When John McCain became the maverick we know today

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Capitol Hill in Washington last month. McCain has been diagnosed with a brain tumor after doctors removed a blood clot above his left eye.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Capitol Hill in Washington last month. McCain has been diagnosed with a brain tumor after doctors removed a blood clot above his left eye. AP

This column by Bill Manny was originally published July 24, 2017.

I was a minor witness to the formation of the John McCain that people lionize today.

In 1989, McCain got caught up in the collapse of an Arizona savings and loan. He was one of five senators bank owner Charles Keating gave money to, entertained in the Bahamas and flew on corporate jet trips. But the scandal intensified after the five met with S&L regulators on Keating’s behalf.

In the end of this seamy, tortuous story, McCain got a mild rebuke from his Senate colleagues but a major black eye on his ethics record. Also, in the end, he realized he’d been wrong. And he said so. Publicly and prominently.

I remember, in the midst of that mess, getting McCain on the telephone. I was a Washington, D.C., reporter for newspapers including the News-Sun in Sun City, a small paper in the Phoenix suburbs. I was a journalistic guppy swimming in a very big, very cutthroat pond.

These were the days before electronic archives, so the only web search I can do for my stories is to crawl into my spidery Boise attic. But what he said to me was similar to what he told the Arizona Republic.

“The appearance of it was wrong,” McCain said. “It’s a wrong appearance when a group of senators appear in a meeting with a group of regulators because it conveys the impression of undue and improper influence. And it was the wrong thing to do.”

I remember thinking what a remarkable thing McCain was telling me. I’d never really heard a politician talk like that before. Or change his behavior as a result.

People like to bemoan the poison in politics today, but as a naïve reporter arriving in Washington, D.C., from small-town Oregon in 1989, it seemed plenty poisonous to me. Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright was brought down by angry members led by Newt Gingrich. The S&L scandal had ravaged the economy, presaging the sub-prime mortgage scandal and recession a couple decades later. Gingrich soon came to power as Republican speaker, determined to repay decades of Democrats having treated minority Republicans like doormats. President Clinton would be impeached for lying about sex with an intern. I returned to Oregon at the end of 1993, discouraged by the angry, selfish, retribution politics that seemed to drive D.C.

The truth about biased journalists is that our first bias is toward politicians who like to talk to us. And McCain liked talking to reporters. On the other hand, Arizona’s Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini, also caught up in the Keating mess, gave me the impression that he couldn’t wait to be done talking to me so he could do something, anything, else.

McCain was accessible and attentive. Sun City readers were a small but potent bloc of reliably conservative retiree voters. McCain was a beloved war hero and in a safe seat. But the Keating affair made him the maverick.

He became the go-his-own-way senator, the Republican who cosponsored campaign finance reform with Democrat Russ Feingold, the one who challenged Senate leaders and presidents of both parties.

Was this conversion smart politically? Certainly. But I never doubted that it also was sincere.

A lot of people think that McCain betrayed his straight-talking principles when he got the presidential nomination in 2008. But he re-emerged as the truth-teller who inspires bipartisan respect, if not always affection.

In recent years, he’s been criticized as cranky and out of touch. In recent weeks, he’s stumbled in statements in Senate hearings. In recent days, I’ve had folks tell me on social media that he’s known for being mean to his staff. I have no doubt that he has a temper, but the McCain staffers I knew were loyal to a fault.

Anyway, I get the outpouring of well-wishes and kind words that journalists are sharing this week following news of McCain’s brain cancer. I like him for all the reasons you’ve read. He treated this young, not-very-important reporter as if I were asking questions for the Arizona Republic or the New York Times. That made an impression that remains with me 25 years on.

Bill Manny is the Statesman’s community engagement editor. Reach him at 208-377-6406. Email bmanny@idahostatesman.com; Twitter/Instagram: 208-377-6406, @whmanny.