Republican senator John McCain is still raising questions and hackles

John McCain was excited.

It was late January, and the following day, he and a group of bipartisan senators were set to announce their framework for comprehensive immigration reform. He picked up the phone and called an old friend in Arizona.

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“We got it yep, yep,” McCain said, according to Grant Woods, who detected a long-lost measure of energy in the Republican’s voice.

The next morning McCain called Woods again: “We’re going over there,” the senior senator from Arizona said, referring to the Capitol Hill unveiling. “It’s going to be good.”

His optimism was warranted. The bipartisan effort was generally well-received across the country and across ideological lines. And McCain’s participation — as well as that of rising Republican star Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — gave the plan a level of legitimacy and a promise of success not seen since the 2007 McCain-led effort to reform the immigration system, which ultimately failed.

The reception back home was not nearly as positive, as McCain has learned in often-hostile town hall meetings over the past two days. And it’s not surprising.

In 2010, in the heat of a close race for reelection, McCain boiled down his stance on immigration reform into one memorable phrase: “Complete the danged fence,” a reference to tightening border security. Now, in light of his enthusiasm for broad reforms that could include a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, critics have accused McCain of flip-flopping and selling out.

McCain’s 2010 primary opponent, J.D. Hayworth, called McCain’s often-stated belief that immigration reform could benefit Republicans “misguided and false.”

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose office phone hold message includes the prompt, “If you are aware of any illegal immigration activity, call the hotline to report it,” said: “I don’t think this is the first time on an issue that he’s changed. Check his records.”

McCain has dismissed his critics with characteristic vehemence, even calling one town hall attendee a “jerk.”

The long search for the Real John McCain continues.

McCain in 2013

The 76-year-old will be 80 when he is again up for reelection in Arizona in 2016. “I have seen a number of occasions around here where people have stayed too long,” McCain said during a recent interview in his Russell Senate Building office. “I have seen people who were real giants in this institution deteriorate, and unfortunately, we remember them at the end.”

Endings matter in politics. If McCain is approaching the exit, this term could determine how he will be remembered. (“In the way people think of him,” former GOP Arizona senator Jon Kyl said, “in the near term, it matters a great deal.”)

Right now, like it or not, the five-term senator is stuck in “get off my lawn” territory, lashing out at his friend-turned-foe Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary; incessantly tugging at what McCain is convinced is a coverup of the September attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya; lambasting the president; and railing against indiscriminate defense cuts. If hard-core conservatives feel burned by McCain’s resurgent reform spirit, the media that he once called his “base” have essentially written him off as an angry and sour loser who once went through a maverick phase but has, in the words of “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, gone on a “seven-year quest to negate every good thing he’d ever done.”

“It does hurt,” McCain said softly. “I admit to you that it bothers me from time to time, and I wish that it didn’t. But it does.”

McCain’s most probable avenue back to the land of mavericks and media adulation runs through immigration reform. The Republican base may hate him for it, but the country and a GOP whose unpopularity with Hispanic voters has prompted an existential crisis may end up owing him, as they say in Senate parlance, a debt of gratitude.

“If it gets done, he would certainly deserve a large degree of credit for helping the party,” said Charlie Black, a longtime McCain confidant.

“It’s a legacy thing that’s not only important for him but for the country,” said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.). Grijalva said that he questions McCain’s commitment to reform because the senator took a hard right turn on the issue to mollify the tea party in 2010. He had confidence that McCain’s desire to achieve something big would temper what some see as a mean streak. “You don’t want to become a caricature of yourself as you are finishing out in this business.”

A possible transformation

Change is evident.

McCain is now working with no less a Democratic standard-bearer than New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, saying nice things about Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) for preserving Senate rules, and suggesting that immigration reform could pass the House with bipartisan support because the number of those manifestly opposed to working with Democrats — presumably, tea party members — had “shrunk. Thank God.”

Yet McCain rejects the notion that he needs immigration reform to restore his image or, for that matter, that he has ever changed.

“When I was going against the [George W.] Bush administration — ‘Haha, he’s the maverick. He’s the guy who’s standing up.’ I go up against Obama, and ‘Ah! That angry, dirty, old man,’ ” McCain said. “I may have, quote, evolved. . . . I haven’t changed any.”

Mark Salter, who co-wrote McCain’s narrative-establishing memoir, “Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him,” also said he doesn’t see any difference.

“What’s changed?” Salter wrote in an e-mail, blaming the media for being irresistibly drawn to “narratives that attribute perceived behavioral changes to some kind of psycho-drama.” In fact, he said, “the truth is simpler.”

