One summer day in 1988, John McCain was walking me around his weekend getaway near Sedona, Ariz. There were no guest houses for the press yet, or large parking areas for black SUVs. Those days were yet to come. The main house was small, and the orchard of spindly fruit trees he so proudly showed me had just been planted. I was with John that day because I was writing a profile about him for an Arizona business magazine. Rumor had it that his name was on George H. W. Bush’s short list for VP pick. Although I did not yet know much about his early life or Vietnam story, we already had an easy rapport, developed over four years. I had interviewed him multiple times about an Arizona issue known as the Navajo-Hopi Indian Land Dispute, which I had covered for Newsweek magazine, and about which I had moved to Arizona to write a book.
John was visibly delighted by his new place. The house was tucked into a valley surrounded by tall, scrub-covered mesas. One of the loveliest things about the property was that it was nestled into a crook of Oak Creek; the wash literally looped around the house. That day, the river was roaring, riding high up on the banks. Of course, John decided that we should ford it and go visit a little island upstream. Never mind that he was looking after his kids, Meghan and Jack, who must have been about 4 and 2 then. He grabbed Meghan like a sack of potatoes and plunged into the stream, yelling at me to follow him. I wedged little Jack onto my hip and took a deep breath.
The thing about John was, he was brave and competent, and he expected the same from everyone around him. I still remember how slippery the rocks were underfoot, and how easy it would have been to lose my balance, but there was no way in hell I was going to tip baby McCain into the drink. So I mustered all I had and we got across the rapids and back onto dry land. John was graceful enough not to check over his shoulder during the crossing, signaling to me that he had no doubt I would make it. This moment returns to me frequently, and I have extracted its unspoken lessons: Set expectations high and show no doubt they will be fulfilled. That’s how to rally the troops. We poked around in an abandoned shack on the island and laughed over some newspaper clippings about Evan Mecham, Arizona’s benighted governor, then headed back.
It was during those weeks reporting that I learned about his rebellious youth at Episcopal High School and at the Naval Academy, and his long ordeal as a POW in Vietnam. (Though not from him. He didn’t talk about it then.) But you could never really escape the fact of his mistreatment. He couldn’t even wriggle into a jacket without help because of the arm and shoulder injuries he suffered from ejection from his plane, torture, and medical incompetence. He had a funny, stiff walk like a beetle, and his hand gestures were clipped and jerky. He was all bashed up.
John grimaced often, but I never heard him complain about physical pain. He smiled sheepishly when an aide fixed his comb-over, because he couldn’t reach up to his head. One thing he could do was rub his hands together in front of him, as if a mad sorcerer thinking up a new potion. At his morning staff meetings, he’d rub his hands, get a wild look in his eyes, and let fly a few choice words to his staff. “Jerk” was a big favorite. They all loved him, you could tell; they showed him the utmost deference, but they also wisecracked behind his back. He was real. A complex individual. The press famously loved him too. He gave reporters what they wanted and needed—access and honesty, humor and good stories. He was also an excellent student of history. But there was an unspoken bargain: He was going to be straight with you, and you were going to be straight back.
John McCain served over the years as a touchstone for me of inner strength. He wore a rubber band on his wrist then, which he would snap if he craved a cigarette. I thought a lot about that. As if he hadn’t suffered enough. But he was going to beat the cigarettes, just like he had beaten everything else that tried to defeat him. He was a brawler and a cutup. But that only made the press like him more. Was it fun to hang out with Jimmy Carter? I mean, really.
John’s was the rare case in which suffering hadn’t broken him, but rather had annealed him, made him stronger. These are platitudes that people like me can haul out. But no one can take away what made John McCain: He lived through 5 1/2 years of unholy hell, all played out in full view of the world. His arms and a leg were broken when he smashed against the canopy of his A4 Skyhawk while ejecting after his right wing had been sheared off by a Russian surface-to-air missile. (He did joke about the SAMs. There were eight of them coming at his plane, and they looked, he told me, like “flying telephone poles.”) After he was fished out of Hanoi’s Western Lake, he was bayoneted in the foot and the groin. He was tortured and starved and eventually thrown onto the cement floor of a cell with other American POWs who thought he was going to die. No medical attention was offered until his bones had already started to heal the wrong way.
