The John McCain Story You Haven't Heard

"Everybody has a McCain story,” grumbled former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) to the Washington Post during the 2008 election season. “If you work in the Senate for a while, you have a McCain story.”

Well, I worked in the Senate for a while, and I have a McCain story.

The first time I heard McCain speak in person, the former Navy pilot was addressing a veterans group in the early 1990s, and recounting his capture by the North Vietnamese. The tale began with the self-effacing McCain deadpanning about his “interception” of a surface-to-air missile. I guffawed, drawing sharp looks from some of the less humorful old soldiers nearby.

Our paths intersected not long after, when I was a young staffer for Senator Russ Feingold. It was quite a roll call in the U.S. Senate back then. Legislative giants like Bob Dole and Ted Kennedy roamed the Senate floor, but so did Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, Bob Packwood, Fritz Hollings, and the other alien extras from the bar scene in Star Wars.

Just as today, Congress was awash in hostility. After trouncing to victory in the 1994 midterm elections, it was payback time for long-suffering Republicans, and their turn to shun the minority party. Not McCain though, who recalled his earlier days as a House Republican, when he was persistently blocked by the majority party from contributing to the legislative process. So in 1995, he reached out for an unknown freshman Democrat, one he shared common ground with on core issues of fiscal spending and political reform. As an overly idealistic and inexperienced legislative aide, I suddenly found myself on a national stage, part of the fledgling McCain-Feingold duo, crafting proposals to overhaul our election laws and a tarnished ethical culture in Congress.

For better than two years, I was privy to countless private meetings and discussions with McCain. And though I was not a member of his staff or political party, he sure treated me like one, offering his trust, candor, and, most memorably, endless needling.

There was the time I was camped out in the back of the Senate chamber on the benches reserved for staff. McCain sauntered over, and to the horror of my Democratic colleagues seated nearby, pulled me into an exaggerated embrace as he loudly congratulated me for my “decision” to switch parties.

I could go on. The torment was relentless, good-natured, and I treasured every minute of it. As I did his unsolicited counsel. He once suggested I vacation in Bermuda, mumbling something about great value. When I mentioned the fabled Triangle, he bristled with mock annoyance, as if I was bothering him with a triviality, and my vanishing was a chance he was willing to take. When he heard that the only casino gambling I could afford on my paltry Senate salary was an occasional spin of roulette, he directed me to give up that “sissy game” and take up craps instead. And of course, there was the erstwhile quip he repeated each time the legislative quicksand threatened to swallow up our reform efforts. “Remember Andy,” he would, uh, reassure me, “as Chairman Mao said, it’s always darkest before it’s completely black.”

To most Americans, McCain is known for his harrowing six-year ordeal as a POW in Vietnam, when he endured years of broken bones, solitary confinement, and the cruelest abuses by his captors. And his failed presidential bid in 2008, when he endured a grievous, self-inflicted wound in the form of Sarah Palin.

Dial the clock a bit further back, and you’ll find one of the most compelling biographies in American political history. The son and grandson of prominent naval admirals, McCain graduated fifth in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy – well, fifth from the bottom. He dated a Brazilian supermodel. He barely escaped death in 1967, when a chain reaction ignited a massive fire that swept across the flight deck of his aircraft carrier, forcing McCain to scramble out of the cockpit of his parked A-4 Skyhawk and flee the ensuing explosions that killed 134 sailors. He was shot down just three months later, severely beaten, and imprisoned without medical treatment. What followed is an astounding, gripping account of survival and perseverance. And also one of magnificent honor. Because of his family name, McCain was offered early release, ahead of others who had been held in captivity longer. Despite his wretched physical condition, McCain stubbornly refused, resulting in more beatings, broken limbs and ribs, and five more years of imprisonment.

His electoral career has spanned more than 30 years, punctuated by an unrelenting defiance of conventional wisdom and politics. He has confounded both those on the left and the right, each side enraptured by McCain’s principle and blunt commentary when it suits their own agendas, and enraged by his nonconformity when it doesn’t. The pundit class in particular has become adept at instantly pivoting between praising McCain’s political courage and virtue, and trashing him as an erratic, opportunistic turncoat.

Did I mention he dated a Brazilian supermodel?

Make no mistake, McCain is far from faultless. On policy, substance doesn’t always win out over political considerations. He can go overboard with his notions of loyalty and honor, famously eschewing one Senate colleague for five years over a personal grudge. The Straight Talk Express rolls into occasional potholes, and of course, he opted for a potential vice-president who gave the word uninformed a bad name.

Still, even his most resolute detractors would concede that McCain is both earnest and authentic, a man who will tenaciously defend this country to his last breath. He has been a standard-bearer for the GOP, but has never wavered from vocalizing his disdain for the partisanship, scorched-earth politicking, and grenade-throwing ideologues that pervade much of Washington today.

I’m sure McCain doesn’t recall any of our time together, let alone my name. Hundreds of Senate staffers have passed through his sights during his storied career, and I’m sure each has a favorite anecdote. Here’s mine.

A few years ago, I was strolling through Ronald Reagan National Airport with my eight year-old daughter, and glimpsed McCain in one of the sundry stores, alone. It had been almost 16 years since I last spoke to him, and though I knew there was no chance he would remember me, I felt compelled to at least say hello. With my daughter in tow, I approached, introducing myself and reminding him of my small role in the early days of the McCain-Feingold crusade. My name meant nothing to him, but there it was, a flicker of recognition on his face. After briefly indulging me in small talk, I started to move away, knowing I had already imposed too much on a public figure with few quiet moments to himself. But then something amazing happened. He stopped me, gripping my arm, and gestured to the small blond girl hiding behind a rack of newspapers, asking aloud, “who is this princess?”

My beaming daughter gingerly stepped forward. She reached for his outstretched hand, as I introduced her to a man I described as “almost” President of the United States. McCain glowered at me, a curl to his lip, before asking my daughter several questions about school, her brother, even her cat. Maybe the man had time to kill before his flight. Maybe he thought he was locking down a future voter. Maybe we shouldn’t judge a man by how he is regarded by the likes of Rick Santorum.

That is my John McCain story. I hope others will share their own. A man of character, compassion, and signature wit, he has no match in national politics today. And though we now know he has one last great battle to wage, no one who knows his life story, or has spent five minutes with this brawler, would harbor any notion of betting against him.

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