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Insults, straight talk, expertise — McCain knew how to attract the media

John McCain rarely minced words, especially when it came to relative newcomers to the Senate who wanted to do away with the chamber’s long-held traditions like the filibuster.

“I would like to meet that idiot,” the late Arizona Republican told a few reporters in April 2017. “I would like to meet that numskull that would say that.”

You’re holding back, we told McCain, tell us how you really feel.

“Idiot,” McCain responded. “No, whoever says that is a stupid idiot.”

It was another day in the Capitol following one of the most colorful senators to grace the halls, this time as he defended the sanctity of the 60-vote supermajority as crucial to the venerable institution.

Reporters who spent months on the presidential campaign trail of 2000 and 2008 basked in the glow of the “Straight Talk Express,” the name McCain gave his campaign bus as he bounded through early primary states such as New Hampshire while holding court with the media.

For the congressional press corps, those folks who spent month after month, year after year chasing him through the corridors and basements of the Capitol, it could have been called the Straight Talk Shuffle — a mile a minute, never quite sure which side McCain would end up on a given issue, but always knowing that if there was a big fight happening, he would be in the middle.

He failed more often than he succeeded, but McCain kept fighting, and it was impossible not to watch. While he was primarily focused on national security issues, he tapped into the vast expertise of his staff — one of the smartest, most loyal in Congress — to work the press corps to his advantage, always mixing in a heavy dose of wit and candor.

There’s a reason he has been on NBC’s “Meet the Press” more than any other guest: He was the best quote in town.

Listen below: In previously unreleased audio, Paul Kane reveals a story of the last years of McCain’s life and tenure.

Over just the past 20 years, McCain found himself at the center of critical debates on tobacco regulation, campaign finance, patients’ rights, enemy combatant interrogations, immigration and border security (several times), judicial nominations (several times) and an attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And there were many more.

It’s well documented that insults were his entree for camaraderie with the press corps. In Scottsdale, Ariz., just before the GOP primary in August 2016, McCain bolted out of a Chamber of Commerce event trying to avoid questions. He finally turned and recognized several familiar faces from The Washington Post and Politico, so he stopped for a couple of minutes.

“Nice to see you again. I hate the beard, shave the . . . thing off,” he told me later that day, using an expletive, in his campaign office. The military man was offended by the sight of a three-week-old beard even though Congress was on a seven-week break.

His love affair with the media, both on the campaign trail and in the Capitol, had its strains. After losing the 2008 presidential election to Barack Obama, McCain returned to the Capitol with a bitter taste. He declined to talk to me and several other reporters, including those from the New York Times, for several months.

He never explained why, but early in 2008, the Times and The Post published stories about a lobbyist’s relationship with the senator’s office, and in general, he felt betrayed by the coverage.

“The press had a finger on the scale for Obama, both in the primary and the general election,” McCain wrote in his final book, “The Restless Wave,” released in May with co-author Mark Salter. “They gave him more favorable attention than they gave his opponents.”

But if you were around McCain long enough, the hatchet usually got buried. By the summer of 2011, McCain had begun working again with then-Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a fellow Vietnam veteran who by then had a 25-year relationship with McCain that was down and then up, down and then back up again.

They had settled their dispute over Vietnam — one who was a POW, the other a critic after his service — but their respective presidential bids, in 2004 and 2008, had driven them apart, until the Arab Spring brought them together over the hope of democratic transformation in the Middle East.

“I try very hard to put all these things behind me,” McCain told me in 2011, reflecting on his presidential loss but really on all his feuds. “You’ve got to move on, and I will admit it: It took me a long time.”

Inside the Capitol, McCain’s biggest moments always came when he had given up the chase of the presidency, including a stretch from 2001 through 2006 when he adopted the “maverick” persona he so relished by regularly challenging President George W. Bush on a host of issues.

He once defeated a GOP bid in 2005 to end the filibuster on judicial nominations by cobbling together a bipartisan coalition of centrists — as his son, in Navy dress whites, walked his mother, Roberta McCain, down the hallway to meet the senator and head to a movie premiere about his time as a hostage in Vietnam.

After he won reelection in 2010, McCain fully accepted his role as an elder statesman who would never win the White House. He threw himself back into issues such as immigration and worked with a new generation of senators on both sides of the aisle, preaching respect for the institution and traveling abroad with them to learn global diplomacy.

McCain never wanted to run for an elected position in party leadership, believing he could focus on his work at the Armed Services Committee and that he would have been lousy at the job of pleasantly cajoling rank-and-file senators to vote for something.

Why did others so crave those leadership posts?

“Masochism,” he once told me. “I always thought maybe that’s part of it.”

In mid-July 2017, he was diagnosed with brain cancer but returned to the Senate a few days later to deliver a stirring address begging his colleagues to work together. He tried to bolt without taking questions, but I managed to run into him as he was leaving.

There was only one question to ask: How long would he be here?

The rest of that week, he said, was the literal answer.

“We’ll figure out the rest after that,” McCain told me. “It’s a little hard to know because we’re still looking at stuff. You know?”

Yes, we always knew.

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