Tribute to a decent man, an honest man of honour. Even though he backed the Iraq disaster, and is a Republican.
Many an old geezer like me reaches his last years wishing he had lived more in the moment, had savored his days as they happened. Not me, friends. Not me. I have loved my life. All of it.
TEARS WELLED IN MY EYES as I watched the old men march. It was a poignant sight, but not an unfamiliar one, and I was surprised at my reaction. l have attended Memorial Day and Veterans Day parades in dozens of American cities, watched aging combat veterans, heads high, shoulders back, summon memories of their service and pay homage to friends they had lost. I had always kept my composure.
It was the fiftieth anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and I had been invited to the official commemoration. The President of the United States, George H. W. Bush, was there and would give an emotional, memorable address at the USS Arizona memorial. I assumed that I, a first term senator, had been included with more important dignitaries because that famous ship was named for the state I represent. Or perhaps I had been invited because I’m a Navy veteran, the son and grandson of admirals, and this was a Navy show.
My best friend from the Naval Academy, Chuck Larson, acted as host and master of ceremonies for the proceedings at the Arizona. Chuck had a far more distinguished naval career than I had, continuing a divergence that had begun in our first year at the Academy, where he had graduated at the top of our class and I very near the bottom. We had gone through flight training together, and remained the closest of friends. Chuck had been an aviator, then a submariner and a military aide to President Richard Nixon. He had been a rear admiral at forty three, one of the youngest officers in Navy history to make that rank. He was the only person to serve as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy twice. On the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he had four stars and was commander in chief of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, CINCPAC, the largest operational command in the U.S. military, my father’s old command, headquartered in Hawaii.
The Arizona ceremony was the main event of the weekend. The President would also pay a visit to the battleship USS Missouri, as would I. She had come from operations in the Persian Gulf to join in the Remembrance Day tribute. It was her last mission before she would be decommissioned. The war that had begun for America in Pearl Harbor had ended on her deck. My grandfather had been there, standing in the first line of senior officers observing the surrender ceremony.
My father, a submarine skipper, was waiting in Tokyo Harbor to meet him for, as it turned outthe last time. They lunched together that afternoon in the wardroom of a submarine tender. When they parted that day my grandfather began his journey home to Coronado, California. He died of a heart attack the day after he arrived, during a welcome home party my grandmother had arranged for him. He was only sixty one years old, but looked decades older, aged beyond his years from “riotous living,” as he called it, and the strain of the war. My father, who admired his father above all other men, was inconsolable. Many years later he recalled in detail their final reunion and the last words his father spoke to him, “Son, there is no greater thing than to die for the country and principles that you believe in.”
The day before the ceremony on the Arizona I had joined a small group of more senior senators and combat veterans, among them Senate Republican leader Bob Dole and the senior senator from Hawaii, Dan Inouye. Bob had served in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. A few weeks before the end of the war in Europe, in Italy’s Apennine Mountains, he was grievously wounded by a German machine gun while trying to rescue his fallen radio operator. His wounds cost him the use of his right arm, and much of the feeling in his left. Around the same time, Dan had led an assault on a German bunker in Tuscany. He was shot in the stomach and a grenade severed his right arm. He kept fighting, and would receive the Medal of Honor for his valor. Bob and Dan had been friends longer than either had been a senator. They had met while recuperating from their wounds in Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, along with another future senator, Phil Hart, who had been wounded on D-Day.
That day, we watched two thousand Pearl Harbor survivors march to honor their fallen. Most appeared to be in their seventies. Neither the informality of their attire nor the falling rain nor the cheers of the crowd along the parade route detracted from their dignified comportment. A few were unable to walk and rode in Army trucks. All of a sudden I felt overwhelmed. Maybe it was the effect of their straight faces and erect bearing evoking such a hard-won dignity; maybe it was the men riding in trucks managing to match the poise of the marchers; maybe it was the way they turned their heads toward us as they passed and the way Bob and Dan returned their attention. A little embarrassed by my reaction, I confessed to Dan, “I don’t know what comes over me these days. I guess I’m getting sentimental with age.” Without turning his gaze from the marchers, he answered me quietly, “Accumulated memories.”
That was it. Accumulated memories. I had reached an age when I had begun to feel the weight of them. Memories evoked by a connection to someone or to an occasion, by a familiar story or turn of phrase or song. Memories of intense experiences, of family and friends from younger days, of causes fought, some worth it, others not so much, some won, some lost, of adventures bigger than those imagined as a child, memories of a life that even then had seemed to me so lucky and unlikely, and of the abbreviated lives of friends who had been braver but not as fortunate, memories brought to mind by veterans of a war I had not fought in, but I knew something of what it had cost them, and what it had given them.
I had been a boy of five, playing in the front yard of my family’s home in New London, Connecticut, when a black sedan pulled up and a Navy officer rolled down the window and shouted to my father, “Jack, the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.” The news and the sight of my father leaving in that sedan is one of my most powerful memories, the only memory of my father during the war I’ve managed to retain all these years. I know he didn’t go to sea immediately and I know we were briefly reunited with him when he was reassigned from a submarine command in the Atlantic to another in the Pacific theater. But I don’t recall seeing my father again after he got into that car until the war was over, and he had lost his father and many of his friends. He returned changed in the way most combat veterans are, more self-possessed and serious. I understood the journey the Pearl Harbor veterans had made.
That empathy stirred by my own memories had made me weep.
