By David Us­borne

Esquire (UK) - - Contents -

Pug­na­cious US se­na­tor John McCain at war with his fi­nal ad­ver­sary — brain can­cer

1. Dirty Habit

On a blue-sky Sun­day in Septem­ber 2017, John McCain sat down for brunch at Dirty Habit, a sleek ho­tel restau­rant in Wash­ing­ton DC. Dressed in a char­coal suit with a blue shirt and gold tie, he launched into a funny story. Back in 2008, he said, when he was run­ning for pres­i­dent the sec­ond time, he was at a meet-and-greet in Michi­gan. Though McCain had by then won New Hamp­shire, he’d lost Iowa and Wy­oming and was far from a clear front-run­ner for the Repub­li­can Party nom­i­na­tion. The only man who had come to see him at the event was a sup­porter of Mike Huck­abee, McCain's ri­val for the nom­i­na­tion. Some­one sug­gested McCain try his luck at one of the stately houses across the way. “So sure, yeah, I’d like to get in out of the cold,” McCain told me. “I walk across the street, walk up the steps, and walk in­side. It was a fuck­ing fu­neral home.” Worse, he had a bunch of jour­nal­ists in tow. “They had a field day,” he said. “The head­lines were ‘McCain Dy­ing to Get In.’”

Not just a funny story, then, but a funny story about dead peo­ple. It was also, in its way, a re­lief. Though only two months had passed since he was di­ag­nosed with glioblas­toma, a tu­mour that is al­most in­evitably fa­tal, the old, blas­phem­ing McCain was back, noth­ing maudlin about his mood. Any­thing he wanted to say about his loom­ing ap­point­ment with mor­tal­ity, the crum­bling of the con­ceit of his fa­mous in­de­struc­tibil­ity, would have to wait. First there would be jokes. And then a bowl of por­ridge.

An hour later, a young woman ap­proached McCain. She asked if he’d say hi to her mother, who, as it hap­pened, also had glioblas­toma. With­out blink­ing, the se­nior se­na­tor from Ari­zona rose and walked stiffly to their ta­ble. “It just makes me sad,” he said when he re­turned. “She’s in a wheel­chair and you can see she’s in the later stages.” His pity was ev­i­dent now, but it was all for the women. If he felt any fear at hav­ing glimpsed his own fu­ture, he didn’t show it.

Lind­sey Gra­ham has been brothers in arms with McCain since 2000, when he sup­ported McCain’s first run for pres­i­dent. Gra­ham, a se­na­tor from South Carolina, was among the first to learn about his best friend’s brain can­cer. “John was the one to say, ‘No more woe is me. I’m go­ing to fight as hard as I can, and let’s get back to busi­ness,’” Gra­ham re­called of their first con­ver­sa­tion af­ter the di­ag­no­sis. “‘Buck up, boy.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll buck up.’”

McCain’s ad­mo­ni­tion was no empty pep talk. In July, 11 days af­ter sur­geons in Phoenix re­moved the can­cer, he re­turned to Capi­tol Hill. As he walked onto a full Se­nate floor, his col­leagues hon­oured him with a stand­ing ova­tion. He re­ceived hugs from lead­ers of both par­ties. Then he stood up and ex­co­ri­ated them all, Repub­li­cans and Democrats alike, for aban­don­ing the “reg­u­lar or­der” of de­bate. The Se­nate, he warned, was in dan­ger of fail­ing the coun­try if it didn’t re­mem­ber the im­por­tance of bi­par­ti­san­ship and com­pro­mise.

It was ar­guably the most elec­tri­fy­ing speech of his ca­reer, but McCain was just get­ting started. Three days later, past mid­night one early Fri­day morning, he sab­o­taged the Repub­li­cans’ in­creas­ingly des­per­ate quest to gut Oba­macare, Pres­i­dent Trump’s pre­de­ces­sor’s 2010 law sig­nif­i­cantly ex­pand­ing state health­care cov­er­age for unin­sured Amer­i­cans. A bill dubbed the “Skinny Re­peal” for its scarce de­tails, was set to pass as long as McCain cast a vote in favour. In­stead, he en­tered the cham­ber, jabbed a thumbs-down, and killed the thing dead. Two months later, McCain thwarted his party again. In Septem­ber, Lind­sey Gra­ham, along with Bill Cas­sidy of Louisiana, hatched an­other bill to over­turn Oba­macare. McCain’s op­po­si­tion once again doomed the bill.

That McCain’s de­fi­ance of the Repub­li­can health­care plans sur­prised just about ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing his best friend and the lead­ers of his own party, says some­thing about the state of the mav­er­ick im­age he’s long cul­ti­vated. For many ob­servers, his rep­u­ta­tion as a com­mon-sense cen­trist with an in­de­pen­dent streak wore thin long ago, the tired strut of a one-trick pony.

But to his most loyal al­lies, the health­care stand-off was a char­ac­ter­is­tic demon­stra­tion of prin­ci­ple and courage by the same se­na­tor who had bucked his party to spon­sor a cam­paign-fi­nance re­form bill in 2002, and bucked it again to push sev­eral times for bi­par­ti­san im­mi­gra­tion re­form. “I think McCain will shove the priest giv­ing him last rites out of the way so he can cast one last vote,” ob­served Mark McKin­non, a Repub­li­can strate­gist who was in­volved in McCain’s 2008 cam­paign. “He was born to serve.”

