BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is off this week. I’m Bob Garfield.
Friday morning at 1:29, after seven years of conflict and drama, at long last came the denouement. Arizona Senator John McCain, having returned to the Senate from brain surgery for the decisive votes on the repeal of Obamacare, shambled across the blue Senate carpet and literally turned his thumb down on so—called “skinny repeal.”
The drama wasn’t incidental. McCain planned it that way, telling inquiring reporters Thursday to “wait for the show.” And the scene was, indeed, like a season—ending episode of West Wing because, even in the minutes leading up to the vote, he was letting his Republican colleagues, including the Vice President, petition him for support, although he had already informed Democratic leadership of his intentions.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: For an hour, McConnell comes in, goes out, various floor leaders doing the same. We can’t tell what’s happening and I’m hoping you can.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: — as they were talking, John McCain walked away and just sort of patted the Vice President on his hand and walked away and left him standing there. And it's just interesting body language.
DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he just kind of walked away, and the Vice President was like, okay.
DON LEMON: Okay.
RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: The Republicans are concerned. I mean, they are scurrying around. They’re trying to figure out exactly how to handle this situation.
BOB GARFIELD: It was the apparent end, not only for the GOP's quixotic repeal ambitions but very possibly McCain's legislative career. He must now return home to treat aggressive brain cancer and a prognosis that is not encouraging. If this is his final show, it was a McCain classic. After all, it was his vote on Tuesday that permitted the bill to come to the Senate floor, in the first place.
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered. I—will—not—vote—for—this—bill—as—it—is—today!
BOB GARFIELD: The turnabout, if that's what it was, was just the latest jagged detour on the route of McCain's “straight talk express.” The Atlantic’s James Fallows has ridden that bus for 35 years. Jim, welcome back to the show.
JAMES FALLOWS: Bob, nice to talk to you,
BOB GARFIELD: I compared Friday morning to the West Wing but it also had a kind of daytime soap opera vibe: identical twins, exact opposites, all the time switching places, and you don't know which is which.
JAMES FALLOWS: And, of course, you’re referring to the person of Senator McCain, himself, who’s had these different elements in his public career and his private persona for a very long time. And I'll say that, that I, as a person who has watched and admired the best parts of John McCain over the decades and also as somebody (full disclosure) who thought this bill was being rushed through, I was personally glad to see things end up on this note and not where they had been two days before.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so if there are two John McCains, over the years the press has paid very little attention to the twin brother who votes along straight party lines 90 percent of the time. We’re institutionally infatuated with the one who, every now and then, breaks ranks, as he did Friday morning. How did this love affair begin?
JAMES FALLOWS: I, I think there's a combination of factors here. One, of course, is John McCain's military and prisoner—of— war background, which anyone has to respect. Second, there have been a number of times in McCain's career when he’s at least said things that were out of the norm for politicians and said them with some cost. I mean, for example, I'm thinking when, during his 2008 campaign, when he was running hard against Barack Obama and one of his questioners in some town hall said — [CLIP]:
WOMAN: I, I have read about him and he's not, he's not, he’s uh, uh — he's an Arab.
JAMES FALLOWS: And McCain, somewhat inartfully said, “"No, ma'am, no, ma’am, he’s a, he's a – he’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues…
JAMES FALLOWS: Defending Obama at a time when he was not being defended. He’s known to be a loyal mensch—like personal friend to other people in public life. There is a famous story that Michael Lewis did, you know, decades ago about how when Morris Udall, once a great liberal champion in the Congress, was really disabled by Parkinson's disease and nobody even remembered him anymore, the only person who came to visit him was his ideological rival but personal friend John McCain. And there is that side to him.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Jim, because you are personally so – what do you call it – old –
JAMES FALLOWS: A mature observer of the Washington scene —
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] That’s what I meant!
JAMES FALLOWS: [LAUGHS] I think that’s —
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] You’ve known him since the ‘80s when you were in the Carter White House. Tell me about your impression of him at the time.
JAMES FALLOWS: During the Vietnam War and afterward, I was very much in the antiwar movement and was not for that Vietnam War, then or now, and what struck me about John McCain's entry on the scene as a Arizona politician and war hero in the early ‘80s is how much he wanted to find ways to reconcile the split feelings within the United States, pro and con the Vietnam War, and between Vietnam and the United States. And, and that was, again, something I think genuine for him. There was nothing he really had to gain for that. There were a lot of other people who were in the veteran community and also in the antiwar community who were quite hard edged and thought, no, there’s – these other people, in today's tribal sense. But McCain was not that way, and I think that is something that had a kind of magic in politics then: maybe this was somebody who could reconcile people in the way other great American leaders have done.
BOB GARFIELD: One, I think, nakedly hypocritical aspect of McCain's political life was his relationship with the religious right. He famously excoriated the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for having undue influence on parts of the electorate and warned the rest of the Republican Party, and I think he was pointing mainly at George W. Bush, not to pander to the outer reaches of American politics.
