay at Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton as a prisoner of war from 1967 to 1973.
Really, it depends on your perspective.
In so many ways — throughout his life and now in his death — John McCain is an optical illusion. Look at the drawing one way, and it’s a haggard old lady. Shift your gaze and it’s a beautiful young girl.
If you liked McCain, his smile was broad and inviting, like you were in on a private joke with the guy. But if he wasn’t your favorite, that smile was a smirk, or even a sneer.
He was a family man with a lovely wife and kids, including sons who served in the military and a daughter adopted from India.
He was also the guy who ditched his first wife after she’d been seriously injured in a car accident, ultimately marrying a beautiful young beer heiress who held the ticket to his political future.
He was a tireless champion of campaign finance reform who made enemies with his establishment-bucking efforts. Or he was the shyster trying to rehabilitate himself after his starring role as a member of the Keating Five, an aggressive candidate who never did stop taking millions of dollars in campaign contributions from special interests.
And then there was his complicated relationship with our state.
John McCain lived in many places after Vietnam, but for the last 36 years he called Arizona home, and represented the state in Congress — from 1982 to 1986 as a representative, and then from ‘86 to his death as a member of the United States Senate.
McCain embraced Arizona, adopting the pretty landscape of central Phoenix and Cornville, posting photos of red-rock hikes, but doing very little during his tenure to support the state. In fact, his stand against “pork-barrel politics” at a time when his colleagues in Congress were busy lining their own states’ pockets with infrastructure cost Arizona dearly while increasing McCain’s popularity as a refreshingly honest leader who turned down handouts.
In a lot of ways, it didn’t matter what state he lived in. John McCain was America’s senator, not Arizona’s, a transplant (or a carpetbagger — again, it depends on your perspective) who adopted the state as his own.
McCain will not likely go down in history as Arizona’s favorite son. That title may ultimately belong to the late Carl Hayden, who used his own role in the Senate to secure water rights for the state; perhaps to another late senator, Barry Goldwater, a true political iconoclast; or maybe to a favorite daughter, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Favorite? No, although he never won an election in the state with less than an extra-wide margin. But McCain will certainly be remembered by many of us as Arizona’s most fascinating son.
I covered McCain for this paper during the '90s, as the local spotlight went national. The Arizona media – for which he’d never had much use – watched as the senator glad-handed Washington and New York reporters, boarding the Straight Talk Express in 2000, bound for the presidency. That job was not to be his – not in 2008, either — and in the ensuing years even the national media seemed to grow a little tired of McCain’s maverick/opportunist stands.
And then in summer 2017, beloved John McCain was back, with a diagnosis of brain cancer and – it seemed – a desire to set the record straight by saving the day. His dramatic thumbs-down on the floor of the U.S. Senate effectively ended Donald Trump’s efforts to gut health care reform (for the moment, anyway) and served as a big, satisfying “fuck you” to the president. McCain decried Trump’s pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio and his decision to dismantle DACA, criticizing the president at every turn.
Never mind that tax reform basically negated any good done by McCain’s health care vote. As 2017 ended, even some of the senator’s most devoted haters were converts.
He’d secured his spot in history, something that was definitely on his mind – or, at least, the minds of his advisers, who announced just before Christmas that McCain’s legacy would be the development of 45 miles of the Rio Salado, a grand and romantic idea (with pretty significant potential environmental impact issues). Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton named an airport terminal after McCain. Joe Biden reached across the aisle to Meghan McCain on The View, offering comfort as someone who’d seen a loved one (his son) die of cancer, and the world teared up.
But I can’t help but wonder if the long view will be quite so kind to McCain.
Will John McCain go down in history as the refreshing voice of reason, the antidote to Trump? He might.
Or history might take a different view. Will McCain instead be remembered as the man who opened the door in 2008 to Sarah Palin, simultaneously setting the table for the Tea Party and ultimately making a spot for Trump himself?
It all depends on your perspective.
John McCain III was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936 to John and Roberta McCain. He was a middle child and a Navy brat, attending many schools before ultimately graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy fifth from the bottom of his class.
He was not a good student or a good airman, and it’s clear that from Annapolis to Hanoi to Washington, D.C., Admiral McCain pulled strings for his son.
