McCain takes di­ag­no­sis, like all things, in­domitably

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - dan.balz@wash­post.com

Ten years ago this month, as he en­tered the swel­ter­ing sec­ond floor of an Amer­i­can Le­gion hall in Clare­mont, N.H., Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was at the low­est point of his quest for the 2008 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. His cam­paign was broke, many on his staff were de­sert­ing him, and he was slid­ing in the polls. He was the long­est of long shots.

That day he was do­ing what he al­ways did in New Hamp­shire: tak­ing ques­tions from the pub­lic and of­fer­ing re­sponses that ranged from the hu­mor­ous to the di­rect to the barbed. A man raised his hand, and McCain pointed to him. The man said he had voted for McCain in the state’s 2000 pres­i­den­tial pri­mary. “You are an Amer­i­can hero,” he said.

Then the ques­tioner adopted a less friendly tone. At a time when the Iraq War was deeply un­pop­u­lar, he wanted to know whether McCain had be­come too close to his 2000 ri­val, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, and too sup­port­ive of Bush’s con­tro­ver­sial troop surge — a pol­icy McCain had ad­vo­cated. And, the man asked, were all the com­men­ta­tors cor­rect that week­end in call­ing McCain’s cam­paign a lost cause?

McCain re­moved his blazer and be­gan with a cus­tom­ary quip. “I should have called on your wife,” he said with a chuckle that soft­ened the au­di­ence. Then he turned se­ri­ous, ad­dress­ing the ques­tion of the fu­ture of his can­di­dacy. “I’ve had tough times in my life,” he said. “This is a day at the beach com­pared to some oth­ers.”

Like the quip, that com­ment was also typ­i­cal McCain: res­o­lute in the face of ad­ver­sity while putting into proper con­text the hard knocks and set­backs of a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign as com­pared with the tor­ture and in­juries he en­dured for al­most six years as a prisoner of war in North Viet­nam.

As Steve Sch­midt, a vet­eran Repub­li­can strate­gist who joined McCain’s camp later that sum­mer, put it, “Be­ing broke with ev­ery­one quit­ting and in last place in July of ’07, by or­ders of mag­ni­tude, may be a tragedy of di­men­sions not re­cov­er­able for the av­er­age politi­cian. For John McCain, it was noth­ing.”

It was with that same com­bi­na­tion of grit and hu­mor that McCain re­sponded last week to the news that he has an ag­gres­sive form of brain cancer. He tweeted, “I greatly ap­pre­ci­ate the out­pour­ing of sup­port — un­for­tu­nately for my spar­ring part­ners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand by.”

He was out hik­ing Satur­day, ac­cord­ing to his daugh­ter Meghan McCain. “Amaz­ing hike with Dad @SenJohnMcCain this morn­ing. Thank you all for your best wishes!”she said in a tweet.

His ex­pe­ri­ence as a POW is what first defined McCain’s life. It was not just that he sur­vived the tor­ture and mul­ti­ple in­juries af­ter his plane was shot down in Viet­nam in 1967. It was also the pride and de­fi­ance he showed in re­ject­ing an early re­lease prof­fered be­cause his fa­ther was the com­man­der of U.S. forces in the Pa­cific at the time. The de­ci­sion left him in a prison camp from where he knew he might never emerge alive.

He’s been called a hero and a mav­er­ick and a man of courage through­out his life. All are true. His fel­low prison­ers were the only ones who could see the true char­ac­ter of John McCain un­der the most inhuman con­di­tions imag­in­able. The world at large could see a dif­fer­ent ex­am­ple of his char­ac­ter un­der the most hum­bling of cir­cum­stances dur­ing those dif­fi­cult days in 2007.

Af­ter his cam­paign im­ploded, he was com­pletely writ­ten off. Re­porters had but one line of ques­tion­ing for him in those sum­mer days: When was he go­ing to quit the race? Why hadn’t he quit al­ready?

Poll­ster Bill McIn­turff, who had been part of McCain’s core team, re­called the day that sum­mer when some aides un­wit­tingly played into the nar­ra­tive of a cam­paign near­ing its end. As rain threat­ened an out­door event, McCain’s ad­vance team had the bright idea to move across the street to an in­door venue. It was a funeral home.

