WASHINGTON ― At his Arizona ranch ― a verdant, canyon-bottom spread near Sedona, watered by a river in an otherwise arid, red-rock landscape ― John McCain kept a bottle of vodka in the freezer of the fridge.
With a fly boy flourish (he was a top gun long before “Top Gun”), he’d serve a vodka tonic and head to the patio, where he’d cook skinless chicken on an aircraft-carrier-size grill while listening to the Beach Boys on his boombox.
Dinner was a bubbling mix of friends and family, including the McCains’ adopted Bangladeshi daughter, Bridget, whose dark skin engendered the racist rumors that allies of George W. Bush used to defeat the Arizona senator in the decisive 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina.
The Sedona McCain, and the one on the Straight Talk Express bus in the 2000 campaign, was the one the press corps came to adore. He was candid, quotable, approachable, idealistic about ending the corrupting role of money in politics and tamping down mindless ideological rigidity. He was a Reagan Republican but one who had seen war, had suffered in a Vietnamese prison for years and who emerged humane and whole.
I wish I could say that it was this McCain that I saw from my perch in the Senate Press Gallery on Tuesday. But, sadly, I saw someone else: yet another victim of President Donald Trump’s rampage through Constitutional democracy.
Pale and wan from the ravages of brain cancer, McCain did his best to speak passionately about the desperate need to restore at least a measure of bipartisanship, of good will, of respect for institutions, for the Constitution, for the Founders and for the calming and consensus-building role of the U.S Senate, in which the Arizonan has served for 30 years.
He drew applause and hugs.
But the moment did not hold. For one, McCain spoke after giving Trump a crucial victory, the legislative license to begin dismantling Obamacare with no real idea of what would replace it. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s strategy for Trump was to “get on the bill” and only then decide what the bill might look like, with no chance ― for arcane procedural reasons ― to slow it by filibuster.
That is hardly the way the Senate is supposed to work, and McCain and everyone in the chamber knew it.
Nor was the irony lost on anyone that McCain was receiving the best possible treatment at taxpayer expense and that he had flown to Washington to help enable a piece of legislation that would, in one way or another, reduce the health care coverage available to millions of Americans.
The speech didn’t resonate for another reason. He delivered it as a gust amid the Trump storm that is rampaging through the institutions and traditions the senator was extolling in his eloquent speech.
Consider the Trump assault: The fake media. Press briefings are a joke. “Regular order” in Congress barely exists. The president insults and bullies his attorney general. Trump’s allies talk of firing special counsel Robert Mueller, appointed by the Justice Department to investigate possible Trump ties to the Russians. The president talks trash to the Boy Scouts. He talks trash about anyone he thinks threatens him.
McCain was just the latest to get run over.
He is no saint, as McCain himself would ruefully admit.
By the time he ran and won the presidential nomination in 2008, he’d become a harder man. He did what his advisers told him, and he took as his vice presidential running mate the utterly unqualified governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. Then he sent his minions out to trash the press for objecting to the choice.
But I would rather talk about the McCain at a rowdy Minnesota rally in 2008, when a woman in the crowd told him she feared candidate Barack Obama because he was an Arab and a Muslim.
Obama was neither, McCain said.
“I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States,” McCain said.
“He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”
That McCain was obliterated Tuesday. I now see him for what, sadly, he is: a Republican comfort station on the road to perdition.