WASHINGTON — Senator John McCain wasn’t interested in getting the last word on his decades at the center of American political life. He was interested in getting thousands of them.
In a new 380-page memoir written as he confronts brain cancer and his mortality, the occasionally ornery maverick Republican from Arizona looks back on a series of major episodes from both his own history and the United States’.
He recounts his presidential runs, his leading roles in fights over immigration, campaign finance, health care and foreign policy. He takes a few shots at President Trump, talk radio “blowhards” and House backbenchers. He says he would like Americans to “recover our sense that we are more alike than different.”
True to his nature, John McCain is not one to go quietly.
“It should be required reading for anyone who wants to lead in a democracy,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and Mr. McCain’s best friend in the Senate. He sees the book as a call to arms around the idea that “America’s values make us better than our enemies.”
Mr. Graham visited Mr. McCain on Tuesday in Arizona, where they watched their favorite western, one that features an idealistic senator: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Mr. Graham found Mr. McCain upbeat and gaining strength.
“I hope he has another run in him,” said Mr. Graham, reflecting a sentiment shared widely in Washington.
Written with his frequent collaborator Mark Salter, a former aide and longtime adviser of Mr. McCain’s, the book is titled, “The Restless Wave,” in a nod to the long naval tradition of the McCain family.
It is reminiscent of the 2009 valedictory “True Compass,” written by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who died of cancer shortly before its publication. The form of glioblastoma that claimed Mr. Kennedy and is now putting Mr. McCain in peril is just another of the ties between two larger-than-life figures in a Senate that has fewer and fewer of them.
In the pages of his memoir, Mr. McCain doesn’t surrender to the disease, but he clearly accepts that his time may be short.
“Like my friend Ted, I might have fought my last immigration battle,” Mr. McCain writes, noting that though he sponsored a new measure with a Democratic colleague, “I’m not as sure that I’ve sufficient time left to see it all the way through. That, alas, isn’t my call to make.”
One question arising from Mr. McCain’s illness and his extended absence from Washington is what will become of the Senate with fewer members with the force of personality, political standing and will to bring increasingly polarized lawmakers together on major issues?
Mr. McCain notes in his book that Mr. Kennedy “gave value no other senator had” when developing legislation because of his outsize influence on Democrats and his overall level of respect in the institution.
Mr. McCain achieved that stature, as well, as one of the few senators able to command the attention of members of both parties on big topics.
The absence of Mr. McCain’s voice is particularly notable this week with foreign policy moves such as the White House decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal as well as a debate over past C.I.A. torture — a topic that Mr. McCain can speak to like no one else because of his mistreatment as a captive in Vietnam.
He weighed in Wednesday night on Twitter, saying that the refusal of Gina Haspel, the nominee for C.I.A. director, to acknowledge that torture was immoral was disqualifying, but his statement probably didn’t have the same power it would have had Mr. McCain taken the Senate floor to deliver it surrounded by colleagues and televised on C-Span.
Casting about the Senate, it is hard to identify others who today hold similar potential to move colleagues away from hardened positions. Mr. McCain might not always triumph, but he knew how to force the issue on subjects many in the chamber would just as soon avoid for political reasons.
But even Mr. McCain struggled with the new tribal politics, tempering some of his more moderate instincts when he faced challenges from the right in his recent re-election campaigns.
It is only now, with no more campaigns ahead of him, that he is truly liberated from conventional political considerations. “I’m freer than colleagues who will face the voters again,” he says in the book. “I can speak my mind without fearing the consequence much. And I can vote my conscience without worry.”
That freedom was on vivid display over the summer when Mr. McCain played a deciding role in preventing Republican colleagues from repealing the Affordable Care Act. First, he returned from a draining cancer treatment to deliver a stirring speech for more bipartisanship. He recalls in the book how those remarks provoked tears from fellow senators even though “I had argued with every single one of them, and I’m certain I had offended more than a few of them.” (Fact check: definitely true.)
Days later, he cast a dramatic post-midnight, thumbs-down vote that blocked a desperate effort to deliver on a major Republican campaign promise by overturning the health care law.
“It didn’t feel that dramatic to me at the time,” Mr. McCain says. He admits to feeling bad about disappointing his fellow Republicans. “It was a hard vote that I didn’t make easily, but not one I would hesitate to make again.”
It was at its heart a vote for a return to what’s known in Congress as “regular order,” a less partisan, more civil and results-driven process during which lawmakers from both parties cooperate to produce a consensus product. Mr. McCain notes gleefully in the book that he was once attacked by an opponent as a “champion of compromise.”
“You’re damn right, I’m a champion of compromise in the governance of a country of 325 million opinionated, quarrelsome, vociferous souls,” he writes. “There is no other way to govern an open society, or more precisely, to govern it effectively.”
Mr. McCain, who has an explosive temper, has long been one of the more prickly members of the Senate. But as in his relationship with Mr. Kennedy, he was usually able to put aside hard feelings. For instance, he enjoyed multiple nasty exchanges over the years with Harry Reid of Nevada, the former Democratic leader, but says, “I could never quite sustain a permanent dislike for the guy.” As for Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, Mr. McCain said reports of friction between them are overblown (though Mr. McConnell did take his fight against his colleague’s signature campaign finance law to the Supreme Court).
Mr. McCain doesn’t seek sympathy and says he hopes those who mourn his passing, “and even those who don’t,” should lead “lives as lucky as mine.”
Most of Mr. McCain’s Senate colleagues consider themselves lucky to have shared their service with him and worry about the consequences of the loss of such a unique political figure.
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