John McCain’s Greatest Fear

A conversation with Mark Salter about the core tenet of the senator’s worldview: Always speak up. Especially in Donald Trump’s America.

John McCain in front of an American flag
Senator John McCain on the campaign trail in 2008 (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

Let me stipulate at the outset that I am like many journalists in my fondness for Senator John McCain; let me also stipulate that this fondness derives in part from happy memories trailing McCain through Hungary and Germany and Ohio and the Middle East; and I will further note that this fondness also derives from a belief that McCain represents, at his best, something larger than partisanship and mercantilism and cynicism and the advancement of narrow self-interest. (Suggested reading: Dana Milbank and Anne Applebaum on McCain’s meaning and legacy.)

I am also aware that McCain is a flawed man, a flawed thinker, and a flawed politician, though I am not so interested in enumerating these flaws, in part because they are, generally speaking, either minor, or borne of good intentions, or both, and in part, of course, because he is slipping away from us, and now is the time to focus on the useful things he has done, and the things that he won’t get to do. This latter category is the troublesome category, because McCain’s cancer comes at a particularly inopportune moment in the life of this country.

All of this is to say that the following conversation with McCain’s amanuensis, his longtime Senate aide Mark Salter, is not an interview conducted by an unbiased observer. Today is the official publication day of what stands to be McCain’s final book, The Restless Wave, co-written, as all of his previous books have been, with Salter. McCain is not granting interviews; he is home in Arizona, fighting. Salter is speaking on his behalf, except, as you will see, where he is not.

The Restless Wave was not supposed to be McCain’s last book; it was meant, Salter told me, to focus mainly on foreign policy; more specifically, it was meant to be a corrective to the quasi-isolationist, nativist policies of the man who reached the office McCain failed to win. But when McCain was diagnosed with cancer, the emphasis shifted a bit, and so parts of The Restless Wave are elegiac and gentle, a thoughtful last testament of a man not known for introspection and stillness. (Only God, “The Navy Hymn” suggests, can calm the restless wave.)

In the conversation below, Salter and I discuss foreign policy, and the many ways in which McCain differs from Donald Trump. Salter, who, like McCain, is not gifted at self-censorship, says that Trump is notable for “his cruelty, his inhumanity,” and his “utter absence of empathy.”

At one point, I asked Salter about whether McCain inadvertently opened Pandora’s box by placing Sarah Palin on the 2008 presidential ticket. He issued an adamant no. “The pathologies, the social trends, the media trends, the way Americans communicate with each other and interact with each other,” he said. “All this was coming and Sarah Palin had zero to do with any of this.”

I also asked Salter about reports that McCain has asked former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to eulogize him. Salter, who was offended that such information leaked to the press, said that McCain thinks deliberately about ways to buttress democratic habits and a common civic culture. “One of things McCain says in this book, and something he would like the country to appreciate better, is that we have so much more in common than we have that divides us,” he said. “George Bush and Barack Obama defeated him. He knows this. But he knows that they are fellow Americans with the same values and interests that he shares. He may disagree with how they served those values and interests, but he knows that we are all Americans.”

Here is our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity:

Jeffrey Goldberg: How’s he doing?

Mark Salter: The fight has not gone out of him at all. Or the humor.

Goldberg: He’s still cracking jokes?

Salter: He’s still cracking jokes. He was cracking jokes with his nurses. And this has been going on a while, so nurses come and go and new ones come who don’t appreciate that his humor is almost entirely based on sarcasm. You have to tell them that he’s kidding sometimes.

Goldberg: So, we’re in a situation right now in which much of what John McCain stands for is under assault: American greatness in the form of a very assertive foreign policy. Democracy promotion. Promotion of human rights. The shining city on a hill. All of this is kind of like ash right now.

Salter: The longer we can hear his voice, the better off we’ll be. He’s an American patriot. He served his country in uniform and in office. And he’s a man of the West. When he’s defending American interests and American values in the world, he’s defending the Western liberal international order that this country has superintended for 75 years. But he believes that all this will survive this moment.

Goldberg: He does?

Salter: Yeah, I think he does. I mean, it’s under challenge. It’s not just here. You see this sort of rollback going on in Hungary and in Poland. But, yes, I think he thinks it will. I think he’s optimistic about it because this model has delivered more prosperity and freedom for more people than any other, at any other time, in history.

Goldberg: But his whole legacy is under threat because of a president of a type he just doesn’t get.

Salter: It’s under threat from a host of things. And the current administration—there are people in this administration that McCain will closely identify with as defenders of the Western international order. Obviously, Secretary Mattis, Secretary Pompeo. He thinks they get it.  What McCain has done, as others did for him, was that he took a lot of people who were their first term in the Senate or in the House, and he took them overseas, to show them to the world. When McCain goes overseas, he’s treated on par with a head of government, and he gets to see prime ministers and presidents.

