Another side to John McCain

“There are times when I can be as partisan as any member of the U.S. Senate – and just as combative,” John McCain told me in the fall of 1996, when he was poised to take the reins of the Senate Commerce Committee. “But this is just not the place for it.”

I was a young reporter for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal. My beat was the Federal Communications Commission, something of a Washington backwater. Except, at the moment, it wasn’t.

The FCC was in the process of writing rules to implement a landmark telecommunications law that would upend the telephone industry and potentially shift tens of billions of dollars around among local and long-distance carriers. The Commerce Committee had oversight.

I was interviewing the occasionally crusty Arizona Republican about any changes to the law the committee might try to make when Congress returned to Capitol Hill in January.

Only, he replied, if there was bipartisan support.

This after he had been the sole Republican senator to cast a vote against the measure.

His sense of statesmanship and his efforts to work across the aisle are rare today for sure. They’ve been recognized in an outpouring of condolences from members of both parties after he died last weekend of brain cancer. He was 81.

His record of service is well known: A decorated Navy fighter pilot whose A4-E Skyhawk dive bomber was shot down over North Vietnam. He spent a torturous 5 1/2 years in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” as a prisoner of war. Afterward, he served a stint in the House of Representatives followed by six terms in the Senate.He was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.

I was lucky to see a little different side of McCain — one that I think helps sum up the man.

As the telecom bill wound its way through Congress, I frequently relied on McCain aides to help me understand where things stood in the process so I could write about it for policymakers, Wall Street and investors.

I developed a rapport with one of his aides and invited the aide to the National Press Foundation dinner in the fall of 1996, to sit at one of the Wall Street Journal’s tables. The NPF dinner, at the Washington Hilton in DuPont Circle (still widely referred to as the “Reagan Hilton,” where President Reagan was shot) is one of those oft-derided Washington black tie events where journalists and politicians mix and the alcohol flows freely.

During the dinner, I asked the aide how he came to be working for Sen. McCain. He described being a young punk-rocker interested in politics when he went to McCain in search of employment. The senator hired him, seeing the capable young man behind his punk façade.

You can’t read a news story or watch TV without hearing McCain described as a maverick and an occasional hothead. But I always clung to this story as an example of the real maverick in McCain’s spirit. He judged people as individuals. He was able to work with Democrats. He was able to work with Republicans, even when he disagreed and voted against party lines. He put a punk-rocker on his staff.

McCain was sometimes crotchety, usually funny and always seemed to try to do the right thing for his country — even when he went against his party. We need more like him. He will be missed.

Scott Ritter is The Day's newsroom production manager. He spent nearly a decade at the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones News Service, writing from Washington and Houston.  

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