In his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, published in 1999 as his first presidential bid went into full swing, the younger McCain admitted that he received better treatment than his fellow Hanoi Hilton prisoners, because of his father's status at the time as a high-ranking Naval commander. Not that prison camp was a walk in the park – the scars of war were always visible, and not just in John McCain’s hands. (There is actually a small group — growing smaller, as people age and die – out there of true McCain haters, Vietnam veterans and families of men never recovered, who dispute that McCain was ever a prisoner of war at all; they are incorrect.)
McCain came home to the States in 1973. By 1980, after a prestigious stint as a Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate (landed through his father's influence), he met a much younger and richer woman, Cindy Lou Hensley; ended his first marriage to Carol McCain, who herself had been gravely injured in a car accident while McCain was in Vietnam; and took off for his new home, Arizona.
He gave up the military for a career in politics.
He was pretty much a one-note wonder in a crowded campaign in 1982 for the congressional seat being vacated by John Rhodes.
"Thanks to my prisoner of war experience, I had a good first story to sell," he and Mark Salter wrote in a later memoir, Worth The Fighting For, published in 2002.
McCain emerged from a crowded Republican Party to take the congressional seat he'd come to Arizona to claim. In 1986, McCain ran for the Senate seat left vacant by Barry Goldwater, and the rest is Arizona history. McCain was re-elected five times.
He served for a long time, but for some, he was always a newcomer.
Arizona is a young state – the youngest, in fact, of the contiguous 48 – and yet people here don’t always take kindly to outsiders. McCain never did completely overcome the status as “carpetbagger,” particularly those to whom he was especially cruel.
The story of the time John McCain set out to humiliate Rose Mofford is an old one – 30 years this April. It pretty much predates the man’s entire political career and yet in many ways, it defines McCain. This is the McCain a lot of us knew and didn’t love.
Mofford, who died in 2016, was an Arizona institution, a native of the mining town of Globe who worked her way from secretary to secretary of state and eventually governor when Evan Mecham was impeached in 1988. And (this part’s important) she was a Democrat.
In 1988, John McCain was still a relative newcomer to Arizona politics, but he already wielded quite a bit of control, and his nasty tendencies were legion. It was one of the most difficult periods of time in the state’s political history, and for a place that’s endured the likes of Joe Arpaio, that’s saying a lot.
There was no way of knowing then that Arizona's ugly days would turn into years – that the state stood to endure a political scandal that would send legislators to jail for taking bags of cash from undercover agents pretending to be lobbyists (AzScam); that its U.S. senators would become poster boys for corruption on the federal level (the Keating Five, including McCain); or that its governor would leave office in disgrace over his personal financial dealings, narrowly avoiding a prison term (John McCain's pal J. Fife Symington III).
But before all that, there was Ev Mecham, a conservative used-car dealer who won the 1986 Arizona gubernatorial election.
Looking back, you can argue about just how bad a governor Mecham was. Mostly, he was an embarrassment. He's the one who used the term pickaninny and kept the state from recognizing the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. as a national holiday, leaving Arizona's tourism industry for dead.
Even Doonesbury took note in a series of comic strips.
People were so set on getting Mecham out of office that they launched simultaneous efforts. To be on the safe side, in case the state Senate didn't impeach, the governor's detractors started a recall movement. The campaign was ready to go when Mecham was ousted.
But when it was clear that the recall wasn't necessary, some insisted on continuing it.
In Arizona, when a governor leaves office early, the secretary of state ascends. In this case, that was Mofford, a lady with a bright white beehive that Arizona Republic cartoonist Steve Benson once famously drew as a cone-full of Dairy Queen.
Mofford had served as secretary of state for decades. She'd never aspired to the state's top spot. But she accepted graciously and agreed to serve out the remaining 2 1/2 years of Mecham's term.
She never showed interest in running for another term after that, although she was enormously popular.
As the story goes, John McCain and his friends wanted her out immediately. And, they figured, they had the mechanism in place to do it. Mecham was gone, but the recall effort was still in place. Why not shift gears and target Mofford instead?
The Democrats didn't like that one bit and asked the Arizona Supreme Court to consider the legality.
In mid-April 1988, Mofford and some staff flew to Washington for, as one former aide puts it, the "perfunctory wet kiss" meeting with the Arizona congressional delegation. The tour was expected to go along without incident.
At 10 in the morning on April 12, Mofford testified before the Senate Energy and Water Development Subcommittee on Appropriations on the topic of the Central Arizona Project.