I feel the weight of memories even more now, of course. I’ve accumulated so many more of them. I was in my mid fifties in 1991. I’m eighty one now, twenty years older than my grandfather had been when he died, and more than ten years older than my father when we buried him, as it happened, on the day I left the Navy, a year before I was elected to my first term in Congress.
A quarter century’s worth of new memories, of new causes, won and lost, more fights, new friendships and a few new enemies, of more mistakes made and new lessons learned, of new experiences that enriched my life so far beyond my wildest dreams that I feel even luckier than I did in 1991.
Of course, the longer we live, the more we lose, too, and many people who figure prominently in my memories have left the scene. Friends from prison have passed away. Bob Craner, my closest confidant in prison, the man who got me back on my feet after the Vietnamese forced me to make a false confession and propaganda statement, died many years ago. Bill Lawrence, my exemplary senior ranking officer, died in 2005. Ned Shuman, whose good cheer was a tonic in the worst of times, is gone now, too. And Bud Day, the toughest man I ever knew, veteran of three wars, who wouldn’t let me die in those hard first months of my captivity, left us four years ago.
Close Senate friends have passed as well, including brave Dan Inouye. My pal Fred Thompson, whose company was a delight, died two years ago. Lion of the Senate Ted Kennedy, with whom I worked and fought and joked in some of the more memorable moments of my time in the Senate, succumbed in 2009 to the cancer that I now have. Ted and I shared the conviction that a fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed. We had some fierce ones in our time, fierce, worthwhile, and fun. I loved every minute of them.
Other friends have left, too. I’m tempted to say, before their time, but that isn’t the truth. What God and good luck provide we must accept with gratitude. Our time is our time. It’s up to us to make the most of it, make it amount to more than the sum of our days. God knows, my dear friend Chuck Larson, whom I had looked up to since we were boys, made the most of his. Leukemia killed him in 2014. He was laid to rest in the Naval Academy’s cemetery on Hospital Point, a beautiful spot overlooking the Severn River, near where our paths first crossed.
I’ve been given more years than many, and had enough narrow escapes along the way to make me appreciate them, not just in memory, but while I lived them. Many an old geezer like me reaches his last years wishing he had lived more in the moment, had savored his days as they happened. Not me, friends. Not me. I have loved my life. All of it. I’ve wasted more than a few days on pursuits that might not have proved as important as they seemed to me at the time. Some things didn’t work out the way I hoped they would. I had difficult moments and a few disappointments. But, by God, I enjoyed it. Every damn day of it. I have lived with a will. I served a purpose greater than my own pleasure or advantage, but I meant to enjoy the experience, and I did. I meant to be amazed and excited and encouraged and useful, and I was.
All that is attributable to one thing more than any other. I have been restless all my life, even now, as time grows precious. America and the voters of Arizona have let me exercise my restlessness in their service. I had the great good fortune to spend sixty years in the employ of our country, defending our country’s security, advancing our country’s ideals, supporting our country’s indispensable contributions to the progress of humanity. It has not been perfect service, to be sure, and there were times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help. But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege, and I have been repaid a thousand times over with adventure and discoveries, with good company, and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the story of America, and the history we made. And I am so very grateful.
I share that sentiment with another naval aviator, the good man and patriot we elected our forty-first President, George Herbert Walker Bush. He paid tribute twenty-six years ago to those fellow patriots whose service to America was not repaid with a long life of achievement and adventure.
We had assembled at the Arizona memorial around seven o’clock the morning of December 7, 1991. President and Mrs. Bush and their party arrived shortly after. Chuck opened the proceedings and introduced a Navy chaplain to give an invocation. At 7:55, fifty years to the minute since the attack on Pearl Harbor had commenced, the cruiser USS Chosin crossed in front of the memorial and sounded its horn as its officers and crew standing along its rails saluted. The minute of silence we observed ended when four F-15 fighters roared overhead, and one pulled up and away in the missing man formation. A bugler sounded attention at eight o’clock, the colors were raised, and the national anthem sung. President and Mrs. Bush dropped flower wreaths into the well of the memorial.
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney introduced retired USN Captain Donald Ross, who had been a warrant officer on the USS Nevada, one of eight battleships stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He was the senior engineer on the ship and managed to get her under way in the firestorm, the only one of the battleships to do so. The Nevada was struck by six bombs and a torpedo. Ross lost consciousness twice from the smoke and was twice resuscitated. He was blinded by an explosion, but he kept the ship steaming long enough to run her aground where she wouldn’t block the entrance to the harbor. He received the Medal of Honor for his valor. He was eighty-one years old in 1991, slight and stooped in his Navy whites, and walked with a cane. He would die the next spring. But he was exuberant that morning and emotional as he introduced his fellow World War II veteran, almost shouting, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the President of the United States.”
The President read from a printed text. He would give another, longer speech later that day about America’s leadership of the postwar world, and the international order we had superintended for nearly fifty years. But his speech at the memorial was devoted to the Americans who had fought and perished there at the dawn of the American century. “The heroes of the harbor,” he called them.
As he closed the speech, his voice grew thick with emotion. I think he must have felt not only the sacrifices made at Pearl Harbor, but the weight of his own memories, the memories of friends he had lost in the war, when he was the youngest aviator in the Navy.
“Look at the water here, clear and quiet,” he directed, “bidding us to sum up and remember. One day, in what now seems another lifetime, it wrapped its arms around the finest sons any nation could ever have, and it carried them to a better world.” He paused and fussed with the pages of his speech, struggling to compose himself before delivering the last line of the speech. “May God bless them, and may God bless America, the most wondrous land on earth.”
The most wondrous land on earth, indeed. What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed. We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for President.
