On the Trail with John McCain: What I Learned on the 'Straight Talk Express'

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain waves from the front of his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus after stopping for coffee Oct. 30, 2008, in Tiffin, Ohio. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain waves from the front of his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus after stopping for coffee Oct. 30, 2008, in Tiffin, Ohio. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"It's been quite a ride," John McCain said in one of his books of his ever impatient, sometimes flawed, and always unscripted journey through a life in service to a "cause greater than oneself." That journey caught national attention aboard a campaign bus called the "Straight Talk Express."

I wasn't there for the christening of the bus, but spent a lot of time aboard it during McCain's two runs for the presidency. He lost the Republican nomination to George W. Bush in the 2000 primaries and lost the national election to Barack Obama in 2008.

The bus stops included endless early morning grip-and-greets at New Hampshire diners and countless no-holds-barred town hall meetings, where he'd get hit with conspiracy theories about fluoride in the water.

Then there was that time in backwoods South Carolina in 2000 when the bus almost didn't make it up the dirt road to an unventilated American Legion post where the Boy Scouts in the honor guard were passing out from the heat.

A Perpetual Underdog

During his runs, he was the perpetual underdog, always catnip to reporters, and his willingness to engage with the press and go off-message contrasted with the tightly controlled campaigns of other candidates.

It only added to his appeal. At times, he would seem surprised by the positive coverage and tell us, "Do you guys even know I'm a conservative?"

We would annoy his political guru, John Weaver, in 2000. The running jibe was, "Who needs your spin when we can just walk up to the candidate or sit next to him on the bus?"

The only aide he really seemed to need, at least in the early stages, was ace advance man Lanny Wiles, who appeared to be the only one who knew where the bus was supposed to go next.

Lanny always made sure there were enough donuts aboard in case we got lost, which we did one night, looking for a pizza joint in Mystic, Connecticut.

The same free-wheeling nature prevailed at the start of the 2008 campaign, but the atmosphere changed after McCain won again in New Hampshire. Access was limited, and the campaign took on a more traditional feel as advisers Steve Schmidt and Mike Murphy came aboard.

McCain knew, and we knew, that it was a two-way street. He was considered an outlier by the Republican establishment and the hard right, and never had the big-money funding for TV blitzes that could power through negative coverage.

Sure, he would rip us. Part of his usual opening at an event was to refer to the "Trotskyite hippie weirdo anarchists" of the media at the back of the hall, but it was just McCain being McCain. He never called us "enemies of the people."

'Gotta Talk Slow'

My turn in McCain's sights came somewhere in Pennsylvania. I was working for the New York Daily News at the time, and my desk was pressing for a local angle from the McCain campaign on the upcoming state primary in 2000.

As usual, I was clueless, but there was a brief gaggle on the tarmac with the candidate before boarding a plane. This was my shot. I jumped the gun and shouted out a question above everybody else who was shouting at him.

I don't remember what it was about -- probably something brilliant on what he was going to do about the subway fare, or maybe alternate side of the street parking. That would make the desk happy. I just recall that he turned to me with an amused look. I suspected that I was dead meat.

"Well, Richard," he began.

Not bad, I thought initially. He remembers my name. Then he pounced. He began talking extremely slowly to the point where somebody interrupted to ask if anything was wrong.

McCain said he was fine and then came the punchline: "Gotta talk slow when you talk to Marines."

I had had no idea he was aware I had served in the Marine Corps.

All I could do was applaud at what was another contribution to the usual banter that goes on between sailors and Marines. Some of it is even good-natured.

In his tribute to McCain, who was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the ranking member of the committee, noted that he had also occasionally been the target of McCain's inter-service jibes.

Reed was an Army Ranger and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. McCain would often begin committee hearings by warning witnesses that Reed had gone to a school that was far inferior to his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, and so might be a little slow on the uptake.

In a statement, Reed said that McCain's death was the nation's loss.

"America lost a true patriot and one of the most unique, hard-charging legislators in modern American history," he said. "I have lost a colleague I am proud to call my friend and chairman. I will miss his good-natured jabs at West Point, his fierce independence, and wise counsel."

Tough and Terse

While presiding over the committee, McCain was often tough and borderline rude to the generals and admirals who came before him on a range of issues from readiness and acquisitions to strategy.

In the several books he wrote with co-author and long-time aide Mark Salter, McCain admitted to a hair-trigger temper that could get out of hand and later cause him regret.

He was particularly tough on Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, the former Marine commandant, at a September 2016 hearing.

Dunford broke with the usual response of the high command to McCain's barbs, which was to absorb the criticism and pledge to do better. Several tense exchanges resulted.

Dunford infuriated McCain by calling the strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a "success."

"It is clear we have the momentum," he said.

McCain shot back, "So as far as you're concerned, we ignore the 400,000 dead and the six million refugees caused by [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad."

Upon McCain's death, the incident was forgotten.

"Through his tenacious and selfless leadership in the Senate, he fought hard to ensure our Armed Forces remained strong and had the support and resources needed to succeed when placed in harm's way," Dunford said in a statement. "While we mourn Senator McCain's passing, we are eternally grateful for his distinguished service to our nation, his advocacy of the U.S. military, and the incredible example he set for us all."