When John talked, sometimes it sounded like he was speaking through clenched teeth. Most of his molars had been broken by a Vietnamese turnkey who insisted every day, as the rooster crows, that McCain bow to him. And every day, just to yank his chain, McCain refused. So, in their daily game, the jailer gave him a few shots to the jaw. The teeth eventually gave way. And there were the ropes. There’s no one who doesn’t break from the ropes, in which a prisoner’s arms are pulled out of their sockets and tied in place. Sometimes overnight.
I once spoke with a Naval officer who trained pilots like John how to endure torture. Hold out as long as you can, and then give the least amount of information you can. Rest, recover, and prepare for the next round. He told them: Everybody breaks. Don’t despair. If you don’t break, you will go crazy. Some went crazy. Under the most obscene rounds of torture, John signed a vague, ungrammatical confession that no one took seriously. Yet he felt so ashamed about it that he twice tried to hang himself.
Not many people know this, but when U.S. Rep. Mo Udall was dying of Parkinson’s in a Washington-area hospital, John McCain visited him every day. Mo Udall’s wife had pre-deceased him and there was no one to care for him. I know this because I had written a profile of Udall for the same Arizona magazine, and I was familiar with the circumstances. Sometimes John cleaned up his beloved colleague and tended to him because the nurses hadn’t. (And Udall was a Democrat!) That’s just the kind of guy he was.
John had a Mosaic reflex to defend the defenseless, to hell with the cost. He dressed down an upperclassman at Annapolis—a punishable offense—for rudeness to a Filipino mess-hall steward. He helped his roommate, Frank Gamboa, a first-generation Mexican-American, adapt to Academy life. In The Washington Post, John’s aide and book co-writer Mark Salter recalled driving through Moscow with McCain and Cindy when their taxi passed three men beating another with rifle butts “seemingly to death.” John called to the driver to stop, and the driver shouted “Nyet!” John grabbed the door handle, preparing to jump out of the car himself, but Salter seized his arm in a death grip until they were past the trouble. Salter wrote, “He gave me a look I’ve never forgotten and didn’t speak to me the rest of the night.”
Natan Sharansky saw that same fire when he met with John in 2008 in a Senate chamber during a debate over torture. John believed that civilized countries had no business torturing captives, and he would not leave the building until that belief was enshrined in law. “I don’t need to explain to you why we must stop this,” John said to him, according to a recent piece by Sharansky in the Times of Israel. “We understand.”
Israel was McCain’s perfect issue; to understand Israel, one had to understand military reality and history, appreciate the outstanding, and have a heart for the beleaguered, the ostracized, the wounded, and the proud.
Although no one would think of John McCain and Moses in the same mental snapshot, like Moses, he was frequently torn between hierarchical loyalty (the chain of command, whether naval or governmental) and his own moral compass. Every time Moses went his own way, he received severe divine retribution. Conversely, every time McCain deviated from what he knew was right—not condemning the Confederate flag in his 2000 primary battle against George Bush, choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 instead of his friend Joe Lieberman—he was severely punished. This led to abject confession and a desire for absolution. Say what you want about him, it mattered, really mattered to him, that people knew he was trying to do the right thing.
My heart sinks every time I recall a visit to him in Washington years later, when, almost in tears, he asked me why I hadn’t come to his defense during the Keating fiasco. I can’t for the life of me remember how I responded. I probably just choked, in shock at being accused of not living up to the McCain credo. I remember he wanted to talk, to defend himself, and make sure I understood that the Senate Ethics Committee, after a long investigation, had exonerated him and John Glenn, accusing them only of bad judgment but nothing illegal or unethical.
I have thought of his agony many times since. Had he wanted me to defend him in the press? Could I have? Recently, mulling over it again, I called the editor I had worked with in Arizona in those days, when I had indeed been writing about the S&L crisis in 1988 and 1989, though never about Charles Keating or Lincoln Savings and Loan. Kevin Helliker, who went on to work for The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years in New York and win a Pulitzer Prize, told me our magazine had assigned a story on the Keating Five to a freelancer, but the story had not worked out. Another friend and another Pulitzer winner, Jerry Kammer, who wrote for the Arizona Republic, has searing memories of McCain “screaming over the phone at Andy Hall and me as we pulled back the curtain on his relationship with Keating.”