We are blessed, and in turn, we have been a blessing to humanity. The world order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land shared its treasures and ideals and shed its blood to help make another, better world. And as we did we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war.
We have made mistakes. We haven’t always used our power wisely. We have abused it sometimes and we’ve been arrogant. But, as often as not, we recognized those wrongs, debated them openly, and tried to do better. And the good we have done for humanity surpasses the damage caused by our errors. We have sought to make the world more stable and secure, not just our own society. We have advanced norms and rules of international relations that have benefited all. We have stood up to tyrants for mistreating their people even when they didn’t threaten us, not always, but often. We don’t steal other people’s wealth. We don’t take their land. We don’t build walls to freedom and opportunity. We tear them down.
To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is unpatriotic. American nationalism isn’t the same as in other countries. It isn’t nativist or imperial or xenophobic, or it shouldn’t be. Those attachments belong with other tired dogmas that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.
We live in a land made from ideals, not blood and soil. We are custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world because we believed our ideals are the natural aspiration of all mankind, and that the principles, rules, and alliances of the international order we superintended would improve the security and prosperity of all who joined with us. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as well. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we let other powers assume our leadership role, powers that reject our values and resent our influence. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.
I have served that cause all my adult life. I haven’t always served it well. I haven’t even always appreciated that I was serving it. But among the few compensations of old age is the acuity of hindsight. I was part of something bigger than myself that drew me along in its wake even when I was diverted by personal interests. I was, knowingly or not, along for the ride as America made the future better than the past. Yes, l have enjoyed it, all of it, and I would love for it to continue. A fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed, and I wouldn’t mind another scrap or two for a good cause before I’m a memory. Who knows, maybe I’ll get another round. And maybe I won’t. So be it. I’ve lived in this wondrous land for most of eight decades, and I’ve had enough good fights and good company in her service to satisfy even my restless nature, a few of which I relate in the pages that follow.
Who am I to complain? I’m the luckiest man on earth.
John McCain, Cornville, Arizona
ON AN ORDINARY NOVEMBER MORNING in Phoenix, sunny and warm, Cindy and I walked the two blocks from our building to the nearest Starbucks. We stood in line with other early risers, and made our purchases. We walked back to our condo, coffees in hand, and got ready to drive to our place in Northern Arizona, where we go to rest and relax in good times and bad. Friends would join us there for a few days, and our conversations would inevitably return now and again to the intense experience we had just shared. But whenever it looked like we were about to dwell at length on that subject, I would steer the conversation in another direction, toward the future. And that morning in Phoenix, we were left entirely to ourselves, just another couple in need of their morning coffee, which made for a welcome change.
The night before, I had conceded the election to the man who had defeated me and would be our forty-fourth President, Barack Obama. After I had left the stage, Mark Hughes, the agent in charge of my Secret Service detail, started to brief me on the schedule and security procedures for the trip north. The Secret Service customarily continues to protect defeated presidential candidates for a little while after the election. I suppose they worry some fool might think the losing candidate deserved a more severe sanction than disappointment. I thought it unlikely, and while I regretted losing the election, I did not expect to regret recovering autonomy over decisions about where I would go and when and with whom. Wherever the hell I wanted, I thought to myself, and the notion brightened a day that might otherwise have been spent contemplating “if only.”
If only we had done this. If only we hadn’t done that. I intended to leave those questions to reporters and academics. They were unproductive. I still had a job, a job I enjoyed and looked forward to resuming. And, as I said, I looked forward to resuming the routine habits of a man without a security detail: opening doors, driving my car, walking to a coffee shop. Being at liberty. Having spent more than five years of my life in prison, I tend to appreciate even the more mundane exercises of my freedom more than others might.
Mark Hughes had done a fine job supervising my protection, as had Billy Callahan, the agent in charge of my other Secret Service detail, which alternated weeks with Mark’s crew. All the agents protecting Cindy and me, and my running mate, Sarah Palin, and her family, had been consummate professionals and had at my repeated requests exercised as much restraint as circumstances and good sense allowed. I was appreciative and grateful. But that didn’t stop me from taking a little pleasure in interrupting Mark’s briefing.
“Mark, my friend, you guys have been great, and I appreciate all your concern and hard work. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. But tomorrow, I want all of you to go home to your families like I’m going home to mine. I’d appreciate a ride home tonight. Then we’ll say goodbye, and we probably won’t see each other again.”
Mark was accustomed to my chafing at restrictions imposed on my independence, and did not argue. He smiled, and said, “Yes, sir.” I liked him all the more for it. We said goodbye that night. And the next morning, Cindy and I walked to Starbucks without any more protection than a little sunscreen. An hour or so after that, I was happily driving north on Interstate 17, a free man at last.
It had been an exhilarating and exhausting two years. And though almost every defeated candidate insists the experience was wonderful and satisfying, I imagine I was only slightly less pleased that it was over than was President-elect Obama. Don’t get me wrong, I fought as hard as I could to win, and I really don’t enjoy losing. We had triumphant moments, and deeply touching experiences in the campaign. We had disappointing experiences as well, and days that were blurred by adrenaline fueled activity and stress. It was like drinking from a firehose all day, every day, especially in the months between the party conventions and Election Day. But it had been for the most part a wonderful experience.
While some might find it odd, the part I had enjoyed the most were the days when l was again an underdog for the Republican nomination. I’m not sure why, but my enjoyment of a fight of any kind is inversely proportional to the odds of winning it. And in July of 2007 the odds that I would win the Republican nomination for President were starting to look pretty long.
