Like many Americans, I find myself deeply saddened by the death of Sen. John McCain.
I knew it was coming, of course – we all knew – but still, I feel gut-punched by the loss. Not just because he was a war hero; not just because he served his nation in one capacity or another for six decades. But also, because he was, to the end, a champion of a free press.
Sure, those who covered him in his home state of Arizona, in Congress, and during his two presidential campaigns have plenty of anecdotes about how cantankerous he could be. By their accounts, McCain could flip in an instant from being charming and graceful to angry and vengeful.
He also, at times, found himself at odds with the broadcasting industry during his days as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
That said, despite whatever acrimony he may have sometimes felt toward the news media, he defended it consistently.
On a February 19, 2017, broadcast of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” McCain told moderator Chuck Todd, “I hate the press. I hate you, especially. But the fact is, we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital. If you want to preserve – and I’m very serious now – if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free, and many times adversarial, press.”
At the conclusion of another of the 73 times McCain appeared on the program, on April 2, 2006, McCain concluded his interview by telling then-moderator Tim Russert, “I haven’t had so much fun since my last interrogation,” referring to his time as a Vietnam War POW.
He said it with a smile.
In the last months of his life, McCain’s defense of press freedom began operating on steroids, even as his health was declining. In a January 16, 2018, Washington Post column, McCain carried out a full-frontal assault on President Trump’s anti-press vitriol. The senator wrote, in part:
We cannot afford to abdicate America's long-standing role as the defender of human rights and democratic principles throughout the world. Without strong leadership in the White House, Congress must commit to protecting independent journalism, preserving an open and free media environment, and defending the fundamental right to freedom of opinion and expression. … [F]reedom of information is critical for a democracy to succeed. We become better, stronger and more effective societies by having an informed and engaged public that pushes policymakers to best represent not only our interests but also our values. Journalists play a major role in the promotion and protection of democracy and our unalienable rights, and they must be able to do their jobs freely. Only truth and transparency can guarantee freedom.
Since his death August 25, many Americans of all political persuasions have heaped praise on McCain. He has been called the last “lion of the Senate.” Many journalists have wistfully recalled time they spent with him in the Capitol, on the campaign trail, or during some of his many trips overseas.
I only met the man once, very briefly, when I encountered him on September 24, 2008, in the lobby of the CBS Broadcast Center in New York, where I worked at the time. McCain had cancelled an appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” saying he had to hurry back to Washington to deal with that autumn’s deepening financial crisis. Instead, the senator had rushed to the set of the “CBS Evening News” to be interviewed by then-anchor Katie Couric.
Letterman was livid. He slammed McCain on his program that night, saying, among other things, “The poor guy is getting a little older,” and, “Somebody must have put something in his Metamucil.”
Letterman’s half-joking wisecracks about McCain’s age – he was 72 at the time – would go unanswered until October 17 of that year, when McCain did appear on the show and admitted, “I screwed up.” He then gave Letterman, referring to the host’s caustic jokes from three weeks earlier, the same line he had given Russert two years before: “I hadn’t had so much fun since my last interrogation.”
Also during that appearance, McCain – in the final days of a grueling presidential campaign – told Letterman, “I admire and respect Senator Obama. … He inspired America, [but] we have stark differences.”
Those comments foreshadowed what McCain would say less than three weeks later in his concession speech, on November 4, 2008:
Senator Obama and I have had, and argued, our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledged to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face. I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together; to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say, no association has ever meant more to me than that.
He would go on to serve, and attempt to unify, his country in the senate for nearly ten more years, until a particularly cruel kind of cancer finally won the last battle McCain would fight.
It is but one testament to McCain’s character that he asked the two men who defeated him in his presidential campaigns – former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush – to speak at his memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington.
Five days after McCain’s passing, his longtime friend, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), paid tribute to his colleague on the senate floor. He remarked at how McCain’s death has seemed to fuse – if only temporarily – the fissures of our nation. He aimed some of his comments directly toward journalists in the press gallery:
Sen. Graham and countless others have offered tributes to McCain that are much more eloquent than any I could deliver. Particularly stirring was McCain’s own farewell statement, released posthumously:
We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.
America has lost a statesman. Press freedom has lost an important advocate. It is a shame that it took his death to give us a reprieve from the venom that has poisoned political discourse in today’s America.
Thank you, Senator John Sidney McCain III.