2. Last best hope

Now 81, McCain is well aware that he’s al­ways been the ves­sel for too many hopes of too many peo­ple. Over a four-decade con­gres­sional ca­reer, he’s dis­ap­pointed and en­raged them all. Cen­trists and lib­er­als say that his vot­ing record hasn’t come close to back­ing up his rep­u­ta­tion for in­de­pen­dence, while con­ser­va­tives con­sider him a traitor for reach­ing across the aisle to do busi­ness with Democrats. “I think that’s been my his­tory,” McCain says. “Peo­ple have been dis­ap­pointed that I wasn’t tougher on fill-in-the-blank, and oth­ers say, ‘You be­trayed Bush’, or who­ever it is.”

McCain is the son and grand­son of fourstar ad­mi­rals, and he loves to talk about the mis­chief that landed him fifth from the bot­tom of his class at the Naval Academy. But as McKin­non sug­gests, McCain was all but fated for a ca­reer in pub­lic ser­vice. Dur­ing his two decades as a highly dec­o­rated naval avi­a­tor, he also earned a Pur­ple Heart — the medal awarded to US mil­i­tary per­son­nel wounded or killed in ac­tion — and spent five-and-a-half years in a North Viet­namese prison, where he suf­fered soli­tary con­fine­ment and tor­ture. In 1982, a year af­ter he left the US Navy, vot­ers in Ari­zona elected him to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Four years later, he won the Se­nate seat pre­vi­ously held by Barry Gold­wa­ter, the arch-con­ser­va­tive whom he’d long counted as a men­tor.

The night McCain won elec­tion to his sixth Se­nate term last Novem­ber was also, of course, the night Don­ald Trump won the White House. Trump and McCain had traded jibes dur­ing the cam­paign, but none were so vi­cious as Trump’s com­ments at the Fam­ily Lead­er­ship Sum­mit in Iowa, in July 2015. “He’s not a war hero,” the fu­ture pres­i­dent said. “He’s a war hero be­cause he was cap­tured. I like peo­ple that weren’t cap­tured.” Given that his­tory, it was nat­u­ral that many of Trump’s op­po­nents — within the Repub­li­can Party and with­out — would look to McCain as their last best hope.

For McCain, the mat­ter was not so sim­ple. What­ever fan­tasies are pro­jected on him, af­ter all, he is a con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can in the Rea­gan­ite mould, a de­fence hawk who sup­ported the Iraq War long af­ter it be­came un­pop­u­lar. A veteran of the mil­i­tary and of the Se­nate, he feels an en­dur­ing loy­alty to his coun­try and also to his party. When we met for the first time in May 2017, at his of­fice in


the Rus­sell Se­nate Of­fice Build­ing in Wash­ing­ton, McCain told me he felt “to­tally com­pelled to do ev­ery­thing I can to help” Trump, with one ex­cep­tion: “I’m not go­ing to change what I be­lieve is best for Amer­ica.”

As a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple, this was fair enough, if a bit vague. But what, I asked him, did it mean in prac­tise? In the early months of Trump’s term, it ap­peared the great­est test was go­ing to be Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into po­ten­tial col­lu­sion be­tween the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sia last year. At the height of Water­gate, in 1974, Gold­wa­ter, McCain’s men­tor, had marched up to the White House and told Richard Nixon it was time to go. Would it fall to McCain to do the same? Or would his role be more mod­est, a check against the pres­i­dent’s most dan­ger­ous whims?

Each of our sev­eral con­ver­sa­tions through­out the spring, sum­mer, and au­tumn touched on this co­nun­drum. In May, McCain praised Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity team and his bomb­ing of Syria, and he cau­tioned against judg­ing Trump by what he said in­stead of what he did. He told me that Trump’s in­sult in Iowa had both­ered him not be­cause it be­lit­tled his own ex­pe­ri­ence in Viet­nam but be­cause it slan­dered the other Amer­i­can PoWs who had suf­fered with him.

But McCain was also quick to scold Trump for invit­ing Ro­drigo Duterte, the strong­man of the Philip­pines, to the White House. And in the en­su­ing weeks and months, he would not hes­i­tate to pub­licly crit­i­cise the pres­i­dent for any num­ber of of­fences against deco­rum and de­cency: for what Trump said, or failed to say, about the white-su­prem­a­cist rally in Char­lottesville; for his par­don of the fla­grantly anti-im­mi­grant for­mer Ari­zona sher­iff Joe Ar­paio, who had been con­victed of con­tempt of court; and for his sug­ges­tion that Vladimir Putin wasn’t so bad for killing jour­nal­ists, since Amer­ica had also done some killing of its own.

In May, not long af­ter my first meet­ing with McCain in the Rus­sell Se­nate Of­fice Build­ing, Trump fired James Comey, the FBI di­rec­tor. Two days later, in a phone in­ter­view, McCain told me he’d been giv­ing a speech at the State Depart­ment when the Comey news hit the wires. He called the fir­ing “hard to com­pre­hend” and the way it was han­dled far­ci­cal. “It’s just a com­edy of er­rors,” he said.

Our sec­ond in-per­son meet­ing came a few days later, at a gala din­ner thrown in his hon­our at Wash­ing­ton’s Wil­lard ho­tel. Ear­lier that day, memos had sur­faced sug­gest­ing Trump had once asked Comey to shut down an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of his for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor, Michael Flynn. There was a new, omi­nous mood in Wash­ing­ton, and it was ev­i­dent in the faces of Gra­ham and Bob Corker, the chair­man of the Se­nate Com­mit­tee on For­eign Re­la­tions, who were also at McCain’s din­ner.

That evening, in a con­ver­sa­tion on­stage with for­mer TV news an­chor Bob Schi­ef­fer, McCain shocked the room by sug­gest­ing the Trump–Rus­sia scan­dal was near­ing “Water­gate size and scale.” When the guests left, I asked him to ex­plain. “Water­gate took down a pres­i­dent,” he said, be­fore adding a cau­tion­ary note: “This does not have that di­men­sion yet.” I asked whether he thought Trump, like Nixon, would one day face party el­ders de­mand­ing his res­ig­na­tion. “We’re a hell of a long way from that level,” he said.