I had formally announced my candidacy in April, but the campaign had been under way for months before then. I had started out as the presumed front-runner for the nomination, and my friend Hillary Clinton, whom I had gotten to know and like while serving with her on the Armed Services Committee, was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Her status would last a bit longer than mine. We had built a front-runner’s campaign with a large and experienced staff and a big budget. Much too big, it turned out. We were spending a lot more than we were raising. I’m not the most prodigious fund-raiser, to be sure. I don’t mind asking people for money, but I don’t really enjoy it, either, and I certainly wasn’t as good at it as was my principal rival for the nomination, Governor Mitt Romney. I suppose it didn’t help matters with many donors that I was the leading Republican proponent of limiting campaign donations or that I was inextricably tied to the deeply unpopular surge in Iraq. My support for comprehensive immigration reform was proving to be a liability as well, although majorities of Americans then and now support its provisions. I had sponsored an immigration bill that year with Ted Kennedy. The bill was as unpopular with some conservatives as Ted was. Some of the other candidates, particularly Mitt, were already making an issue of it, and it was starting to generate grassroots opposition to my candidacy.
Whatever the reasons for my failure to outraise the competition, our spending should have been more in line with our financing. We shouldn’t have assembled an operation with as big a payroll and expenses as we had until my front-runner status was earned by winning primaries. In the spring and early summer of 2007 it was based on not much more than the fact that I had been the runner-up for the nomination in 2000, and was at the moment better known nationally than Governor Romney.
I was, to put it mildly, unhappy with my situation and considering what to do about it when I left for an overseas trip in early July. The whole thing just didn’t feel right to me. I felt as if I was running someone else’s campaign or pretending my campaign was something it wasn’t or shouldn’t have been. I had enjoyed my experiences as the underdog in the 2000 Republican nomination race partly because hardly anyone expected me to win and I felt as if I had nothing to lose. Then we caught fire in the fall of 1999, won the New Hampshire primary in a landslide, and had a rocket ride for a couple months, losing South Carolina, winning Michigan, before crashing in the Super Tuesday primaries. I left the race having outperformed expectations, possessing a much bigger national reputation, increased influence in the Senate, and an abundance of truly wonderful memories. Not bad for a defeat.
Before I made the decision to run again, I had nagging doubts that I mentioned frequently to aides that we weren’t likely to bottle lightning twice. Compounding my concern over spending and the direction of the campaign in 2007 were my concerns about the surge in Iraq, which preoccupied me more than the campaign did. There had not been many advocates in Congress, even among Republicans, for President George W. Bush’s decision to surge troops to Iraq to run a counterinsurgency under the command of General David Petraeus.
The war had been almost lost in 2006. A Sunni insurgency had grown much stronger as it claimed more territory, and more Iraqis and foreign fighters were joining its ranks. Shia militias were working with Iran to terrorize Sunnis and, when the spirit moved them, to kill Americans. They operated practically unfettered in some neighborhoods. We were obviously losing ground and were at risk of losing the war. That reality wasn’t altered by repeated assurances from senior commanders in Baghdad and from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the American effort in Iraq was meeting all its targets (principally, the number of Iraqi troops trained, which proved as useless as a measure of success as body counts had in Vietnam). And a majority of the American people, which grew larger by the day, wanted us to get out.
I had been advocating for a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq since August 2003. I had lost all confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld’s willingness to change what clearly wasn’t working, and I said so. To my and many others’ relief, President Bush asked for his resignation in November 2006. Knowing the President was actively considering the idea, I had urged for months that we surge thousands more troops to Iraq. I knew it was a decision that some officials in his administration opposed, that Democrats and more than a few Republicans would strongly criticize, and that most of the American people would not agree with. They had already punished Republicans for Iraq in the 2006 midterm election. They would likely want to rebuke us again in 2008, and that probability would loom larger as casualties spiked in the first months of the surge.
President Bush knew all this as well or better than I did. Good man that he is, I knew he was deeply pained by the loss of Americans he had sent to Iraq. He knew that if he decided to order the surge the situation would get worse and more Americans would die before it got better. He knew there was no guarantee it would succeed.
We had gone into Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, and destroyed the odious Saddam Hussein regime. Bad tactics, a flawed strategy, and bad leadership in the highest ranks of uniformed and civilian defense leadership had allowed violent forces unleashed by Saddam’s destruction to turn Iraq into hell on earth, and threaten the stability of the Middle East. The situation was dire, and the price that we had already paid in blood and treasure was clear. But we had a lot at stake and we had a responsibility to attempt one last, extremely difficult effort to turn it around, to test whether a genuine counterinsurgency could avert defeat. The President chose to do the right thing, and the hardest. I imagine it was a lonely, painful experience for him, and I admired his resolve. I admired also his choice to lead the effort, General David Petraeus.
I believed that we should have responded to the insurgency at its inception, and I was increasingly convinced with every month that followed that only a full-fledged counterinsurgency, with all the force it required, had any chance for winning the war. But I didn’t know in late 2006 whether or not the situation was too far gone to salvage. Advisors whose counsel I trusted believed it still could be won. General Petraeus believed it could be. But none of us felt as confident about the outcome as we would have liked, and we knew most Americans believed we were wrong.