McIn­turff said when re­porters asked him why McCain was still in the race, he pointed past Viet­nam to other ev­i­dence of his ca­pac­ity for pain and risk. “I said for­get the Viet­nam sto­ries,” he said. “If you don’t be­lieve that, look at the fact that he was the box­ing cham­pion at Navy [the U.S. Naval Academy] at a time when there was no weight class. He was a com­bat pi­lot . . . . When he ran for Congress in 1981, he went to 25,000 doors for two years. It was 120 de­grees in Ari­zona. He did it for three to five hours a day.”

McCain has been widely praised for his in­de­pen­dence and will­ing­ness to take on pres­i­dents of his own party, in­clud­ing Pres­i­dent Trump. He has been praised, too, for be­ing known as a straight talker, and it was his Straight Talk Ex­press bus tour in 1999 and early 2000 that made him a run­away win­ner over Bush in the New Hamp­shire pri­mary.

There was one no­table case, how­ever, in which he shied away from straight talk. Ad­vised by his team to avoid wad­ing into the po­lit­i­cally charged de­bate over whether South Carolina should take down the Con­fed­er­ate flag at its state­house, he strug­gled to find the words. At points, McCain would pull a sheet of pa­per from his pocket and read a care­fully scripted eva­sion of an an­swer.

He hated the de­cep­tion, and af­ter he lost the nom­i­na­tion to Bush, he re­turned to South Carolina to make amends for not say­ing forthrightly that the flag should come down.

“I did not do so for one rea­son alone,” he said. “I feared that if I an­swered hon­estly, I could not win the South Carolina pri­mary. So I chose to com­pro­mise my prin­ci­ples. I broke my prom­ise to al­ways tell the truth.” He added, “Hon­esty is easy af­ter the fact when my own in­ter­ests are no longer in­volved.”

In the sum­mer of 2007, McCain was hon­est with him­self about his chances of win­ning but per­se­vered none­the­less af­ter a trip to Iraq just as his cam­paign was about to im­plode. McCain trav­eled to the coun­try with his col­league and friend Sen. Lind­sey O. Gra­ham (R-S.C.). There he presided over a nat­u­ral­iza­tion cer­e­mony for sol­diers who were im­mi­grants. McCain was buoyed by the ex­am­ple of the young solid­er­im­mi­grants.

“He had left [the] U.S. think­ing he would drop out of the race, but de­cided if those guys could keep fight­ing so would he,” said Mark Salter, the co-au­thor of McCain’s books and one of McCain’s clos­est con­fi­dants for many years.

Salter tells the story of his own equiv­o­ca­tion dur­ing those days and the talk­ing-to he re­ceived from his boss. “I was be­ing a baby at one point and told him I thought I should quit the cam­paign,” Salter said in an email. “It was a day be­fore the first trip to [New Hamp­shire], right af­ter cam­paign shake-up. He sat me down in his of­fice and said some­thing like: ‘To­mor­row I’m go­ing to New Hamp­shire. All the press are go­ing to be there to see if I ac­tu­ally drop dead. We’re broke. They’re mak­ing fun of me. But I’m gonna work my [tail] off day af­ter day. I’m gonna give it ev­ery­thing I got, and then I’m gonna lose. Why are you be­ing such a wimp?’ ”

That day in Clare­mont in July 2007, McCain had told his au­di­ence, “I’m not a very good fundraiser. I’ll ad­mit it. But I can out-cam­paign any of these guys, and I will, and I can, and we’ll do just fine.”

Just af­ter La­bor Day, he launched what he called the No Sur­ren­der tour. It was an all-out ef­fort to de­fend the stil­lun­pop­u­lar troop surge and to res­ur­rect his can­di­dacy. Nei­ther seemed to come with good odds.

Rick Davis, McCain’s cam­paign man­ager and long­time ad­viser, said at the time, “I think there’s al­ready been a sta­bi­liza­tion. The ques­tion now is can we get a tick back up in these states?” McCain not only ticked back up. He out­cam­paigned all his ri­vals and won the nom­i­na­tion.

To­day the odds may look long to oth­ers, but McCain has ac­cepted his new di­ag­no­sis with that same in­domitable spirit that has marked his life, the spirit en­com­passed in the words, “No Sur­ren­der.”

MARK WIL­SON/GETTY IM­AGES

Run­ning for pres­i­dent, Sen. John McCain, speaks at a 2007 news con­fer­ence. McCain last week an­nounced he has brain cancer.

Dan Balz THE SUN­DAY TAKE

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