Charles Keating, a prominent Phoenix businessman, had contributed a total of $1.3 million to five U.S. senators. When his California institution, Lincoln Savings and Loan, was facing regulatory scrutiny, he asked those senators: John McCain and Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, Alan Cranston of California, John Glenn of Ohio, and Don Riegle of Michigan, to help him push back. They did and the regulators relented, leading to the appearance of possible political bribery. The effect was disastrous: As part of the wider savings and loan debacle, Lincoln eventually collapsed, costing taxpayers $3.4 billion and cheating thousands of people of their life savings.
What I realized later was that John was not asking why I had not defended him in print. He wanted to hear from me that I supported him, that I was his friend, that I knew he never would have done something wrong for personal gain. Because after going through what he had gone through in Vietnam, no campaign contribution in the world was enough to get him to sell his soul. As Orson Swindle, a fellow POW, told me back in 1988, “In Hanoi, we had everything taken away from us except what we believed in. After that, we were willing to be ostracized rather than compromise our beliefs. We’ve been through that already with much higher stakes.”
But politics is messy. The Keating case was complicated and convoluted. John got burned and he learned a few things. He often quoted Bismarck: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” He also liked to say, “Mao said, ‘It’s always darkest before it gets pitch black.’” Which is not what Mao said.
I was then a bleeding-heart liberal and he was a staunch conservative. Socially, he leaned liberal, and received no end of grief about it from diehard conservatives. When his youngest boy, Jimmy, was born prematurely, John brought me with him to the NICU to visit. Since I had a cold, I asked for a surgical mask. God forbid I should carry a virus to those tiny, struggling infants. As we toured the room, I saw creatures curled up on their arms and legs; some had hair all over their backs. (Many were the babies of drug addicts.) My pulse started to race and at one point, in part because I was rebreathing my own CO2 I felt faint. I told John I had to sit down, and I did, hanging my head down between my knees. John rolled his eyes and went to see Cindy.
We talked a lot about his beliefs about abortion and life and women’s rights in the car on the ride back to the office. I admit I was not in full form that day, and I am unable to quote anything specific that he said to me. But I left that hospital believing that McCain, in spite of his stated positions, believed in a woman’s right to control her own body. I leave it to John and God to work out the conflict between his beliefs and his voting record on that one, but I remember feeling relieved after that conversation. I never asked him how he could live with his votes. And I never told anyone until now what he said.
John was not a perfect guy and he never pretended he was. In high school, he was known as McNasty. It was hard for him to let go when he got mad. And he got mad a lot. But he could dish it out for higher purposes too. In Hanoi, he made a point of screeching obscenities at the guards every time he was let out of his cell. Of course, he got beaten, but his performance lifted the spirits of his fellow inmates.
I was once the beneficiary of his creative cursing. Meeting him in his Phoenix office one day about a Navajo-Hopi related issue, I was in a low mood. He asked me what was up. I told him I had just broken up with a boyfriend. His face lit up, he got that crazy gleam in his eye and he rubbed his hands together. He started pacing his office, swearing nonstop about this pig swill of a guy, four steps in one direction, pivot, four steps back, working up speed and verbal precision with every turn, describing in detail what he planned to do to the guy, what he would look like when he was done. He used curses I had never heard before. Soon, I was laughing so hard I couldn’t get the words out to let him know the guy was not totally pig swill, in fact he was a lawyer in the Justice Department.
For a time, he called me “the last honest person in America.” The first time I heard it, I was flattered. Later, it didn’t sound so much like a compliment. I figured that was because I was taking so long to finish my book about the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute, and there was a lot of pressure on him to come up with a solution that would prevent the last holdouts, about 250 elderly traditional Navajo families, from being torn from their homes and land as part of the largest forced relocation of civilians since the roundup of Japanese-Americans during WWII. This land dispute was emblematic of the entire history of abuses, broken promises, and craven disregard the U.S. government had shown Native Americans since 1492. John knew it, but it was too late to reverse all the damage that had been done by the 1974 law. I had tried, through Newsweek stories and writing the book, to make the prevailing narrative more accurate. It was McCain’s challenge, if he would take it, to amend a law created and supported by the senator whose place he had taken, Barry Goldwater. A solution involved very sensitive mediation between the tribes, years of work by Interior Department lawyers, and a deal hammered out with Mo Udall. He did it though, finally shepherding passage of an amendment to bring the long, tragic case to a close with a glint of hope: a reprieve for the most vulnerable people affected, and the possibility of reconciliation between the tribes. John was respected by the Indian tribes of Arizona, who understood that though he was not perfect, he was their friend and protector and he tried to do what was right by them.