Five additional Army brigades were deployed to lraq, and Marine and Army units already in country had their tours extended, providing just enough force to support a counterinsurgency. The numbers of Americans killed or wounded in the first months of 2007 increased substantially, as additional forces arrived and fought to take back territory from Sunni insurgents and Shia militias. For the first time in the war on a large scale, they held the ground they took and provided security for the affected populations. The spike in casualties was expected, but it was hard not to worry you were needlessly sending young kids to their death in a war that had been a mistake. You couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the best thing now was to cut our losses. But I believed our defeat would be catastrophic for the Middle East and our security interests there as terrorists and Tehran gained power and prestige at our expense. And I was worried about the humanitairian implications of our withdrawal, fearing that the raging sectarian war might descend into genocide. Of course, if the surge failed, there would be nothing we could realistically do to prevent that defeat or prevent history and our own consciences from damning us for having made this last, costly effort.
So, as I considered what to do about my campaign, I did so recognizing that I would be spending more time and energy focusing on the issue that was likely to cost me votes. Nowhere was that likelier to be the case than in my favorite state after Arizona, New Hampshire, scene of my 2000 landslide win. In the 2006 election, Democrats had swept almost every state and federal contest in New Hampshire, a Republican wipeout blamed on voters’ deep dissatisfaction with the war. There was no credible scenario in which I could win the nomination without winning the New Hampshire primary, as I had in 2000. And even Granite State voters who had supported me seven years before and who still liked me were not pleased with my support for the war. It was increasingly apparent that many of them would express their displeasure by voting for a candidate other than me.
Anxious about the surge, upset with the state of my campaign, increasingly aware of the extent of the challenge before me, I was in a bad frame of mind that summer. My uncertainty about what to do only aggravated my condition. There have been very few times in my life when I have felt I might be in a predicament that I could not eventually escape. But I had serious doubts that I could win an election and maintain my position on Iraq. In fact, I was beginning to ask myself if I should even be trying. And that was my attitude as I departed with my friend Senator Lindsey Graham for a long-scheduled trip to Iraq, leaving decisions about how to repair my campaign or even whether to continue it for my return.
On the flight over I confided to Lindsey my unhappiness with the campaign, and we discussed what I ought to do about it. I told him I was leaning toward getting out of the race. I wasn’t sure I could win. I wasn’t sure I wanted it badly enough to do what I had to do to win. We were broke. Unlike our merry little band of insurgents in 2000, factions had formed in the campaign, and they were sniping at each other in the press. Old friendships were becoming rivalries. It was an increasingly joyless experience, and I had begun to worry that it would ultimately prove pointless. Lindsey thought it was salvageable, that we could downsize, and fight more like a challenger than a front-runner. If nothing else, that would feel more natural to me. But I was skeptical. I would need to raise a lot more money to run any kind of serious campaign, and that would get harder, not easier, as donors saw us cutting payroll, shedding talented staff, and closing state offices six months before the lowa caucuses. We were about to become in the eyes of the press and donors the first casualty of the 2008 Republican nomination race.
The worst violence had started to subside by the time of our July visit to Baghdad, which strengthened our faith that the surge could succeed. Casualties had peaked in May. The number of killed and wounded declined every month thereafter. General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker and their staffs briefed us on the military and political gains that had been made since our last visit. We could see for ourselves that things were improving. There were visible signs of progress almost everywhere in Baghdad. Dangerous neighborhoods had been quieted, commercial activity was resuming. There wasn’t enough progress to convince you that victory was assured. Far from it. But it was enough to think that maybe, to quote Churchill, we were at the end of the beginning. I was more hopeful that the decision I had long advocated would not end up sacrificing the lives ransomed to it in a failed effort to rescue an already lost cause.
The experience that made the biggest impression on me was a ceremonial one. General Petraeus had asked us to participate in an Independence Day event at Saddam’s al-Faw Palace at Camp Victory that included the reenlistment of over 600 soldiers and the naturalization of 161 soldiers, mostly Hispanic immigrants, who had risked life and limb for the United States while they waited to become citizens. Some of these soldiers, the reenlisted and the newly naturalized, were on their second and third combat tours. Some of them had just had their current tour extended. Most were kids, of course, and some of them had spent two or three years of their short lives living with fear and fatigue, cruelty and confusion, and all the other dehumanizing effects of war. They had seen friends killed and wounded. Some had been wounded themselves. They had seen firsthand the failed strategy that had allowed the insurgency to gain strength, and had risked their lives to reinforce what they knew was a mistake. They had retaken the same real estate over and over again. They had conducted raids night after night looking for insurgents and caches of arms. They had been shot at by snipers and blasted by IEDs, and buried friends who hadn’t survived the encounters, while month after month the situation got worse. And here they were, re-upping again, choosing to stay in harm’s way. Most of them, it appeared, were excited to be finally doing something that made sense, taking and holding ground, protecting and earning the trust of the locals. Lindsey and I spoke at the ceremony. We were awed by them. It was hard to keep our composure while witnessing that kind of courage and selfless devotion to duty. And it was all the harder after General Petraeus recognized the sacrifice made by two soldiers who had planned to become naturalized citizens at the ceremony, and were now represented by two pairs of boots on two chairs, having been killed in action two days before. “They died serving a country that was not yet theirs,” Petraeus observed.
I wasn’t the only person there with a lump in his throat and eyes brimming with tears. I wish every American who out of ignorance or worse curses immigrants as criminals or a drain on the country’s resources or a threat to our “culture” could have been there. I would like them to know that immigrants, many of them having entered the country illegally, are making sacrifices for Americans that many Americans would not make for them.
The ceremony was one of the most inspirational displays of genuine loyalty to country and comrades I’d ever witnessed, and I’ll never forget it. On our return flight, Lindsey and I again discussed my political predicament and what to do about it. But I had decided before we boarded the flight that whatever I was risking by remaining a candidate, which wasn’t much more than embarrassment, it was nothing compared to what those kids were risking and the cause they were fighting for. I decided to stay in the race.
