An afternoon of ‘straight talk’ with John McCain

Published 8:31 am Tuesday, July 25, 2017

By John Micek

If you’re a journalist who covers campaigns and politics, the recent news of U.S. Sen. John McCain’s diagnosis of a particularly aggressive form of bran cancer is one of those moments when you pause to reflect on the men and women who choose to run, and serve, in elected office.

Campaigns bring you up close and personal with candidates. In brief personal encounters and at larger rallies, you can get a sense of them both as political personalities and as people. The finer edges of their humanity emerge from the talking points.

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So the words of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said McCain’s “disease has never had a more worthy opponent,” resonated because they reflected both McCain’s public personality and the man I got to meet and interview in 2008, a year when you couldn’t turn around in Pennsylvania without running into a presidential candidate or one of their surrogates.

Nine years ago, on a sun-baked afternoon in August, McCain touched down at Harrisburg Inter-national Airport for a couple days’ worth of campaigning in central Pennsylvania. His immediate destination that day was a fund-raiser/rally at the Harrisburg Hilton with former Gov. Tom Ridge.

I was one of five reporters, along with Ridge and would-be First Daughter Meghan McCain, who joined the Republican hopeful on the 45-foot-long “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus for the journey into town.

The 20-minute hop turned into a more than one-hour ride across the countryside, as McCain (mostly) graciously engaged us as we pelted him with questions.

His answers on foreign policy were hawkish; mainly pragmatic on domestic issues, with some wry humor thrown in for good measure. Keep in mind, McCain had the reputation for enjoying his jousts with reporters (or at least pretending convincingly that was the case).

The conversation took place before the Republican National Convention, where McCain made the unconventional choice to tap former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running-mate. And, at the time, Ridge, the Bush White House’s first Homeland Security czar, was being mentioned as a potential vice-presidential pick.

Naturally, he didn’t bite when we asked him if Ridge, who’d been mentioned as a Veep pick during George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, was in the running.

“I’m not going to talk about the process,” said McCain, who added he had “respect and appreciation” for Ridge’s service as governor and DHS boss. “It would be an invasion of everybody’s privacy … But I know Gov. Ridge will want to serve because it’s the nature of the beast.”

And because everything old is new again, we talked about Russia, which was fresh off its invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Russian President Vladimir Putin was then the country’s prime minister. And the world’s eyes were on him.

McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had traveled to the former Soviet republic a number of times. And while he “knew that things were tense there,” McCain said he didn’t “think any of us anticipated the degree of conflict that we’re now seeing [spread] across that little country.”

McCain, at the time, also knew what most of us knew: That even though Russia had a different president under Dmitri Medvedev, it was Putin who was pulling the strings.

Asked how he’d deal with a Putin-helmed regime as president, McCain said he’d be “very upfront, I would be very straightforward. I would tell them that we expect better behavior from the Russians than what we’re seeing today.”

Which is both funny and sad to think about now, given the current storm over the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

That week, McCain was also taking heat for a campaign ad “Celebrity,” which cast Obama as a celebrity similar to heiress Paris Hilton (remember her?) and pop singer Britney Spears.

Some complained the spot was unstatesmanlike. In typical fashion, McCain didn’t much care.

“I thought it was time for humor,” McCain said, shrugging off the criticism, and pronouncing an answering spot from Hilton “hilarious.”

“And all I can say to those people is, just relax, shut down the computer, go outside and get a breath of fresh air,” he cracked. “Go for a walk. Come on out to Arizona. It’s a little hot, but the Grand Canyon’s nice.”

That was nine years ago. But McCain’s advice, it occurs to me, is just as applicable now. And Washington needs more of that – not less.

An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at