I left Arizona in 1991 and eventually made my way back to New York City in 1994. Every time I traveled to Washington, D.C., I tried to visit McCain. If I was lucky enough to be on vacation in Arizona, I visited him there, and when he started writing books, I showed up at his readings in New York. Even after long stretches of time had passed, he always greeted me by name without hesitation, and gave me a big hug. He signed his books, “With love and admiration,” and although I was thrilled to read those words from a man who had been through as much as McCain had, I know that he wrote that same phrase to many others. He admired Americans; he loved them for their potential.
I attended a Christmas party McCain threw in the winter of 2007. Judy Woodruff was there. I asked her if she thought McCain could become president. “Yes, if he can win over the right wing of his party,” she said. I will never forgive him for unleashing Sarah Palin on us, but I knew, as Woodruff said, the pressure he felt to appease the far right. They never let up on him. He didn’t like them, but he was told he had to pay heed. After all, they were the ones who had sunk his 2000 primary bid in South Carolina by questioning his patriotism and suggesting that he had fathered a child with a black mistress. (Cindy had brought back a Bangladeshi orphan from one of her medical missions abroad.) I know that Bill Kristol & Co. thought Palin was better than sliced bread, and she had seduced a lot of other conservative intellectuals. So he did not make this decision completely at random. But he hadn’t done a proper vetting. I can imagine John McCain, pressured, conflicted, in a weary moment, thinking out loud to his advisers, “OK, this is what you want? This is what you want me to do? You say I’ll never win with my friend Joe Lieberman? Well then, here you go.” He was prone to a dangerous recklessness when he was forced, for the sake of expedience, to compromise his deepest beliefs. For that compromise, or that recklessness, he was punished. He would never make it to the promised land.
But maybe it no longer mattered. John didn’t need to prove anything anymore. He knew by then who his friends were, and he knew where home was. Many of his closest, deepest pals—Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, Mo Udall—sat across the aisle. Will we ever again have a leader who can find common cause with a colleague who holds different views? Possibly not. And this he would consider the deepest tragedy. He was comfortable all around the world—from Jerusalem to Hanoi—but he loved his place in Cornville, hugged by the creek that rose and fell with the rains. He had famously said he learned to love his country while a prisoner in another.
The last time I saw him was in 2014 in Washington, D.C., when he was scheduled to make the keynote speech at the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum. By this time, I was no longer writing about Native Americans but rather about my own natives: Jews. And Israel. And terrorism. I had come to admire David Harris and the organization he led for insightful, deep, informed analysis. I met John at the front door of the Grand Hyatt hotel. He gave me a big hug and we chitchatted as we walked back stage. He was accompanied by one of his foreign policy advisers. I chuckled to myself. John hadn’t changed a bit. He liked aides who were smart and beautiful. And young.
He looked very well, slimmed down, and healthy. The audience hung on his every word. He did his usual McCain thing: Instead of talking about all the great things he had done for Israel, he thanked the group for its leadership. McCain had first visited Israel in the late 1970s with Scoop Jackson and had there met Natan Sharansky’s wife. “I will never forget that one as long as I live,” he said. It was in Israel that he learned about Israel’s High Court ban on torture in 1999, to which he later made numerous references. Israel was McCain’s perfect issue; to understand Israel, one had to understand military reality and history, appreciate the outstanding, and have a heart for the beleaguered, the ostracized, the wounded, and the proud.
I introduced McCain to David Harris, who had come backstage to congratulate him on his speech, and after a few quick meetings in the hallway, he left. Before saying goodbye, I told him something I had learned from an Israeli covert operator: Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s top reconnaissance team, had studied the American effort to rescue American POWs at Son Tay Prison in 1970, an intricately planned operation that failed because the Vietnamese had moved the prisoners out four months earlier. The Israeli team pored over a popular book about the raid as part of its training, analyzing every detail. Sayeret Matkal led the successful rescue at Entebbe in 1976. I thought McCain might be tickled. Of course, if he didn’t already know.
He smiled, rubbed his hands, and let forth a string of happy words I will not repeat. R.I.P., my dear friend.
You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.
Emily Benedek has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Mosaic, among other publications. She is the author of five books.