This was clas­sic McCain, want­ing to have it both ways: the dra­matic an­nounce­ment and the tepid fol­low-through. Be­fore his di­ag­no­sis, he could claim that he was keep­ing his pow­der dry for the bat­tles that re­ally counted. But since the ap­pear­ance of his can­cer, he’s known his time to act is run­ning short. With death star­ing down from the brow of the hill, only now will do.

McCain is chair of the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, and for decades his polestar in for­eign pol­icy has been Ron­ald Rea­gan’s doc­trine of “peace through strength.” That Trump is no Rea­gan hardly needs say­ing. At the an­nual Mu­nich Se­cu­rity Con­fer­ence in Fe­bru­ary, McCain warned the West was at risk of founder­ing, and when we spoke in May he told me he feared the pres­i­dent would cause Amer­ica to aban­don its ac­tive en­gage­ment in the world. “‘Amer­ica First’ was the slo­gan of Henry Ford, Charles Lind­bergh, and the iso­la­tion­ists of the Thir­ties,” he said. “When you put it in the con­text of his­tory, it’s a throw­back.”

McCain’s con­cerns about Trump’s for­eign pol­icy prompted him to em­bark on a se­ries of in­ter­na­tional trips meant to re­as­sure Amer­ica’s al­lies. In the early months of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, McCain seemed at times like a sur­ro­gate sec­re­tary of state, clock­ing some 75,000 miles abroad be­tween Jan­uary and June. The role is an easy fit for him — as it hasn’t been for the ac­tual sec­re­tary of state, Rex Tiller­son, a for­mer oil­man — be­cause McCain gen­uinely cares about Amer­ica’s al­liances abroad.

At the end of May, McCain flew to Aus­tralia, the first stop on a nine-day tour of Asia and the Pacific. Aus­tralia has long been one of Amer­ica’s clos­est al­lies, but since Trump took of­fice, the Aus­tralians have been es­pe­cially ner­vous. In Jan­uary, Trump pulled the US out of the 12-na­tion Trans-Pacific Part­ner­ship trade deal, which had been drafted in part to thwart China’s de­signs on the re­gion. Five days later, Trump had a frac­tious first phone call with Mal­colm Turn­bull, the Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter, in which the two tan­gled over an Obama-era refugee agree­ment.

In June, I asked McCain how he’d found the Aus­tralians’ mood. “‘Whiskey tango fox­trot’ is what they are ask­ing,” he replied. “What does that mean?” I said. “What the fuck.”

3. The di­ag­no­sis

McCain recog­nised he was off his game from the mo­ment he re­turned from the Asia trip, but he didn’t sus­pect some­thing se­ri­ous might be go­ing on. “I was dead tired,” he told me. “I thought it was fa­tigue from the trav­el­ling and just be­ing worn out, rather than think­ing I’ve got some­thing wrong with me.” McCain’s aides no­ticed that he’d bro­ken his usual habit of ar­riv­ing at his of­fice by seven in the morning to read the papers. “He never sleeps in,” one as­so­ci­ate re­called. “That hadn’t changed in 30 years, and it was chang­ing.”

Even I thought I no­ticed some­thing. On 7 June, three nights af­ter McCain came home from Asia, we spoke by phone. McCain was in his of­fice and seemed lu­cid, for the most part. But there were a few times he lost the thread, mud­dling events and peo­ple.

My puz­zle­ment over McCain’s lapses was com­pounded the next day, when al­most 20m peo­ple watched James Comey tes­tify be­fore the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. Comey’s tes­ti­mony made news for sev­eral rea­sons, in­clud­ing the de­tails it pro­vided about the ex-di­rec­tor’s pri­vate in­ter­ac­tions with Pres­i­dent Trump. But the part many peo­ple re­mem­ber came near the end, when it was McCain’s turn to ask ques­tions. He set out on a be­wil­der­ing line of in­quiry that ap­peared to have some­thing to do with why the FBI was still pur­su­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian med­dling even though it had ter­mi­nated its in­quiry into Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pri­vate email server. Never mind that the two probes had noth­ing to do with each other.

“I’m a lit­tle con­fused, se­na­tor,” Comey said. He wasn’t alone. McCain’s floun­der­ing — at one point he re­ferred to “Pres­i­dent Comey” — trig­gered a storm of spec­u­la­tion. Was it jet lag from his just-com­pleted tour of Asia? Or was it ex­haus­tion, as McCain sug­gested shortly af­ter the hear­ing? (“Maybe go­ing for­ward I shouldn’t stay up late watch­ing the Di­a­mond­backs’ night games,” he joked in a state­ment at the time, re­fer­ring to his lo­cal bas­ket­ball team.)

Three months later, at Dirty Habit, McCain would sug­gest an­other rea­son for his con­fu­sion. Just as he was about to launch into the ques­tions that he and his staff had pre­pared, he said, he was in­ad­ver­tently knocked off course by Lind­sey Gra­ham. “I had these ques­tions laid out that I had dis­cussed, and two min­utes be­fore it was my turn to speak, [an aide] hands me this app from Lind­sey.”

As it hap­pened, Gra­ham, who was in meet­ings dur­ing the hear­ing, had a ques­tion he thought McCain should ask Comey. A staffer de­liv­ered the mes­sage to McCain. But while

McCain was read­ing the phone the staffer had handed him — aides said that it was an email, not an app — the screen went black. “I was look­ing at it and, nat­u­rally, the mes­sage fades,” McCain re­called. With­out a pass­code, he couldn’t keep read­ing. “I think, ‘What the fuck am I go­ing to do here?’”

