I first encountered John McCain in 1983 when I was a newish grunt on the Washington scene, then serving as an aide to a Democratic congressman, Bill Alexander of Arkansas. McCain himself was in his first year as a member of the House, not yet the iconic presence that the world would get to know so well.
My only awareness of McCain was gained from seeing the occasional appearances on the House floor of the then relatively unknown Arizonan, from my perch in the office of the Chief Deputy Majority Whip (that was Alexander) in the Capitol. One of the major issues confronting the House that year was President Ronald Reagan's decision to infuse American military forces as "peacekeepers" into the cauldron of Lebanon, at the time the focus of an ongoing civil war involving guerilla-level combat between factions and near anarchy.
Like most Democrats — in particular the party leadership, which he represented — my boss viewed the situation with alarm. Republicans, on the other hand, tended to fall in line behind the president. The debate on the floor followed that all-too-predictable binary course, until McCain, a freshman GOP member, took the floor and stated his unequivocal opposition to what he viewed as an unnecessary and dangerous course.
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- Senator John McCain
McCain was no peacenik. He had been a military careerist until leaving the Navy in the wake of an active career as a pilot who, as we all would subsequently learn, had been downed in a mission over North Vietnam and confined and tortured for years as a P.O.W. His opposition to the Lebanese involvement was a matter of Realpolitik, earned via experience. It turned out to be prescient when hundreds of Marines were killed in their barracks by a truck-driving suicide bomber. Shortly thereafter, Reagan withdrew the remainder of the American military contingent.
All that was in the future on the day of McCain's speech in the House. Later that day, I was walking from one point to another on the grounds of Capitol Hill when I saw McCain treading the same pathway, more or less, and coming in my direction.
As we crossed paths, I spoke to him, identified myself, and told him how impressed I had been by his speech. McCain gave me that grateful, vaguely mischievous, and somewhat self-satisfied smile that would later become so familiar on national television, and thanked me. There were many times later on when I would reflect on the fact of my getting so early a glimpse of the great contrarian — and on the occasion of his first official maverick act, no less.
Subsequently, of course, McCain moved on to the Senate, became a truly national figure, and made an upstart race for president in 2000 aboard his famously media-friendly "Straight Talk Express" presidential-campaign tour bus, winning the New Hampshire primary but later falling short to the well-endowed establishment campaign of George W. Bush.
McCain was well aware of the corrupting power of big money, having suffered from it in that first presidential race. Working in harness with Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat, McCain sponsored the McCain-Feingold Act, which imposed reasonable curbs on campaign fund-raising, until a conservative Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision in 2010 in effect nullified it.
Meanwhile, McCain warmed up for another presidential run in 2008 and, as part of that mission, came to Memphis in April 2007 to address the Economics Club. Before a turnaway crowd at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn, he unveiled an economics program that was hardcore conservative Republican — all laissez-faire and belt-tightening measures.
Not very exciting, but the kind of thing, he might have hoped, that would soften the GOP establishment's memory of him as the reform-minded party-line-crossing outlier who had almost stolen the party's presidential nomination away from Bush in 2000.
The fact was, McCain's second presidential campaign was slumping badly, and at a press conference after his economics speech, encouraged by his courtly manner as he insisted on shaking hands in advance with each member of the attendant media, I made bold to ask him to account for his relatively dismal fund-raising thus far (he was in third place in Republican ranks, behind both Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani).
The senator said flatly, "Because I didn't do a better job." Asked why that was, McCain answered, "Because I'm not competent enough, I guess." It's hard to imagine another candidate being quite that self-effacing — or candid.
Competent fund-raiser or not, McCain had the staying power, or the stature, or the what-have-you to endure in that race, even when most of his money ran out and his staff evaporated. Not quite a year later, he had won the New Hampshire primary again, would go on to win the Republican nomination and ran an honorable race for the presidency against Barack Obama.
Along with his defiant independent streak and his compulsive truth-telling, McCain was also blessed, it is reliably said, with a short fuse and an explosive, near-volcanic temper. Hearing about this, I made it a point to ask each of Tennessee's two U.S. Senators if they had ever been on the receiving end of it.
Said Lamar Alexander: "Yes, I have," adding after a pause, "There are very few of us [senators] who haven't." Said Bob Corker: "Yes. Very early on, I was a party to that. It's not an urban myth. It's just a fact."
Corker added: "But at the same time, John has been a true American hero, and he feels very strongly about the positions he holds, and when he disagrees with you, he lets you know."
It is well known, surely, that McCain had serious disagreements with Donald Trump, and equally well known that he let the president know — most recently after Trump's Helsinki summit with Russia's Vladimir Putin, when, bravely waiting out his inevitable death from incurable brain cancer in Arizona, McCain issued a statement lamenting that, in "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president," Trump had "abased himself ... abjectly before a tyrant."
John McCain never abased himself, not in captivity in Hanoi and not in his distinguished public life thereafter. We should salute this solitary, honorable man, even if Trump won't.
• With several of its newly elected eight members-to-be looking on, the 13-member Shelby County Commission that was elected in 2014 held its last public meeting on Monday. They voted to override the veto of outgoing county Mayor Mark Luttrell of a commission ordinance prohibiting the mayor's office from hiring special counsel to sue the commission — one last shot in a two-year battle between the legislative and executive powers.
And, with time running out, the commission shelved a resolution calling for change in the functioning of EDGE, the city/county board charged with spurring economic growth. As one of her last acts, outgoing Commission chair Heidi Shafer has appointed a blue-ribbon task force of returning commissioners and community leaders to begin meeting with an eye toward making recommendations for further action.