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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