Though McCain might have re­verted to the ques­tions he’d pre­pared, he said he pressed on out of re­spect for Gra­ham. “I can’t tell you how im­por­tant our re­la­tion­ship is, and I knew that this must be im­por­tant. So, I started out try­ing to re­mem­ber what was on the app, and, any­way, to make a long story short, I fucked it up.”

Gra­ham, for his part, clearly doesn’t en­joy the no­tion that he de­railed his friend with the whole coun­try watch­ing. “They wanted my in­put, I gave it to him,” he later told me. “I don’t think he quite un­der­stood. Kind of lost in trans­la­tion more than any­thing else.”

What­ever the case, McCain’s cha­grin about the episode was ev­i­dent. “It was a colos­sal screw-up… such an im­por­tant hear­ing. That wasn’t just an or­di­nary se­nate hear­ing.”

When McCain is not trav­el­ling abroad, he of­ten spends week­ends at his ranch in the Ari­zona hill coun­try, near Se­dona. A month af­ter the Comey hear­ing, on the evening of 13 July, he flew back to Ari­zona. He stayed in Phoenix that night, and had his an­nual check-up at the Mayo Clinic the next morning, a rou­tine he hasn’t skipped since be­ing di­ag­nosed with melanoma in 2000.

Af­ter the test­ing was fin­ished, he got in his car and set out for the ranch. McCain likes to drive him­self when he’s in his home state, and this time he was alone; Cindy McCain, his sec­ond wife, was in San Diego. He was two-thirds of the way to his ranch when his phone rang.

“The doc­tor called and said, ‘John, you’ve got to come back right away,’” he told me. “I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘It’s some­thing re­ally im­por­tant. It can’t wait.’ So I just turned around and drove back.”

The doc­tors be­gan prep­ping him for surgery as soon as he re­turned to the clinic. “I didn’t re­alise it, but the op­er­a­tion was five hours and 40 min­utes,” he said. “That’s a long time.” McCain speaks about the in­ci­dent with a de­tached calm­ness, but even now he can’t help cast­ing him­self as no or­di­nary pa­tient. “They say I’m the first guy who, af­ter an op­er­a­tion on the brain, knew ex­actly what day it was.” By three o’clock the next af­ter­noon, he was dis­charged and al­lowed to re­turn home to the fam­ily’s apart­ment in Phoenix.

Three days later, the pathol­ogy re­sults ar­rived. The news could hardly have been more bleak: what the Mayo doc­tors had hoped was only a blood clot was in fact as­so­ci­ated with glioblas­toma. The same form of can­cer had taken the lives of McCain’s friend and spar­ring part­ner Se­na­tor Ed­ward Kennedy in 2009 and Beau Bi­den, the son of for­mer vice-pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, in 2015. Sur­vival rates for glioblas­toma are ex­tremely low; most pa­tients are given 15 or fewer months to live.

Through­out his life, McCain had traded on his abil­ity to dodge death. Be­sides sur­viv­ing skin can­cer, he had es­caped two plane crashes as a navy jet pi­lot and a deadly fire aboard the air­craft car­rier USS For­re­stal 50 years ago. In tur­bu­lence on cam­paign planes, or on trips to dan­ger­ous places like Iraq, the same jokes were al­ways told: stick with McCain and you’ll be OK, be­cause he’ll die qui­etly in his bed.

It’s that nar­ra­tive, he says now, that gives him strength. He knows he’s had the luck of the devil, and jokes that no one ever ex­pected him to make it out of his thir­ties, let alone his seven­ties. His in­stinct now is to be grate­ful. “The great­est im­pulse you have is self-pity, you know? ‘Oh my God, why me?’ They say there’s a lot of peo­ple who, once they’re di­ag­nosed, just sit there wait­ing to die. That’s not what life should be about, and that’s not how I have ap­proached the is­sue. Ev­ery once in a while, do I feel sorry for my­self? Hell yeah! It’s fun. It’s re­ally a pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence to feel sorry for your­self. But over­all, all I have is grat­i­tude for a life well lived.”

“Mor­tal­ity has al­ways driven McCain,” says McKin­non, McCain’s for­mer aide. “I think he’s an­i­mated by life it­self. He didn’t ex­pect to be here — not just now but decades ago. He came so close to death, I think he cher­ishes ev­ery blessed sec­ond he has on earth. And I think his can­cer di­ag­no­sis only fu­els his fire to light as many flares as he can while he’s here.”

4. Clean-up in aisle five

Of course, more than a few of McCain’s flares have ex­ploded at his feet rather than of­fer­ing il­lu­mi­na­tion. Now that he’s en­tered the fi­nal stretch of his life, he is not afraid to ad­mit that he has re­grets. Some, in­clud­ing de­tails of his two mar­riages, he keeps to him­self. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing his his­tory of tem­per tantrums, he shares. “I’ve raised my voice,” he says. “That has, I am happy to say, less­ened over the years.”

McCain’s con­fes­sion might seem un­der­stated to any­one who’s been at the re­ceiv­ing end of his anger. “He can throw some el­bows,” re­called John Weaver, a veteran Repub­li­can con­sul­tant who worked on both of McCain’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. “I’ve


re­ceived a num­ber of calls from him over the years: ‘John, can you clean up the mess in aisle five?’ The calls would start, ‘Johnny, hey Johnny, you may re­ceive a call from the Speaker’s of­fice.’ I’d say, ‘And why is that?’ ‘Well, I may’ve had some short words with him.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ ‘Well, I think I told him to go fuck him­self.’” On an­other oc­ca­sion, Weaver said, McCain lost it with Se­na­tor John Cornyn of Texas. “Cornyn had said some­thing to McCain, and I think McCain called him a moth­er­fucker.”