We had to downsize substantially. Many staffers left of their own accord and others involuntarily. We closed our operations in a number of states.
We borrowed money to keep the thing going. We developed a “living off the land” strategy that relied on debates and other free media opportunities to get out our message. We couldn’t afford to pay to advertise. And we had to adjust our expectations accordingly. I wasn’t able to run campaign operations with paid staff in as many primaries and caucuses as we had planned. We were going to have to downplay our involvement in the Iowa caucuses, as we had eight years before, and bet it all on New Hampshire again. We would be active in the states that immediately followed New Hampshire, Michigan, which was Governor Romney’s native state, and South Carolina. We knew we would have to win at least one of those to have a decent shot at winning the Florida primary. Whoever won Florida would have the most momentum going into Super Tuesday, when twenty-one states would hold primaries or caucuses. But for all practical purposes it was New Hampshire or bust for us again. There wasn’t a way to win without it.
I made one other commitment. I wouldn’t just stand by my position on the surge, I would make it the centerpiece of our campaign, arguing for its necessity and predicting its success if sustained, a message that many New Hampshire voters did not welcome. I couldn’t win the nomination without winning New Hampshire. I probably couldn’t win New Hampshire if I continued to support the surge. But I was going to make defending the surge my principal message in New Hampshire. An underdog again.
My very first campaign stop after returning from Iraq was in Concord, New Hampshire, where I was scheduled to deliver a speech on Iraq. Before we left, I planned to speak in the Senate about the progress Lindsey and I had witnessed and the necessity of sustaining the surge beyond its difficult first months. Before the speech, in difficult conversations with senior staff, I ordered the downsizing that necessitated staff departures, provoked bitter feelings between former colleagues and angry recriminations in the press, and spawned hours of political prognostication that our campaign was for all practical purposes “a corpse” as my days as a front-runner came to an abrupt and messy end.
I didn’t have an elaborate response to the situation. Rick Davis, my campaign manager, was working on a plan to run a smaller campaign, and find the money for it. I decided the best thing I could do was to put my head down and plod through the next few weeks. I’d like to say I ignored the skepticism and mockery directed my way. But I heard it and read it and felt it. I didn’t like it but I didn’t let it intimidate me. I intended to go to New Hampshire and make my case to people I had a pretty good rapport with even if they were no longer supporting me. If they didn’t buy it, so be it. I wouldn’t be President. I don’t want this to sound flip because it’s not as if I didn’t want to win. I did. I’m a very competitive person. But I just decided that if I was likely to lose and was going to run anyway, I shouldn’t be afraid of losing. I had something to say. I thought it was important that I say it. And I would see the damn thing through.
On a Friday morning in July, I boarded a flight to New Hampshire at Reagan National Airport with my youngest son, Jimmy, a Marine, who was about to deploy on his first combat tour, and my administrative assistant and co-writer, Mark Salter. No other staff accompanied me. Flights to Manchester, New Hampshire, in primary season are usually crowded with Washington reporters. Press accounts quickly proliferated that I had been spotted in much reduced circumstances carrying my own bag to the gate. I had carried my own bag before then. I almost always carried it, as a matter of fact (although it was another thing I was accustomed to doing for myself that the Secret Service would eventually relieve me of). I didn’t care that reporters remarked on it. The image gave them a handy metaphor for our humbled campaign. I kind of liked it.
When we arrived at the venue in Concord, which if I remember correctly was hosted by the local Chamber of Commerce, the room was congested with reporters, including some of the most well known and respected in the country. I knew most of them, and I liked many of them. A half dozen TV cameras were there to record the moment. Although we had announced I would be making remarks about the situation in Iraq, reporters, seeing what they thought was the chaos and confusion that beset a campaign in its death throes, suspected or hoped that I would withdraw from the race then and there. They were like crows on a wire, watching the unfortunate roadkill breathe its last before they descended to scavenge the remains.
I made my speech. It wasn’t a memorable one, I’m afraid. But it did not include an announcement that l was ending my campaign. Professionals that they are, none of the reporters present betrayed their disappointment that they had been denied their deathbed scene. Most of them believed I was a ghost candidate, who would sooner or later realize that he was not part of this world any longer. For my part, I would stick to my scheduled appearances for the time being while we sorted through tough decisions we would have to make about strategy, staffing, and financing. The next morning, I held a town hall meeting at the American Legion post in Claremont. Most of the questions were about Iraq. Many of them were skeptical, and a few hostile.
On a summer night a month later, I was halfway through a town hall meeting in Wolfeboro, and had answered the usual questions about the war, federal spending, immigration, climate change, veterans care, questions I got at every event. Nothing out of the ordinary had yet occurred when a middle aged woman stood and gestured to the staffer holding the microphone. When he handed it to her she started speaking in a quiet voice. When you’ve done as many town halls as I have, you can tell in an instant the people who are used to questioning candidates and those who are uncomfortable with public attention. Lynne Savage, a special education assistant in the local school system, and a mother, was the latter. I sensed as I called on her that she had something to say that would affect me. I thought it might be a criticism. She was standing just a few feet from me. Shy but purposeful, she prefaced her question by recalling that during the Vietnam War she had “proudly worn a silver bracelet on her arm in support of a soldier who was fighting.” Then she got to her point. “Today, unfortunately I wear a black bracelet in memory of my son who lost his life in Baghdad.”