JAMES FALLOWS: Right. I think that John McCain's anger at extremism, and especially religious extremism, back in 2000 was well earned because famously in the South Carolina primary in 2000 when he was still a serious contender against George W. Bush, the Bush campaign used a lot of really nasty rile—up, the evangelical base, attacks on McCain that he was properly furious about. And so, if he was complaining about it at the time, that was a legitimate complaint. But when McCain had to rev up his campaign years later to run eventually against Barack Obama, he, like other petitioners in the GOP field, felt he had to court these people too.
BOB GARFIELD: But in the kind of classic McCain fashion, he doubles back and, once again, manages to seduce the media —
[THE DAILY SHOW CLIP]:
JON STEWART: Senator, what’s going on?
[CROWD CHEERS, APPLAUSE]
BOB GARFIELD: — by sort of becoming the butt of the joke. Here he is with Jon Stewart in 2006.
JON STEWART: I heard this crazy story that Senator John McCain is giving the commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s university.
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: (ON SPLIT SCREEN, LIVE FROM WASHINGTON)
Well, before I bring on my two attorneys, I’d like to –
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER, CHEERS]
JON STEWART: Don’t — don’t make me love you!
SENATOR McCAIN: I’d like to bring up a subject…
BOB GARFIELD: “Don’t make me love you.”
And yet, he did. He had such a string of conquests [LAUGHS] over the media.
JAMES FALLOWS: It’s true. And you know the famous Hollywood line, if you can fake authenticity, you've got it made. There’s something similar in politics: If you can fake self—deprecation, you've got it made. I think the press is more of a sucker for that than for anything else. And so, if you can seem to be self—aware, if you can seem to understand the preposterousness of what you're doing, which Obama did in a different way too — parallel point, this is not Donald Trump's strongest suit.
But if, if you – if you can, if you can seem be self—aware, you can go a long way, and, and McCain has done that.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, on the subject of that sort of cynicism and for the race against Barack Obama in 2008, there was one other kind of jaw—dropping McCain political decision that, you know, still kinda makes my head spin, and that is Sarah Palin, as his vice—presidential running mate.
JAMES FALLOWS: This was the role—of—the—dice reckless, just— being—another—desperate—politician—side of John McCain that I think will be the main anchor around his reputation, in a bad sense, of saying, this is the guy who did that and brought Sarah Palin, conceivably, within commander—in—chief range.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, but just as you're about to sort of dismiss him as another politician with a ready smile and a shoeshine, he'll do something that he absolutely doesn't have to do. For example, there was an appearance on Fox & Friends in 2013.
BRIAN KILMEADE: Well, listen to this video, Senator McCain, of a Syrian — it looks like a fighter, a fighter jet being shot out of the sky and listen to what they say afterwards.
GENERAL IDRIS: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar!
BRIAN KILMEADE: I, I have a problem helping those people out if they’re screaming that out after a hit.
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: You have a problem with that? Do you have, do you have — would you have a problem with an American Christian saying, “thank God, thank God”? That’s what it – that’s what they're saying. Come on. Of course they are Muslims…
BOB GARFIELD: John McCain, don’t make me love you!
JAMES FALLOWS: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so comes the Senate showdown Friday morning and McCain goes thumbs down. Was this, do you think, about the bill? Was it about payback to Donald Trump who, during the campaign, had questioned McCain's war heroism? Was it about open government and the end of Mitch McConnell's opacity? Or was it about McCain's legacy, not wishing to be seen, in the end, as two—faced but to have “maverick” in the history books and in the lead of every obituary?
JAMES FALLOWS: I assume there are elements of every part of what you’ve just described in his decision. You know, he cannot view Donald Trump without anything other than disdain, given Trump’s own public contempt for him on, on the campaign trail. He’s not been that close a friend of Mitch McConnell, who he seemed visibly to spurn during the late—night voting. And he must also recognize, for all of his jauntiness over the years, that he's not going to have that many more chances to make a big public decision. And I think the fact that Senator Hirono from Hawaii came in to speak passionately about what she was doing as a cancer patient in surviving this bill, his memory of Ted Kennedy, his close friend, who, after his diagnosis of the brain cancer, came to vote for the original Obamacare bill, his knowledge of Clair Engle, the senator from California who, back in the 1960s, came in from an almost terminal brain cancer to vote to end a filibuster against the Civil Rights Bill. I think John McCain must have sensed there — this is a chance to, if not end, at least to have this stage of his career be in a way he would like to be remembered and not the other.
BOB GARFIELD: In your view, is this redemption?
JAMES FALLOWS: It is a good thing for him to have done after, it must be noted, Senator Murkowski of Alaska and Senator Collins of Maine made his vote the decisive one by their, their standing with the bill and, of course, the other 48 Democrats and Independents who said they weren’t going to rush this through. And if this ends up to be the last major decision or choice he makes in his long public career, I think everybody who has admired the best in John McCain will be glad to see him making this choice.
BOB GARFIELD: Jim, thank you.
JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: James Fallows is the national correspondent for The Atlantic. His article on Senator John McCain is titled, “John McCain Makes His Choice.”
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, if you can't repeal Obamacare –
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Boy oh boy, they’ve been working on that one for seven years, can you believe that?
BOB GARFIELD: — how about using taxpayer money to destroy it?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, I said from the beginning, let Obamacare implode!
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.
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