McCain’s tem­per is surely one rea­son he has of­ten cut a lonely fig­ure on Capi­tol Hill. But Weaver has a dif­fer­ent take on it. “I don’t think it’s be­cause of the out­bursts. I think it’s be­cause of his prin­ci­ples,” he said. “If you have no prin­ci­ples, which more and more mem­bers of the Se­nate don’t, you look askance at some­one who does.” Weaver went on: “He is ma­rooned. And he has a sense of hon­our. Even the way he treats Don­ald Trump is very hon­ourable, given what I be­lieve his true feel­ings are, be­cause of the mil­i­tary back­ground he comes from.”

Be­yond his tantrums, McCain is also ready to con­cede he has some­times fallen short of his own cher­ished im­age as a politi­cian who prizes hon­our, coun­try and in­tegrity above all else. It’s a rep­u­ta­tion he earned at great cost. In 1968, the North Viet­namese Gov­ern­ment of­fered him an early re­lease be­cause of his fam­ily’s mil­i­tary stand­ing. He re­fused.

McCain ticked off the ex­am­ples one by one, start­ing with the Keat­ing Five scan­dal nearly three decades ago. At its heart was Charles Keat­ing, whose sav­ings-and-loan bank col­lapsed, cost­ing tax­pay­ers $3.4bn (£2.6bn). Keat­ing was based in Phoenix, and he’d been a key bene­fac­tor to McCain and some oth­ers in the Se­nate, in­clud­ing Den­nis DeConcini, McCain’s col­league from Ari­zona. The af­fair blew up when it emerged that McCain, DeConcini and three other sen­a­tors had met with fed­eral reg­u­la­tors and pres­sured them to back off an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Keat­ing’s bank. Things be­came even worse for McCain when it was re­ported that he and his fam­ily had va­ca­tioned at a spread Keat­ing owned in the Ba­hamas, and that his rel­a­tives had in­vested large sums in a Keat­ing real-es­tate de­vel­op­ment. Keat­ing would later serve time in prison.

Though it is largely for­got­ten now, and though McCain was ul­ti­mately cleared of wrong­do­ing by the Se­nate Ethics Com­mit­tee, the scan­dal al­most killed his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. Does he re­mem­ber it that way? “Oh, you’re telling me,” McCain replied, mouthing an “Ooof.” Yet the se­na­tor only re­pents so far. “I’ve hon­estly got to tell you that if the same cir­cum­stances pre­vailed to­mor­row, I would prob­a­bly go to the meet­ing. If your col­league from Ari­zona says, ‘Look, we’re try­ing to help out this guy. He’s be­ing mis­treated by the bu­reau­cracy.’ You know.”

Fid­get­ing with his fork, McCain says, “I have made a lot of mis­takes, and we could con­tinue to go over them, and it would take many hours. But my mo­ti­va­tion, I think, has usu­ally been the right mo­ti­va­tion. There have been other times where it was the wrong mo­ti­va­tion.” He paused be­fore vol­un­teer­ing: “I’m sure we will talk about the flag in South Carolina.”

In 2000, be­fore the pri­mary in South Carolina, McCain equiv­o­cated about the Con­fed­er­ate ban­ner — the deeply di­vi­sive stan­dard of the South­ern States, with its con­no­ta­tions of slav­ery and white supremacy — fly­ing on the grounds of the state capi­tol in Columbia. “It was the wrong thing to do. I’d love to tell you I’ve al­ways stuck to my prin­ci­ples and, by God, I’ve al­ways done the right thing, but the flag in South Carolina is prob­a­bly the best ex­am­ple,” he says, of when he didn’t.

While he’s talk­ing re­grets, I raise a cam­paign ad he cut at the Mex­i­can bor­der for his 2010 se­na­to­rial cam­paign. McCain has of­ten ad­vo­cated im­mi­gra­tion re­form: in 2005, he joined forces with Ted Kennedy to push a doomed bill, and seven years later he tried again with the so-called Gang of Eight, which in­cluded four sen­a­tors from each party. But in the 2010 cam­paign ad, McCain in­voked the dan­gers rep­re­sented by im­mi­grants cross­ing the bor­der with­out per­mis­sion. “Drug and hu­man smug­gling, home in­va­sions, mur­der,” he in­toned. “Com­plete the dan­ged fence.”

I asked how this dif­fered from Trump’s smear against Mex­i­cans. (“They’re bring­ing drugs. They’re bring­ing crime. They’re rapists,” the fu­ture pres­i­dent had said in 2015.)

“Oh, yeah,” he re­sponded glumly. “Lis­ten, I’ve been liv­ing with that state­ment for all those years. At my fu­neral there will be some­body who will flash that up: ‘See? This is what he was re­ally like!’”

I asked him about an­other re­ver­sal, from ear­lier this year. In April, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, a Repub­li­can from Ken­tucky, had an­nounced his in­ten­tion to change the rules of the Se­nate so that Neil Gor­such, Trump’s first Supreme Court nom­i­nee, could avoid a Demo­cratic fil­i­buster. McCain blasted McCon­nell for sug­gest­ing that the so-called “nu­clear op­tion” would re­turn the cham­ber to nor­malcy. “Id­iot, who­ever says that is a stupid id­iot who has not been here and seen what I’ve been through,” he blurted to re­porters. “They are stupid, and they’ve de­ceived their vot­ers be­cause they are so stupid.”

Yet just 48 hours later, McCain voted in favour of the rules change. What hap­pened? “You don’t ex­plain it,” McCain ad­mit­ted. “It was ob­vi­ously a lot of pres­sure and a lot of team spirit and all of that. You know.”