Now, Mofford had been governor for only eight days. Before that, her main task had been running the state's elections department. This appearance (there was a similar one, later that day, before the House) had been billed as ceremonial. She was not familiar with the particulars of federal water law. Nor did her staff think she'd be expected to be – just then.
But, apparently, Senator James McClure, a Republican from Idaho, did. McClure asked Mofford a series of questions that would leave any water expert's mouth dry. Her staff jumped in to try to answer, but even so, ultimately they had to file an addendum to the testimony.
Word spread quickly about what had happened.
John McCain and his friends wanted Rose Mofford out immediately. And, they figured, they had the mechanism in place to do it. Evan Mecham was gone, but the recall effort was still in place. Why not shift gears and target Mofford instead?
Coincidentally, that very same day, Pat Murphy, then publisher of the Arizona Republic (he died in 2011) was also in Washington to meet with the delegation. He and his wife had lunch plans with McCain, and as Murphy recalled in a 2008 interview, they went to the hearing room where Mofford was testifying, to meet up with him. Murphy had written glowingly of McCain and considered him a personal friend.
As Murphy recounted in an email, the incident crushed him. He said it was the beginning of the end of his respect for and friendship with McCain.
"We peeked in the room," Murphy wrote. "McCain saw us, excused himself, and we three went to the Senate dining room for lunch.
"During lunch, McCain said, almost with mischievous glee, that he had slipped some highly technical questions to [James McClure] to ask Mofford – questions she wouldn't be prepared to answer or expected to answer.
"Flabbergasted, I asked McCain why would he want to sabotage Mofford's testimony, when in fact the CAP was the nonpartisan pet of Republicans and Democrats – such as far-left Udall and far-right Goldwater — since its inception.
"His reply, as near as I remember, was, 'I'll embarrass a Democrat any time I get the chance.'
"The lunch continued in strained chit-chat. We then walked back to McCain's office, where a few reporters, all of them from Arizona papers, as I recall, were waiting. One said there was a rumor McCain had tried to sabotage Mofford's testimony, to which he said something like, 'I'd never do anything like that.'"
There was more. Another rumor, later reported in the Republic, held that McCain had brought in a private film crew to tape the proceedings, so that the tape could be used to embarrass Mofford in the recall election. At the time, Jay Smith, McCain's campaign media consultant, was quoted in the Republic as declining comment; he did not deny the rumor.
The next day, the Republic ran a story about Mofford's trip to Washington. There was another story that very same day about the Arizona Supreme Court's decision not to allow the recall election to go forward. John Rhodes, the former congressman who had been tapped to run against Mofford, sounded relieved. He and Mofford were old friends.
When I asked her about it, Mofford was hesitant to say much negative.
"I've known Cindy since she was a little girl, and the Hensleys have always been very good to me," she said of McCain's wife and her family. "I don't hold grudges."
But, she added, regarding the CAP hearing, "that hurt me more than anything ... to be set up like that."
Pat Murphy recalled hearing that McCain later called Mofford to apologize. The former governor said no. She got a different kind of call from McCain.
"He said, 'I didn't have anything to do with that.' And I said, 'John, don't ever call me again.'"
Not long after the Mofford incident, John McCain had his own public humiliation to worry about — but this was self-inflicted. The Keating Five scandal demonstrated a kind of quid pro quo between donor and candidate that the public had rarely, if ever, seen.
And McCain’s rehabilitation from the scandal is the stuff of textbook lectures.
It’s pretty clear that of the five senators who acted on behalf of Charlie Keating – a prominent Arizonan asking for favors for his savings and loan institution – McCain was the closest to the man. He was also the first to cut ties with him.
Because many of McCain’s actions on behalf of Keating, who died in 2014, took place while McCain was in the House, they fell outside the purview of the eventual Senate inquiry.
For the record:
In the mid-1980s, Keating took McCain on at least nine trips – often with McCain's wife, daughter, and babysitter – including three jaunts to Keating's retreat in the Bahamas.
McCain later reimbursed Keating for the trips, but only after the controversy was revealed in the press.
In 1986, Cindy McCain and her father, Jim Hensley, invested more than $350,000 in a Keating-owned shopping center reported to be a tax shelter.
Between 1982 and 1988, McCain received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from Keating, for whom he went to bat in the Senate. McCain returned the money, but back then it appeared he would be forever tainted.
Instead, for a time, McCain made campaign finance reform his cause. No one noticed that he’d voted against similar legislation in 1987 and 1988. From 1990 on, he was a big champion.