Goldberg: I’ve been to Munich with him; he’s like the mayor of the security conference.

Salter: Exactly. So he put together these coalitions, almost always bipartisan, and very often he would pick out new members of the body and introduce them to all the people he knew overseas. This is what Scoop Jackson did for him and John Tower did for him. Mo Udall would do this.

Goldberg: Where are the Mo Udalls and Scoop Jacksons today? A lot of people who have tracked McCain closely over the years are struck by the fact that we’re in a Last of the Mohicans situation now.

Salter: Well, you know, they’re there.

Goldberg: They’re not there.

Salter: They are. You can certainly see them in the Senate. I think they’re there in the House. It’s just that the guys that get all the attention in the House are the Freedom Caucus guys. I assume there are statesmen in the House. I know they’re in the Senate. You can see it in the way they talk or the way the Senate Intelligence Committee compares to the House Intelligence Committee. The Senate is operating sort of normally. Devin Nunes and company have literally destroyed the reputation of the House Intelligence Committee, but hopefully it’ll come back some day when Nunes moves on to something more suited to his talents. But the Senate side is still like that.

Goldberg: Stay on the president here. McCain disagreed with Obama on many things but he recognizes him as a responsible, thoughtful person.

Salter: Yes.

Goldberg: But McCain talks about Donald Trump as if he’s from another planet.

Salter: There are things Trump has done that McCain sees as improvements on the Obama record. Trump sent arms to Ukraine, he responded to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. But on the other hand, I know that McCain was viscerally—distraught is not the word—angered when Trump had that throwaway line, that classic Trump throwaway line, about how the U.S. thinks it’s so innocent. That terrible moral-equivalence argument.

Goldberg: It upset him more than the “I like people who don’t get captured” line?

Salter: Yes. I remember calling him right after that because of course I was spitting mad about it. And he understood it would make Trump look bad, not him. It’s an idiotic thing to say, obviously.

Goldberg: On the spectrum of American idealism, Trump is actually farther away from McCain than Obama, and certainly Hillary Clinton.

Salter: Hillary, certainly. His disagreements were very numerous with Obama—he thought Obama was suspicious of America’s role in world leadership, and he thought he was way too reluctant to criticize the Iranian regime during the Green Revolution. McCain obviously thought Obama’s policy in Syria was a moral failure. But Trump? I don’t know. He reacts ignorantly when he makes comments like the ones he makes about the world and America’s role in it. My opinion of where McCain and Trump differ is that John McCain believes in American exceptionalism and Donald Trump does not.

Goldberg: Define American exceptionalism.

Salter: We are a collection of ideals and we are meant to live by these ideals, and to conduct ourselves according to these ideals. Which is why McCain opposed waterboarding and Donald Trump says he wants to do worse than waterboarding.

Goldberg: What frustrates McCain more: Putin’s existence, or the fact that some Americans don’t understand Putin’s nature?

Salter: The latter. There’s always a Putin somewhere in the world, and you’re meant to oppose them with all the skills God gave you. You should try to be a righteous person about these things.

Goldberg: What happened inside the Republican Party? Was choosing Sarah opening Pandora’s box? Does McCain blame himself at all for putting Palin forward?

Salter: He’s never had an unkind word to say about Sarah Palin privately or publicly. He put her on the ticket, he asked her to do it, he doesn’t regret picking her. Donald Trump would have happened if Sarah Palin had never been anything other than the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. This was coming. The pathologies, the social trends, the media trends, the way Americans communicate with each other and interact with each other. All this was coming, and Sarah Palin had zero to do with any of this. None of the viciousness, or the cruelty of Donald Trump—my words—his cruelty, his inhumanity, the utter absence of empathy—this has nothing to do with Sarah Palin. She drew big crowds, but her rallies, her speeches, were nothing like his.

Goldberg: Why doesn’t a part of the right in this country like John McCain?

Salter: This started generally over campaign-finance reform. The really crazy shit started all the way back in the early ’90s, when he helped normalize relations with Vietnam. McCain was offended because he realized early on that there were people who were either a little crazy or more likely running low-rent cons convincing family members who had lost guys over there who were still MIA that they might still be alive. And that offended McCain. And he went after them. You know, the guy I got into a fistfight with had three booths down at the Vietnam War Memorial, where he sold T-shirts. The people who worked there worked there for free. He had no license to have those T-shirt booths there and they were for profit.

Goldberg: You got into a fistfight with him?