McCain’s re­grets do not in­clude pick­ing Alaska gov­er­nor Sarah Palin as his run­ning mate for the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 2008. When he an­nounced his de­ci­sion, just days be­fore the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion, he shocked the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal uni­verse. Aides had told him that the choice would prove he was a real mav­er­ick. But Palin was so un­qual­i­fied that to many ob­servers it sug­gested that a hol­low­ness, even a cyn­i­cism, had cor­roded his “coun­try first” rep­u­ta­tion.

Palin re­signed the gov­er­nor­ship of Alaska less than a year af­ter she and McCain lost to Barack Obama and Joe Bi­den. She rein­vented her­self as a TV fix­ture, mostly on Fox News, and helped stoke a gath­er­ing pop­ulist wave that man­i­fested it­self as the Tea Party move­ment. In 2011, a lit­tle-known con­ser­va­tive film-maker named Stephen Ban­non made a doc­u­men­tary about Palin called The Un­de­feated; he was con­vinced she could win the pres­i­dency it­self in 2012 if she tapped into the coun­try’s grow­ing anti-es­tab­lish­ment fer­vour. In the end, of course, it was Trump whom Ban­non helped storm the Oval Of­fice, but for many, Palin was the pro­to­type. And it was McCain who brought her to the na­tional stage.

Palin is a “won­der­ful per­son,” McCain told me. He says he lost his pres­i­den­tial run be­cause of his own short­com­ings, the near-im­plo­sion of Wall Street to­ward the end of the cam­paign, and a “bi­ased” and un­friendly press, par­tic­u­larly when it came to Palin. “To

blame things on Sarah Palin is a cop-out,” he said. “The fact is that they were out to get her. They ridiculed her. They den­i­grated her.”

He still fes­ters about the past­ing she got for her in­fa­mous at­tempt to demon­strate fa­mil­iar­ity with Rus­sia. “She can see Rus­sia from her back­yard. She can. She can,” McCain in­sisted. I asked if he was jok­ing. I’ve been to the house she lived in at the time. “She was mak­ing a point about the prox­im­ity to Rus­sia,” McCain went on, “and that hap­pens to be true.” He wanted it noted that Palin pulled off her big­gest mo­ment in the race, the vice-pres­i­den­tial de­bate with Bi­den — an as­sess­ment that was not widely shared at the time. “She beat him,” he told me. “She out­per­formed him.”

McCain’s loy­alty to his old as­so­ci­ates is of­ten re­turned with deep af­fec­tion. “The first time I went out with him on the road, one of his as­sis­tants handed me a bag,” Mark McKin­non re­called. “I asked what it was for, and was in­formed it con­tained a hair­brush and a cou­ple [of] other per­sonal-groom­ing items. Later, when at our first stop, McCain shielded him­self by the car door and leaned over to me, kind of bow­ing. It was only then that I re­alised be­cause of the in­juries he sus­tained as a pris­oner of war, he could not raise his arms high enough to brush his own hair. So I combed his hair, and then he turned and waded into the wait­ing cam­paign crowd. And then I turned and wiped tears away.”

One re­la­tion­ship that has not sur­vived the test of time is McCain’s chum­mi­ness with the me­dia. He had long counted jour­nal­ists, who ap­pre­ci­ated his can­dour and hu­mour, among his big­gest fans — “my base”, he joked in 2005. “I had al­ways had this ex­cel­lent re­la­tion­ship with the me­dia,” he told me. But that changed in 2008, when the spe­cial at­ten­tion he once re­ceived trans­ferred abruptly to Obama. McCain now sounds al­most plain­tive, like a spurned suitor, when de­scrib­ing his treat­ment at the hands of the press. “Frankly, I thought that I was not be­ing treated fairly by the me­dia. I re­ally did. That frus­trated me to the point where I stopped talk­ing to the me­dia. We felt we had to do it just be­cause ev­ery ques­tion was a gotcha ques­tion.”

Af­ter McCain lost, his rep­u­ta­tion for putting his coun­try ahead of his am­bi­tion was fur­ther dam­aged by the book Game Change by John Heile­mann and Mark Halperin (in the UK it was pub­lished as Race of a Life­time: how Obama Won the White House), a vivid chron­i­cle that re­vealed his cam­paign’s des­per­ate at­tempts to bring Palin up to speed. McCain says he resisted the temp­ta­tion to im­me­di­ately set the record straight with his own lengthy ac­count, as Hil­lary Clin­ton did re­cently in What Hap­pened. “You’ve got to un­der­stand that you can’t re­write his­tory,” he told me. “One of the al­most ir­re­sistible im­pulses you have when you lose is to some­how jus­tify why you lost and how you were mis­treated: ‘I did the right thing! I did!’ The hard­est thing to do is to just shut up. Lis­ten, my own cam­paign man­ager was part of a book that trashed me. Steve Schmidt was one of the big con­trib­u­tors to Game Change.”

And while McCain has lately an­nounced plans for his own memoir, which will reach back to 2008, he sug­gested Clin­ton had erred in writ­ing hers so quickly. “What’s the fuck­ing point? Keep the fight up? His­tory will judge that cam­paign, and it’s al­ways a pe­riod of time be­fore they do. You’ve got to move on. This is Hil­lary’s prob­lem right now: she doesn’t have any­thing to do.”