My first thought in the instant she uttered her statement was that she would hold me responsible for her loss, and she would be right to do so. By my vote in support of the war and my support for the surge, I assumed a share of that responsibility, and a Gold Star mother was well within her rights to resent me for it. But she didn’t speak of resentment or accountability. She didn’t ask any questions about the war. She had only come to ask me if I would wear his bracelet, “so you could remember your mission and their mission in support of them.” The room was completely still. My emotions began to swell and I worried I would lose my composure. I managed to get out “I would be honored and grateful” before giving her a hug. “Don’t let his sacrifice be in vain,” she instructed me. I took the bracelet from her and read the name inscribed on it, Matthew Stanley. I asked how old Matthew had been. “Twenty-two,” she replied. “Twenty-two,” I repeated. My voice cracked a little as I thanked her for his service. All I could find the wit and will to say after that was, “Yes, ma’am, I will wear this. Thank you.”
Specialist Matthew Stanley was two months into his second tour in Iraq in December 2006 when an IED destroyed the Humvee he was in, killing him and four other soldiers. He was ten days shy of his twenty-third birthday and was still a newlywed, having married Amy the previous New Year’s Eve. I wore Matthew Stanley’s bracelet every day of the campaign, and I’ve worn it every day since. I’ll wear it for the rest of my life.
“Why not make a virtue of necessity?” Steve Schmidt, who was acting as a volunteer strategist for us, had proposed a few days before the Wolfeboro town hall. His pitch went something like this: You’re broke. You’re down in the polls. You’re not drawing crowds. The press has moved on. Why not get some of your POW buddies and other friends to travel with you while you hold small events all over New Hampshire, and make the case for the surge. Go to VFW and American Legion halls, to people’s backyards if you have to, and tell them you’re not quitting on the men and women we sent to fight for us in Iraq, even if it costs you the election. Voters like seeing politicians stick to their guns, especially if it looks like it’s going to cost them the election. Call it the “No Surrender Tour.”
It made sense to me. We began that September and traveled in vans and cars at first. Buses were expensive. Some of the earliest events were held in people’s homes, which weren’t exactly bursting with crowds of cheering people. I traveled with old pals from prison, Bud Day, Orson Swindle, and others, as well as my dearest friends in the Senate, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman. I got to say what I wanted to say, what I believed was important to say and true, ending every speech with what, depending on your point of view, was either a boast or a prediction: “I’d rather lose an election than see my country lose a war.”
Being an underdog with low expectations can be liberating and fun. The humor gets a little dark, but that’s often the most fortifying kind. I have a quote I jokingly attribute to Chairman Mao that I like to use in tough situations: “It’s always darkest before it’s completely black.” I remember Lindsey and I were excited when we arrived at a VFW hall one Friday night and found the place packed with people. “We must be catching on,” we congratulated ourselves, only to learn that it was fried fish night, an event so popular with the locals they were willing to put up with the annoyance of politicians interrupting their supper. We eventually got a bus, wrapped it in our new motto, “No Surrender,” and rolled along the highways of the Granite State, stumping for the surge and my struggling candidacy wherever we could find people to listen.
It worked. We slowly started to revive. The crowds grew modestly, my poll numbers improved slightly, and the press started paying a little more attention. I doubt reporters thought I was a serious contender for the nomination again, but they believed I might fight until the New Hampshire primary. I think most of them appreciated that I was a proven campaigner in New Hampshire. I also think most of them expected Governor Romney to win the expensive, labor intensive Iowa caucuses, and probably have enough momentum coming out of Iowa to beat me in New Hampshire, where he had a vacation home and was well known and liked.
A defeat in New Hampshire would surely force my exit from the race. We had to hit a triple bank shot to stay viable. I had to place respectably in Iowa without being seen to have made a major investment of time and money there. One of the other candidates had to win or come awfully close to winning Iowa so the press would declare Governor Romney had underperformed expectations. Then I had to win New Hampshire on the strength of a good grassroots organization, nostalgia for my 2000 campaign by independents who can vote in New Hampshire party primaries, respect for my open style of campaigning, taking all questions and abuse, and my willingness to tell people what they didn’t want to hear and still ask for their vote.
I like and respect Mitt Romney. I think he would have made a very good President. I liked him before we ran against each other and I liked him after we were finished running against each other. In between, I and my more demonstrative staffers worked up a little situational antipathy for the governor and his campaign. That’s natural, of course. Presidential campaigns are exhausting, stressful experiences, run on coffee, adrenaline, and fear, and when you need a little extra boost, resentment of your opponent can be a handy motivator. Mitt is an intelligent, accomplished, decent, convivial man, who is really good at raising money and looks like a movie star. Deep into the endless series of primary debates, I and the other candidates were looking a little worse for wear. Mitt always arrived looking as if he had just returned from a two week vacation at the beach, tanned, smiling, and utterly self-possessed. If you’re not constantly reminding yourself to behave like an adult, you might start getting a little pissed off at your opponent’s many fine attributes. That kind of childishness usually ends when the contest is over as it did with our campaigns. But when the game is on between very competitive people, something akin to trash talking to the press can happen, as was the case with us. Nothing below the belt, really, from either side, just jabs here and there, enough to make you want to, well, beat the other guy.