He also continued to take money from special interests, which, along with a weak opponent and his own perseverance, got him re-elected to the Senate in 1992.
Rising in local polls and confident of his position in Arizona, McCain began to focus almost exclusively on national issues. When Jon Kyl was elected to the Senate in 1994, McCain reportedly told Arizona's new junior senator that he would now be responsible for the lion's share of constituent service work; McCain would be too busy working on his global image.
The strategy worked.
McCain was less Arizona’s senator than ever. Unless it served him.
By all accounts, McCain adored Udall. They did not share that great sense of humor – it took McCain a lot of apologies to make up for one of his least funny and most insensitive jokes:
Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?
Because Janet Reno is her father.
"John McCain is the Eddie Haskell of politics," Bob Neuman said in 2008, admitting he was a little worried McCain wouldn’t find that comment funny at all. "You can attribute that to me, and he'll kill me for it."
Neuman, a longtime Udall advisor, co-authored the congressman’s 1987 book, Too Funny to Be President.
McCain does deserve credit for the time he spent with Udall during his final years.
"There was no steadier visitor," Bob Neuman recalls of McCain's visits to his old boss' bedside during Udall's very long struggle with Parkinson's disease. And for that, Neuman says, McCain earned his "respect and admiration and affection."
Until McCain went public with his bedside vigil.
In 1997, Michael Lewis profiled McCain for the New York Times Magazine. Lewis got great access to McCain. In fact, the senator even took the journalist to the veterans' hospital in Washington, D.C., for one of his visits with Udall. According to Lewis, McCain tried in vain to wake Udall that day. (Udall died the following year.)
About the encounter, Neuman says, "That was devastating to me, that he brought in a reporter. I thought that was crossing the line, and it destroyed me."
It was vintage McCain.
Ultimately, it may well be that John McCain’s legacy has nothing to do with rivers or airport terminals in Arizona, or cross-country trips on the Straight Talk Express.
Instead, this larger-than-life man’s most lasting impression on America might be a little lady who, as Tina Fey once joked, could see Russia from her house.
In an interview with New York magazine in October 2016, then-President Barack Obama said, “I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee to what we see today in Donald Trump, the emergence of the Freedom Caucus, the Tea Party, and the shift in the center of gravity for the Republican Party.”
In other words, John McCain opened the bottle and let out the genie who gave the right side of America a taste for what we’ve got today.
Obama is right. The country had never quite seen anyone like Sarah Palin, plucked from obscurity in Alaska and tossed onto the national stage. Much like Trump, she was picked clean by the media but still championed by Americans who felt disenfranchised and misunderstood.
In their 2010 book Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin dissect the 2008 presidential race in satisfying detail, describing the process (there wasn’t much of one) by which Palin was chosen for the vice presidential nomination over McCain’s other, much different unorthodox pick, Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman.
“Sarahcuda,” as a she’s dubbed in a chapter title, was “hard right and totally fresh.”
Heilemann and Halperin describe the 2008 McCain as much different than 2000 McCain – distracted, not particularly interested in his campaign, blaming the press for his own missteps.
When presented with this surprise choice, McCain, who’d met Palin once and chatted with her for 10 minutes, asked, what’s “the bottom line? And was told, 'high risk, high reward.'”
As Heilemann and Halperin wrote, the senator replied, “You shouldn’t have told me that. I’ve been a risk taker all of my life.”
It was a risk that did not pay off for McCain, or – ultimately – the nation, depending on your feelings about current politics in the U.S.
Palin remained wildly popular after the election.
“Even as polls have shown that majorities of Americans doubt her qualifications to serve in the Oval Office, she towers over every other Republican figure as a media magnet and rallier of the conservative base,” Heilemann and Halperin wrote in an afterword in the paperback edition of Game Change.
One of the most fascinating parts of their story is the Game Change authors’ insistence that John McCain – he of the clenched fists and frequent outbursts, the infamous temper – never publicly repudiated Sarah Palin. McCain’s advisors, staff and friends, yes. They complained long and hard and nastily about her in ensuing years. But never the senator, Heilemann and Halperin write.
And now, as the nation says farewell to one of the most fascinating politicians in history, a question remains:
Will all of John McCain’s railing against Donald Trump ever make up for the fact that it might have been the senator’s own desperation to win in 2008 that led the nation to this point?
Only time will tell.