5. The last stand

In late July, as McCain and his fam­ily were cop­ing with the shock of what the sur­geons had found, his Repub­li­can col­leagues in the Se­nate were near­ing a vote on a bill meant to ac­com­plish one of their cen­tral 2016 cam­paign prom­ises: re­peal­ing Oba­macare. McCain wanted to be there. His doc­tors tried to dis­suade him from fly­ing, so he briefly mused about rent­ing a Win­nebago to make the trip. “How long would it take us if we drove back?” he re­called ask­ing an aide, half se­ri­ously. Phoenix to Wash­ing­ton is 2,300 miles door-todoor. De­spite his doc­tors’ warn­ings, McCain de­cided to fly. He re­minded his fam­ily and staff of the young Amer­i­can sol­diers fight­ing in Afghanistan. “I said, ‘These kids are out there risk­ing their lives. I can at least go back to Wash­ing­ton and fin­ish my work.’”

The McCain who re­turned to Wash­ing­ton on 25 July seemed rein­vig­o­rated. For decades, his mav­er­ick im­age had been a boon and an al­ba­tross, an ideal that promised both too much and too lit­tle. But now, with the clar­i­fy­ing force of his can­cer di­ag­no­sis, the hero of “The Hanoi Hil­ton” — the nick­name for the prison where McCain and his fel­low PoWs were in­car­cer­ated dur­ing the Viet­nam War — ap­peared ready to take up one last fight, and he would do it in the name of his coun­try, his prin­ci­ples, and… reg­u­lar or­der.

At first blush, it’s hard to imag­ine two words less heroic than the ones McCain chose as the touchstone of his post-glioblas­toma ca­reer. But in a speech be­fore his col­leagues, McCain made an im­pas­sioned case that reg­u­lar or­der — en­sur­ing open de­bate, so­lic­it­ing amend­ments from both par­ties, draft­ing bills with a trans­par­ent process — was a nec­es­sary pre­req­ui­site to re­store faith in Con­gress.

“Our ar­cane rules and cus­toms are de­lib­er­ately in­tended to re­quire broad co­op­er­a­tion to func­tion well at all,” he said from the Se­nate floor. “In­cre­men­tal progress, com­pro­mises that each side crit­i­cise but also ac­cept, just plain mud­dling through to chip away at prob­lems and keep our ene­mies from do­ing their worst isn’t glam­orous or ex­cit­ing. It doesn’t feel like a po­lit­i­cal tri­umph. But it’s usu­ally the most we can ex­pect from our sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, op­er­at­ing in a coun­try as di­verse, quar­rel­some and free as ours.”

Near the end of his speech, he re­minded his col­leagues that “whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the pres­i­dent’s sub­or­di­nates. We are his equal,” he said. “We don’t hide be­hind walls. We breach them.”

That McCain was say­ing some­thing sig­nif­i­cant seemed to sink in with ev­ery­one. “When I give a speech and 100 sen­a­tors stay in their seats and lis­ten to that speech and then stand and ap­plaud and ap­plaud and ap­plaud…” he told me at break­fast. In his 31 years in the Se­nate, he said, “I have not met any­one who said they’ve ever seen any­thing like that. So I should be grate­ful.”

But while McCain has al­ways been good with a ser­mon, his record of de­liv­er­ing on his own ad­mo­ni­tions has been un­even. And de­spite the glow­ing re­cep­tion he re­ceived in the Se­nate cham­ber, pun­dits noted that his speech had im­me­di­ately fol­lowed his vote to help the Skinny Re­peal clear a key pro­ce­dural hur­dle. It was, The At­lantic magazine noted, “a sur­real mo­ment: a stem-winder de­nounc­ing fight-for-ev­ery-inch games­man­ship, hasty pro­ce­dures, closed-door wran­gling, and leg­is­la­tion that puts par­ti­san gain over help­ing cit­i­zens, de­liv­ered moments af­ter McCain cast the de­cid­ing vote to for­ward a bill that em­bod­ied ev­ery one of those ten­den­cies.”

Just three days later, how­ever, when the Se­nate lead­er­ship brought the Skinny Re­peal bill to a vote, McCain made good on his speech. If they didn’t ac­tu­ally stay up un­til 1.30 in the morning to watch it live on C-SPAN, mil­lions caught McCain’s thumbs-down ges­ture — with McCon­nell stand­ing be­hind him, cross­ing his arms and droop­ing his head in de­s­pair — on the news the next day. Few were aware of the ex­tra­or­di­nary pres­sure McCain had been un­der just be­fore the vote. Vice-Pres­i­dent Pence tried to per­suade him both on the Se­nate floor and in his pri­vate of­fice, where McCain took a call from Trump. “I said, ‘I thank you, Mr Pres­i­dent, for your in­volve­ment,’” he told me. “But I said, ‘I can­not vote for some­thing called Skinny Re­peal. I can’t do it. I didn’t even see the bill un­til to­day. I mean, this is in­san­ity. I ap­pre­ci­ate the call and now I have to go vote, and I’m sorry.’”

The pres­sure of the pres­i­dent was one thing, but in Septem­ber, McCain faced a more se­ri­ous chal­lenge to his call for reg­u­lar or­der. The Gra­ham-Cas­sidy health­care bill was likely the last real chance for Repub­li­cans to pass an Oba­macare re­peal in 2017. Even though the bill was co-au­thored by Lind­sey Gra­ham, his best friend, McCain once again with­held sup­port from the leg­is­la­tion, which had largely been cob­bled to­gether be­hind

closed doors. “I be­lieve we could do bet­ter work­ing to­gether, Repub­li­cans and Democrats,” he said in a state­ment, “and have not yet re­ally tried.” (Gra­ham, for his part, said in a state­ment, “My friend­ship with John McCain is not based on how he votes, but re­spect for how he’s lived his life and the per­son he is.”)

