(Photo by Robert Spencer/Getty Images)

McCain and Me

David Smith reminisces on his relationship with John McCain

Artillery Row

Hard to believe it, in the age of political doublespeak, where facts can be a hotly-debated issue and where lies are paraded as truth, but there are politicians you miss and mourn. And one or two who make you wonder how different our world might be, had they won power.

Chief among them for me — one John Sidney McCain the third. If ever a pol cut through the bullshit, and called out the peddlers of fake news, it was my friend McCain. “You know, I love taking on you European communists,” he told me, with a trademark throaty chuckle, the morning we first met for an interview, in the hallowed halls of the Russell building in the US Senate, circa 1991. “Keeps me alive, the back and forth with Trotskyites like you.” He laughed heartily at his own joke. But no backslapping, or long handshakes here.

You never shook John McCain’s hand, and he made no secret of the fact that his injuries meant he couldn’t comb his own hair

What kept Senator McCain alive was hardly a secret. Shot down and captured by the Vietcong over Hanoi in 1967, the young bomber pilot landed with both arms broken, whereupon the north vietnamese pulled him ashore, crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt, and then promptly bayoneted him. Five years of starvation and torture followed. You never shook John McCain’s hand, and he made no secret of the fact that his injuries meant he couldn’t comb his own hair. Sheer grit, that was the thought when you saw him, pondering some Clint Eastwood or Jeff Bridges role. But his life was no Hollywood movie.

“Let’s just say I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as a bad day,” he told me with uncharacteristic  humility in late 1999, as we joined him aboard his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, riding the small towns of New Hampshire as he launched his first bid for the Presidency. “Let’s leave my past there.You come to appreciate so, so much, every opportunity life presents.”

McCain thought the 2000 race for the Presidency was just that. His opportunity, to win the White House. He trounced the Governor of Texas, one George Dubya Bush, in New Hampshire, and rode on to South Carolina. There the Bush folks ambushed him with the kind of dirty tricks that stunned even the most hard-bitten of hacks. McCain and his wife Cindy had adopted an orphan girl, Bridget, on a visit to Bangladesh years before. Now Sunday morning worshippers in bible-belt country, South Carolina, emerged from church to flyers on their car windscreens suggesting McCain was the father of an illegitimate daughter, and a dark-skinned one to boot. I can recall the shock one American cameraman felt, seeing that flyer and not quite believing it. Bush won handily, and McCain never recovered.

“You don’t cry for yourself,” Senator confided to me the day he withdrew from the race, after losing again, this time in California. “You do cry for your country.” When his moment came, in the race against Barack Obama in 2008, his time had so clearly passed. Not to mention his judgement. Picking the raw, divisive Sarah Palin as his running mate proved a disaster.

Yet. Given the attacks of 9/11, then the wars for Afghanistan and Iraq, years when Dubya changed our world (yes he did), I’ve often wondered how a McCain Presidency would have handled the trauma that the United States experienced. The man himself supported the Bush White House on both wars, at least to begin with. But you came to believe McCain the military vet, the war hero tempered by bitter experience, would never have become embroiled in regime change, or kept US troops in Kabul for 20 years. “We lost in Vietnam, yes we lost,” he remarked to us one afternoon in late 2003, when the invasion of Iraq turned bloody and costly. “My country has a hard time accepting we can lose a war.”

A year later, in the autumn of 2004, I had reason to go looking for my friend, to make an ask that was diplomatically delicate at best, a little brazen at worst. By then I was working for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, heading his Washington DC mission. And my boss was in deep do-da with the Bush White House, for calling the Iraq war “illegal….wrong.” The Bushies had given their Republicans in Congress the green light to seek a vote of no-confidence in Mr Annan. If it went to the floor, and passed, the USA being the biggest financial contributor to the UN….well, I knew my boss faced a resignation issue.

I looked for John McCain, knowing that a Tuesday lunchtime probably had him returning from his home in Arizona. “Mr Smith, I presume, from British television,” he declared with a beaming smile when I found him walking the corridor in the Russell building. “Time for a cup of fine, English tea,” he said, extending a withered arm pointing to his office. I reminded him that I now worked for the UN. “Ah, yes,” he chortled. “Mr Smith, a huckster for the United Nations.”

I reminded him that I now worked for the UN. “Ah, yes,” he chortled. “Mr Smith, a huckster for the United Nations.”

We asked about each other’s children, McCain telling me with great pride that his son was on his way to college. “Wine, women and song,” he noted with mischief in his eyes, McCain a notorious party boy in his own youth. Making it clear he had a few minutes, no more, I knew better than to defend Kofi Annan, the Senator had berated me months before on the failures of our UN in his view. I argued that, at that moment, with the world so divided over Iraq and the failure to take out Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, any attempt to remove the Secretary-General would look like hostile takeover.

“Strong words, my friend, not sure I see quite that,” McCain told me. He paused. “But point taken. Let me see what I can do.” Within days, the crisis passed. The Senator let fellow Republicans know this was not the moment for the United States to bring down the UN Secretary-General. That vote of no-confidence was quietly shelved. McCain, a man of realpolitik, of bridging divides, not creating them. An architect, not a demolition politician.

I miss the man. I miss the banter. I yearn to hear his straight talk in an age when the likes of Donald Trump have so confused so many about truth. Before his death in 2018, I noticed John McCain skewering Trump time and again with his use of our language. My friend was a fine wordsmith on occasion. My favourite line of his on Trump? “Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his emnity.” John McCain died with many true friends, a few enemies too given his short temper and capacity to explode. But never did he need to be flattered.

David Smith was an award-winning foreign correspondent for ITN/C4News, then served as an adviser to the UN Secretary-General. Now living in Latin America, he writes for The Economist.

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