McCain’s zeal on Benghazi, he said, reflects not his hatred of Obama for beating him and the administration for treating him shabbily, but his earnest interest in Benghazi and the security of U.S. personnel overseas. His skewering of Hagel was simply an attempt to hold a slippery witness accountable.

“The media used to applaud it,” Salter said. “Now, they don’t.”

Many stages in his career

But for a man who hasn’t changed, he has covered a lot of ground. He came to the Senate as a rank-and-file conservative in 1987, became embroiled in a savings-and-loan scandal in the early ’90s, bucked his party and took on Big Tobacco, pitched himself as a straight-talking maverick presidential candidate in 2000, led the passage of historic bipartisan campaign-finance reform in 2002, took on Bush Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to push for the 2006 surge in Iraq, joined Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) twice for comprehensive immigration reform, adopted a more conservative tune on abortion and immigration in the run-up to the 2008 presidential contest, picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, claimed “I never considered myself a maverick” as he faced a tea party challenge for his Senate seat in 2010 and mounted consistent and intense opposition to the Obama administration.

That last stage prompted some of his old advisers to privately implore McCain to stop adhering strictly to the party line, but the senator and his supporters say that the Obama administration’s positions, generally, and display of disrespect, personally, left him no choice.

As an example, Black said that Obama met with McCain after the 2008 election to discuss common areas of interest, including immigration. “And then he never heard from Obama again,” Black said. “But then Harry Reid comes up to him on the Senate floor, and says, ‘If you put an immigration bill in, John, we’ll support it.’ ” McCain, who was facing a tea party revolt in Arizona angrily answered, “Harry, you guys won. Obama’s the president. It’s his job to put a bill up,” Black recounted.

McCain said that the Obama administration gave him a confidential mission during a trip to Iraq to ascertain the willingness of Iraqi leaders to accept a significant residual force. “Finally [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki says, ‘Okay, I will accept a residual force and work to get it done,’ ” McCain said, adding that he reported back to National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, asking how many troops he should tell Maliki the administration would commit to. McCain said he never heard back and read in the papers about the administration’s decision to dramatically scale down.

After a gunman gravely injuredcolleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in January 2011, McCain, with Salter’s help, wrote an editorial commending Obama for his speech in the wake of the Tucson shooting. McCain said he received an invitation to the White House, where the two former adversaries discussed immigration reform in the Oval Office. Obama, he said, pledged his commitment to move the issue forward. “They never got back to me,” McCain said. (The White House declined to comment.)

From friends to foes

Critics and even some former allies of McCain see a chip on his shoulder as the animus behind his recent harsh questioning of Hagel. The two Vietnam War veterans were tight before the war in Iraq, with Hagel a regular in McCain’s office. In 2000, Hagel was one of the few Republicans to back McCain against George W. Bush, but the war in Iraq drove them apart, and in 2008, Hagel’s wife supported Obama, a development that bewildered McCain.

Prior to the hearing, McCain called his friend Woods and declared, “I’m going to grill him on the surge.” McCain advisers say he was simply doing his duty on an issue he cares deeply about. Some veterans of the Senate detected a measure of personal payback.

“It’s certainly hard to forget when one of your friends and former colleagues in effect turns on you,” said former senator and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole.

But McCain said that the friendship between the two was “overstated to begin with” and added “If I spend time being angry at everybody who switched to Obama, I would be consumed. I wouldn’t have any time to sleep.” Instead, he said his reservations were triggered over Hagel’s policy views.

An unwritten legacy

Asked whether he feared that he would go down in history as the man who lost to the first black president and gave America Palin, McCain rocked back on the hind legs of his chair and shook his head.

He’d also be remembered as the guy who told a questioner at a town hall meeting that she was out of line for suggesting Obama was a Muslim, he said, and for refusing to make Obama’s inflammatory former pastor a campaign issue.

And even if he is eventually celebrated as a co-author of landmark immigration reform, McCain has no illusions about being a media darling and bipartisan hero forever.

“I am sure that I will do something like the Hagel nomination or be particularly tough on Hillary, Saint Hillary,” McCain said with a chuckle, referring to former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. “There will always be something that I’m doing that will make that a very temporary period of adulation.”

The senator got up to offer a tour of his office wall, including a 1968 State Department telegram. The yellowed document confirms McCain, an admiral’s son, refused to be released as a prisoner of war until the comrades captured before him were set free.

He said some of his POW friends attended his mother’s 101st birthday party in Arlington County the previous evening. “Whatever happens to me, whether ‘he’s right’ or ‘a hypocrite’ or ‘a flip-flopper’ or whatever it is,” he said, “those are the guys that really matter to me in my life.”

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