Salter: He came into the office and wouldn’t leave and I tried to kick him out and he was a Green Beret. I mean, it was not my favorite experience. Anyway, there were a ton of grifters and McCain was just appalled by it because, as he put it, “The Vietnamese are perfectly capable of being cruel but they’re not just arbitrary. Why would they keep our guys?” This was the one thing that would have restarted the war. This was all pre-Pizzagate, pre-crazy-ass-Benghazi. McCain is a man of common sense. All this stuff was just nonsense. And then that’s when the Manchurian candidate stuff started, you’ll see it to this day, and the POW songbird stuff.

Goldberg: Are people on the right more susceptible to this than people on the left?

Salter: Well, I think we’re like 10 or 15 years ahead of the fever swamps on the left. But they’re out there. I mean, you’ve got Glenn Greenwald saying that McCain is a huge murderer, that he’s got enormous amounts of blood on his hands, I mean that’s crazy shit. And that guy is a respected journalist in some quarters, he’s got a million followers on Twitter. But that’s crazy fever-swamp shit. And they’ll come up with all sorts of nonsense to justify that.

Goldberg: Would there have been anything he could have done earlier in his career to stop this from happening on the right?

Salter: He never got panicky about the Rush Limbaughs of the world, because he knew it was all kind of a con. That if a guy with 15 million listeners tells his followers to call McCain’s office and tell him what an asshole he is, they’ll tie up the phones. But it won’t really have any effect on his future. He would not have done things that mattered to him if he worried. A lot of reform issues, campaign-finance reform.

Goldberg: Did McCain ever wake up one morning in recent days and say, “What happened to the Republican Party?”

Salter: I can’t answer for him. I don’t know. For me, yes, but I’m further along that spectrum than he is. I haven’t served as a Republican office holder for 36 years. I don’t necessarily feel any residual loyalty to the party. I think McCain does, and rightly so—he was the party’s nominee, and the party matters to him.

I think he’s worried about the kind of isolationism, the nativism that you see. He’s just different on this.

Goldberg: Very out-of-step with the times.

Salter: People have this view that McCain always wants to commit troops. Not the case. Arm them, if they need defensive assistance, and in the case of Syria, use American air power to carve out a safe haven. But the real thing with McCain is: Always speak up. Always speak up. Something he learned from Natan Sharansky—calling the Soviet Union the evil empire, as Reagan did, the political dissidents heard this. They heard it in jail. Sharansky always said that it mattered to them. So this is why McCain calls Putin evil.

Goldberg: This is the romantic notion, the For Whom the Bell Tolls quality of McCain’s life, that he’s Robert Jordan, the ill-starred romantic, standing up for the cause no matter what.

Salter: McCain’s personality and his history distinguish him from people. They always have. Someone once paid me a compliment about his first book, and I said, “You’d have to be an idiot to have screwed that story up.” The story tells itself. All I had to do was get the chronology right. It’s a larger-than-life story. And he is this guy—I described him as this romantic cynic, and it’s because he has seen the world at its true worst and its true best, in the same experience. When they thought he was going to die, they threw him in a cell with two guys, Bud Day and Norris Overly, and he remembers that he couldn’t get on the bucket so they had to wipe his ass for him. These rough-hewn tough guys were angels of mercy. This is a deep look into human nature that most people don’t get unless you’re in extreme circumstances like he was. That’s going make a lasting impression.

Goldberg: Do you think the Republican Party finds itself again?

Salter: Most of the American people are going to realize there’s never been a swamp like Donald Trump’s Washington. I mean, ever. Or at least not from the mid-20th century to the present. At some point, the fever’s going to break. I don’t mean that the pathologies that gave rise to him are over or cured. Those are trends that don’t have much to do with Trump. We’ve been heading in this direction for a while. Having said that, I think the consensus view in the Republican Party—and it will be assailed from the left and the right—but the consensus view will return to the views that McCain has always held. People with an ounce of common sense realize that, on a strictly utilitarian scale, the Western democratic order has delivered the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people than any order in the history of mankind, and it’s made the United States incomparably wealthy and powerful.

Goldberg: It’s been widely reported that both President Obama and President Bush will eulogize John McCain. One thing these two men share is that they defeated John McCain in his quest to be president. Is there a lesson in that?

Salter: First, whoever’s been talking about John McCain’s funeral is doing no one any favors. There’s no need for that right now, and the McCain family will announce any details about the funeral. But the general principle here is this: One of things McCain says in this book, and something he would like the country to appreciate better, is that we have so much more in common than we have that divides us. George Bush and Barack Obama defeated him. He knows this. But he knows that they are fellow Americans with the same values and interests that he shares. He may disagree with how they served those values and interests, but he knows that we are all Americans.