There was no one like John McCain. But readers may come away from Mark Salter’s outstanding and frequently moving biography of the late Republican senator wondering if the absence of anyone remotely like McCain from our current politics says more about him or us.
Salter began working for the senator from Arizona as a speechwriter in 1989, served as his chief of staff from 1992 until the conclusion of McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, then continued on as his adviser and co-author. The two remained close friends, and Salter was with McCain when he died of brain cancer in August 2018 at age 81.
Other McCain biographies have offered more detailed histories of his early upbringing as the son and grandson of legendary Navy admirals, his headstrong youth and training at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, his combat service in the Vietnam War, and his five years of imprisonment and torture in Hanoi. The advantage of Salter’s account, “The Luckiest Man,” is that he was able, as McCain’s aide and confidant, to ask the senator over years of close observation about how these experiences shaped his character, outlook and politics. The answers he received weren’t always satisfying; Salter notes that McCain “was hard to explain, and he wasn’t very good at explaining himself.” But Salter’s psychological portrait of McCain is informed and convincing.
Salter is particularly adept at capturing McCain’s dualities, many of which sprang from the ordeals he shared with his fellow prisoners of war. Witnessing the best and worst of humanity helped make McCain both an idealist and pragmatist, as well as an unconventional, independent-minded senator who yet revered the Senate’s institutional traditions. Salter also relates how McCain’s combativeness went hand in hand with his generous ability to reconcile with his opponents, as when he led the effort to restore U.S. diplomatic relations with the Vietnamese government that broke his body if not his spirit. And although McCain held many conventionally conservative views about the desirability of limited government, he paradoxically sought to restore public faith in the credibility and capability of government. For a time, these qualities (some would call them contradictions) made him both a highly influential legislator and the Republican politician with the greatest appeal to Democrats and independents.
Salter’s recounting of McCain’s career, after a few jarring shifts in chronology, settles down to an engaging, fly-on-the-wall narrative. He deftly describes the episodes that influenced McCain’s political evolution, such as the disputes over telecommunications and tobacco bills that showed him the corrupting power of soft money, and the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 that convinced him that U.S. military power should be used to prevent crimes against humanity.
Salter doesn’t contradict the charge that McCain was a neoconservative, a word that doesn’t appear in the book. But he does make a strong case that “McCain’s empathy with oppressed peoples,” perhaps as a consequence of his own tribulations, “moved him to publicly champion their cause.” While the senator preferred using diplomatic and economic pressures against what he called “odious regimes,” Salter argues that McCain’s calls for military intervention usually occurred in cases where carefully calibrated efforts could “avert greater bloodshed and suffering.”
Salter takes his former boss to task for his mistakes, including his involvement in the Keating Five corruption scandal. McCain was one of five senators accused of exerting undue influence with federal regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a banker at the heart of the savings-and-loan crisis that unfurled in the late 1980s. The Senate Ethics Committee found McCain innocent of wrongdoing but scolded him for having exercised “poor judgment.” However, Salter also rebuts criticisms such as the claim that McCain’s quick temper made him impolitic. He doesn’t deny that side of McCain — who, even as a 2-year-old, had tantrums so intense that he would hold his breath until he passed out. But he does point out that McCain’s reputation for irascibility came about largely because he challenged powerful people who weren’t used to being challenged, including both Republican and Democratic presidents.
Salter relates McCain’s own quests for the presidency with color and verve. The senator’s motivation in both 2000 and 2008, according to Salter, sprang from his ambition to “be a world leader and influence world history.” But McCain also ran, in a ringing phrase he crafted with Salter’s assistance, “because I want to inspire a generation of Americans to serve causes greater than self-interest.”
The 2000 race, in particular, stemmed from McCain’s conviction that campaign finance reform was the essential gateway to larger reforms that could combat what he called “the pervasive cynicism that is debilitating our democracy.” It was a long-shot campaign not only against the front-runner, George W. Bush, but against the entire Republican establishment. At the time, this David-vs.-Goliath dynamic completely suited McCain’s scrappy, “Straight Talk Express” underdog persona.
In 2008, however, McCain emerged after grueling struggles as the presidential nominee of a Republican Party whose base had grown increasingly resistant to his bipartisanship, his internationalism, and his boldly heterodox policy initiatives on climate change and immigration reform. Salter salutes McCain’s honorable repudiation of the anti-Obama racism that surfaced in his town halls, but he doesn’t say much about the underlying forces that were transforming the Republican Party.
Salter owns that the campaign made many errors, including the selection of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee, but he considers voter dissatisfaction with the Iraq War — and McCain’s support for it — to have been the determinative factor in McCain’s defeat. He relates that the senator, in later years, conceded that the war was a mistake, “and I was as responsible as anyone else for it.” But McCain also believed that losing the war would compound the mistake.
Throughout this biography, Salter acts as Boswell to McCain’s Johnson, often in dialogue but rarely in the spotlight. His loyalty and affection toward McCain are obvious, but he refrains from hagiography and mostly resists the urge to settle scores.
Nonetheless, there’s a palpable sadness to the book — not only because McCain is gone but so too, it would appear at this moment, is his legacy. McCain’s brave initiatives on immigration reform and climate change failed, and no subsequent efforts have come as close to success. McCain’s 2002 campaign finance reform measure, which Salter describes as his “greatest legislative triumph,” was mostly undone by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Donald Trump, whom Salter considers McCain’s moral and political antithesis, rules in the White House and rarely misses a chance to denigrate the late senator. McCain’s authoritarian foes in Russia and Syria remain securely in power. And few American politicians — even McCain’s proteges — so much as pretend to emulate his courage and integrity.
But Salter concludes that while McCain “understood the world as it was, with all its corruption and cruelty,” he considered it a moral failure “to accept injustice as the inescapable tragedy of our fallen nature. He was a fatalist but never a pessimist.” McCain may have considered himself “the luckiest man on earth,” but we too are lucky to have counted him among our leaders and to have this intimate biography that will keep his memory bright.