We had worked hard. We had a strategy we could afford. And we got lucky. Iowa worked out about as well as it could have under the circumstances. A late surging Governor Mike Huckabee, who had extensive support in Iowa’s evangelical community, the most influential and well represented bloc of Republican caucus voters, caught Mitt and a lot of the press if not by surprise (it was evident in the last rounds of polls) then unprepared for the magnitude of his victory. Huckabee ended up winning the thing by a nine point margin, which meant Mitt wouldn’t only be deprived of momentum coming out of Iowa, he would drop in the polls in reaction to the unexpected size of his defeat there. I had managed to come in a respectable fourth, only a couple hundred votes behind the third place finisher, my friend Fred Thompson. It’s all an expectations game. The press thought I hadn’t put in the time in Iowa and didn’t have a real organization there, but I had just enough of both to do well enough to avoid hurting myself in New Hampshire.
I wasn’t overconfident after learning the Iowa results, but I did think I was now the candidate to beat in the New Hampshire primary five days later. I had a small lead in most of the latest polls. Huckabee didn’t have much support there, but his win in Iowa had likely cost Mitt some of his support. So, as I heard the news from Iowa that night after finishing an event in New Hampshire, the guy who had come in fourth in a six-man field was, after the actual winner, the happiest candidate in the race.
I didn’t expect to win a blowout as I had in 2000. My lead in the latest polls was in the two to three point range, way too tight to get cocky. But I was confident enough to ignore my usual superstition about not discussing my primary-night speech before I knew whether we would celebrate a victory or concede a defeat. The victory I and just about everyone expected would be the biggest that night would likely belong to the candidate riding the most momentum out of Iowa and the biggest wave of enthusiasm. That was Senator Barack Obama, the eloquent newcomer to American politics, who had just defeated the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, in Iowa and given a victory speech that captured the imaginations of Americans who were tired of politics, including many first-time voters. He appeared unstoppable after Iowa. Everyone assumed he would win New Hampshire, too, and drive Hillary out of the race. I discussed with Davis, Salter, and Schmidt the right message for my speech that night, and we agreed I should begin by saluting Senator Obama’s historic achievement, and recognize what it meant to his supporters and to the entire country. I would also express my hope that should I be the Republican nominee, our contest would be conducted in a way that would impress Americans in both parties as respectful.
That sentiment wasn’t only a sincere wish for more civility in politics. The country wanted change. They wanted the biggest change they could get. Barack Obama was offering them change, and he had advantages I did not. He was not a member of the party in power, I was. He was young and cool and new to national politics. I was seventy one years old and had been a known commodity for some time, with a long record of votes and statements to criticize. He opposed the unpopular war in Iraq. I supported it. He would be the first African American to earn a major party’s presidential nomination. He represented change in his very person. I had to convince people I, too, was a change candidate. But the most effective means I had to convey that message was campaigning in ways that might appear novel and authentic to cynical voters. I intended to use my victory speech to start that effort.
When it became clear that night that I had managed a come-from-behind victory, beating Mitt by about five points, it was looking like Hillary might be doing the same. When the networks declared me the New Hampshire winner, the Democratic race was still too close to call, and we revised my speech accordingly. I began by noting I was too old to be called any kind of kid, “but we sure showed them what a comeback looks like.” I thanked the people of New Hampshire for hearing me out even when they disagreed with me. We were down in the polls and written off when we came here, I reminded them, “and we had just one strategy: to tell you what I believe.”
Unable to congratulate the winner of the Democrats’ primary, I paid my respects to the supporters of all the candidates, Republicans and Democrats, who “worked for a cause they believe is good for the country we all love.”
We had a long way to go. The Michigan primary was a little more than a week away. Mitt would be hard to beat there. South Carolina would be a close contest between Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and me. I needed to win one of them to continue. Winning both would be preferable, but South Carolina, the place where my rocket ride out of New Hampshire in 2000 crashed, loomed larger. Eight years before, I had stood on the steps of the Bedford, New Hampshire, town hall the night before the primary and looked out on a sea of faces. There were people crowding the streets and intersection, extending several blocks. It was thrilling, and I knew I was on the cusp of my biggest political triumph. It remains to this day my favorite campaign memory.
My 2008 primary win was not as heady as our victory in 2000. But I was deeply touched by it, and have had ever since a special affection for the proud voters in the first-in-the-nation primary. “These people have been so good to us,” I told Cindy that night. “I owe them so much.”
The next day, somewhere in Iraq’s Anbar Province, my son Jimmy helped dig an MRAP, a heavily armored personnel carrier, out of the mud in a wadi that had flooded in a downpour. He was knee-deep in the muck working a shovel, and sweating in the oppressive heat, when his sergeant walked over to him.
“Your dad won New Hampshire.”
“Yeah, keep digging.”
I laughed when Jimmy recounted the exchange for me when we were reunited some months later, and I laugh every time I retell it to friends. But as I have remembered it in the years that followed, and remembered, too, my worry then that my ambitions had exposed my youngest son to even greater danger, I’m moved to tears.
I RECEIVED A DECENT BUMP in the national polls following my New Hampshire win, and our fund raising picked up, although we still had to pay off the bank loan we borrowed in the summer to keep the campaign running. National polling leads can create a false impression that someone is a front-runner. We don’t have national primaries. The next contest was in Michigan on January 15, and Mitt and I were running neck and neck there. Michigan wasn’t do-or-die for me, but it was for Mitt. Huckabee and I had split the first two contests. Mitt had to get into the picture now or risk being written off by reporters and donors. South Carolina was four days after Michigan, and Mitt wasn’t competing there. I saw the chance to finish him off and secure a nearly invincible position by winning Michigan and beating Huckabee and Fred Thompson in South Carolina. I had upset George Bush in the 2000 Michigan primary, and believed I had a good feel for campaign…..
THE RESTLESS WAVE. Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations
by John McCain
get it at Amazon.com