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general, said, "His was a life well-lived, one whose actions epitomized the motto of his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy: Non sibi, sed patriae: 'Not for self, but for country.' "

Life Aboard the Bus

Aboard the bus, McCain was usually available, although he would sometimes go silent when the campaign got personal, possibly fearing that his temper would get the best of him.

Once in 2000, the on-board TV began to work for a change. Local TV was airing a segment on a Republican fundraiser in Texas who was spreading false rumors about McCain's older sister, Sandy.

McCain had been in the back, jabbering with us about the previous event. He stopped talking and stared at the screen in disbelief. He stalked forward to the front of the bus and sat by himself for the rest of the trip.

In New Hampshire in 2000, McCain had shocked the Bush campaign by winning the primary handily. The next stop was the South Carolina primary, and it quickly turned ugly.

Those attending McCain events would emerge to find fliers on their windshields calling McCain the "Manchurian candidate," a term McCain detractors had used for years in dredging up outlandish allegations of how he had been coddled while a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam.

The fliers also mentioned his "little black baby," a reference to the McCains' adopted daughter.

I can't prove it, but I picked up vibes that McCain's advisers wanted him to hit back. McCain decided that he would not dignify the allegations with a response.

Following his loss in South Carolina, McCain said, "I will not take the low road to the highest office in this land. I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way."

Was that a self-serving dodge, as his critics maintained? Maybe, but McCain in 2000 also would never take the bait on a prime GOP target: Hillary Clinton.

Occasionally, he would be asked about something the then-first lady had said or done. He would always brush off the question. Bill Clinton was fair game to him, Hillary was not.

I had solo interviews with McCain years before he began running for president, and again after his unsuccessful bids for the presidency, but my most revealing time with him came aboard the bus in the company of two other reporters.

If it was going to be a long trip between stops, he would sometimes have two or three of us come up front and let us have at him for as long as it took. It was my turn after an event in midtown Manhattan in which he spoke about the threats facing the nation.

To the everlasting annoyance of my colleagues, I went first and asked him whether he had ever read Paul Fussell's seminal work on World War I, "The Great War and Modern Memory."

Maybe it was a gotcha question. I knew McCain had been an indifferent student at best at Annapolis and had the reputation of being a carouser. He frequently referred to finishing fifth from the bottom in his class.

It was also a backdoor way of asking a policy question, the kind editors hate, but I wanted to hear the thoughts of someone of his unique experience, who was running for president, on war and those called to fight in it, and where that all fit with the purpose of the nation as he saw it.

It turned into a tutorial on warfare and the policies that brought it about, but it was more about, as McCain put it, "How in the hell do we get to peace?"

I was surprised, but shouldn't have been, at his response. The indifferent student had plainly become an avid one and had worked hard to prepare himself for elective office.

Yes, he had read the Fussell book and referenced it to other works on the so-called "lost generation" of World War I. He was versed on the theories of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, and the implications of the Von Schlieffen plan and the Zimmerman telegram and the influence of the tank on land warfare.

He related Homer's Odyssey to the plight of veterans returning from battle, and cited numerous other works and studies to support his belief that the nation must never abandon the leadership role that had been thrust upon it.

His critics called him an interventionist. He accepted that. He never stopped talking until we reached the next stop.

A Fair Opponent

The last weeks of the 2008 campaign were bitter ones. He knew he was likely going to lose to Barack Obama, and the crowds coming to his events also knew it. It became nasty, but McCain tried to rise above it.

In recent days, the footage has resurfaced everywhere of the time he grabbed a microphone away from a woman who called Obama an "Arab." That was the least of it.

At his events, there was usually a warm-up act before he arrived -- a local talk-radio type or local politician to rev up the crowd. They were increasingly walking it up to the edge on Obama.

At a rally in the Philadelphia suburbs, I was sitting by myself in the press section while waiting for McCain to show up. The warm-up types were blasting away at Obama, but I was only half-listening. Then came a loud shout from the stands: "Kill the [N-word.]"

The Secret Service came running up to me, asking, "Richie, you see where that came from?"

I pointed to a section where I thought the guy was. I don't know if they ever found him. A similar thing had happened earlier in Wisconsin.

On election night in Arizona, McCain urged the nation to come together behind Obama in his concession speech.

Nicole Wallis, a former aide to Bush who worked on the McCain campaign and now is an MSNBC host, recalled the speech on air Saturday night and said she cried as McCain hailed the nation's first African-American president.

"This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight," McCain said.

"A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit -- to dine at the White House -- was taken as an outrage in many quarters," McCain said.

"America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth," he continued.

Carrying a Grudge

McCain could carry grudges against real and perceived slights. He could carry them for a long time, but they usually receded.

He once had one against The Arizona Republic. For years, he was furious over the newspaper's coverage of Cindy McCain's struggles with painkillers and refused to speak to the Republic's reporters.

At times, it became silly. During the 2000 campaign, he found out that a Republic reporter was aboard the bus and ordered her off at a remote gas station in California. But the storm passed, as it usually did with McCain.

At his death, the newspaper ran an editorial under the header, "John McCain Never Quit On Us -- Not On Arizona, the U.S. Senate, America Or The World."

The newspaper's editorial board wrote, "If you sat down with him to talk issues, it wouldn't take long before the conversation drifted to sports. And it is there you find the metaphor that best describes McCain: 'He left it all on the field.' Which is to say, he never quit on us."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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