In the course of my re­port­ing, one for­mer se­nior Demo­cratic Se­nate staffer had said of McCain, “The only time I saw him try­ing to be co­op­er­a­tive dur­ing the Obama years was with the Gang of Eight on the im­mi­gra­tion bill.” On that, the staffer said, “his ef­fort was very gen­uine. But over­all, he was a big critic of Pres­i­dent Obama’s, and other than on that one is­sue I never saw him reach across the aisle. He just liked to scream and holler.”

Now, in the wake of his votes on the Skinny Re­peal and the Gra­ham-Cas­sidy bill, Democrats in the Se­nate praised him lav­ishly. “John McCain shows the same courage in Con­gress that he showed when he was a naval avi­a­tor,” said Chuck Schumer, the mi­nor­ity leader. “I have as­sured Se­na­tor McCain that as soon as re­peal is off the ta­ble, we Democrats are in­tent on re­sum­ing the bi­par­ti­san process.”

As for Trump, McCain made news in Oc­to­ber with com­ments that many in­ter­preted, de­spite his protes­ta­tions to the con­trary, as barely veiled swipes at the pres­i­dent. In one speech, McCain crit­i­cised the “half-baked, spu­ri­ous na­tion­al­ism cooked up by peo­ple who would rather find scape­goats than solve prob­lems.” In an in­ter­view, he said it was wrong that young men from “the high­est in­come level” had been able to avoid the Viet­nam draft by find­ing “a doc­tor that would say they had a bone spur,” a de­scrip­tion that just hap­pened to fit the pres­i­dent.

McCain also spoke openly on the sub­ject of Trump at Dirty Habit. “I don’t agree with the way he’s con­duct­ing his pres­i­dency, ob­vi­ously,” he told me. “He’s an in­di­vid­ual that un­for­tu­nately is not an­chored by a set of prin­ci­ples. I think he’s a per­son who takes ad­van­tage of sit­u­a­tions. He was suc­cess­ful as a builder, an en­tre­pre­neur, and all that. But I don’t think he has the fun­da­men­tal un­der­pin­nings of prin­ci­ples and be­liefs.” Still and all, McCain said, loy­alty to his party would con­tinue to in­form his re­la­tion­ship with the pres­i­dent. “I don’t think there was any doubt about his views to­ward me. But I’m a loyal Repub­li­can.”

The time McCain has left to com­plete his last mis­sion in pub­lic life is pos­si­bly even more lim­ited than some imag­ine. He says he is not ready to ac­cept a newly de­vel­oped glioblas­toma treat­ment, a kind of hel­met that sends elec­tri­cal fields into the brain. “I’m just not go­ing to wear it,” he said, in a tone that sounded al­most in­dig­nant. “I don’t want to walk around look­ing like that. There’s worse things than dy­ing, OK?”

He also told me that he does not plan to linger in the Se­nate if the dis­ease pro­gresses suf­fi­ciently that his fac­ul­ties start to fail. “I have enough close friends. They would prob­a­bly get to­gether, six or seven peo­ple who have been with me the last 30 years, and say, ‘John, go on up to the cabin and en­joy the sun­rises and the sun­sets.’ And I prom­ise you I would go, and I would never come out again.”

McCain has it all planned out. When the ap­pointed day comes, he will travel to Prescott, Ari­zona, to the same court­house steps where Barry Gold­wa­ter, his men­tor and pre­de­ces­sor in the Se­nate, de­clared his can­di­dacy for pres­i­dent in 1964. There he’ll say good­bye. “Thanks a lot. Thank you very much” will be the gist, he told me with his crooked grin. And then he’ll van­ish from pub­lic life.

That will be a hard mo­ment. “He has such a zest for life and ca­ma­raderie,” says McKin­non. “I have a the­ory. He was in iso­la­tion as a pris­oner of war for years and was de­nied hu­man con­tact. So ever since he was freed, he soaks up in­ter­ac­tion with peo­ple like a sponge. He loves to talk. He loves to trade gos­sip. He loves to tell jokes. What he hates is si­lence and soli­tude.”

Dread­ing that day too, surely, is Gra­ham. I asked him whether the Se­nate with­out McCain will be a smaller place. He paused. “The Se­nate will be miss­ing a voice that one sel­dom sees in pol­i­tics,” he said fi­nally. “The Amer­i­can peo­ple will be miss­ing a cham­pion and a fighter for a so­lu­tion over dem­a­goguery. It will fall to the rest of us to fill that gap.”

Though it was barely five paces from our ta­ble to the door at Dirty Habit, it took McCain 10 min­utes to make it through the swarm of guests and wait­ing staff ask­ing to shake his hand or take a pic­ture. He was even handed a baby girl in her frilly Sun­day best. Look at him, I caught my­self think­ing, bask­ing in the ado­ra­tion like he was back on the cam­paign trail.

Yet there was some­thing to ad­mire as well. A lesser man than McCain might have cho­sen to fade away af­ter his loss to Obama in 2008, but that has never been the se­na­tor’s style. And the un­ex­pected events of the past year — his dread­ful di­ag­no­sis and the elec­tion of Trump — seem to have given him a new ur­gency. McCain has cho­sen a sim­ple but daunt­ing task for the time he has left, to turn the Se­nate back into the de­lib­er­a­tive, in­cre­men­tal, old-fash­ioned, and some­what dull in­sti­tu­tion he’s revered for 31 years. If there’s an irony here, it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to the strange times in which we live: as his last act, the mav­er­ick makes a call for reg­u­lar or­der.


John McCain at his fam­ily ranch near Se­dona, Ari­zona, March 2000

Less than a fort­night af­ter his can­cer di­ag­no­sis and brain surgery, John McCain, ac­com­pa­nied by wife Cindy, re­turns to the Se­nate to cast the de­cid­ing vote on the re­peal of Oba­macare, 25 July 2017

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