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A personal look at John McCain’s political impact

The death of Sen. John McCain, has brought recognition and mourning from all corners of American political life. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield points to a contrast between McCain’s close relationships with people on both sides of the political aisle and a current, divisive political environment. He joins Hari Sreenivasan for more on McCain's legacy.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    For a personal look back at Senator John McCain's career and how his legacy may affect the country's political future, we turn now to NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Jeff Greenfield, who joins us from Santa Barbara. Jeff, you've covered him a long time. Anything that comes to mind, a story?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    The sheer complexity of the man is what most focused my attention. A guy who could had a fierce temper, believe me I was the victim of that. He could also reconcile with political foes even with a Vietnam dissenter who'd gone to Vietnam while he was imprisoned and tortured. And I guess my most vivid memory, a lot of journalists will tell you this, was that Straight Talk Express barreling through New Hampshire in 2000, where he he was in full command of his faculties, telling the press, 'Everything here is on the record,' going to hundreds of town halls defying his party on issues from tax cuts to campaign finance reform. Even as in other moments, he would compromise politically, I once said to him as he was coming back from the politically dead at the end of 2007, 'There's something about you that requires you to be dangling off a cliff hanging to a frayed rope before you start to succeed.' He kind of laughed and said, 'I think there's something to that.' So as I said this was a very complicated man but somebody who was very different from the normal cut of your politicians. And I think that's one of the reasons why he's getting so much reverence in spite of his flaws at his passing.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    He's the first to admit that he did not live a perfect life that he'd made several mistakes. One of those mistakes was the Keating Five scandal where he and four other senators are accused of influencing what happened to Charles Keating or what could have happened the savings and loans bank that Charles Keating was running. How significant was that blemish or a stain on his record for him?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    I think it changed his life. I think even though he was relatively exonerated by the Senate, they said he'd he'd made mistakes but not as grievous as other senators, he felt deeply dishonored by that, felt guilty, and that's why he turned and made campaign finance reform one of the centerpieces of his political efforts, aligning himself with one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, Russ Feingold, and his whole future political message, I think, was shaped by the fact that he had he needed to redeem himself in his own eyes for that mistake.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Jeff, Senator McCain is getting the sendoff usually reserved for presidents. Put them in the context of the political climate we're living in now.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    The contrast between McCain, the reconciliation with former foes, the insistence on putting country first, unmistakably is in very sharp contrast to our current president. When John McCain died, amid all the outpouring from fast political opponents, this president extended "hearts and prayers" to the family, and in his in his message there is not a word about John McCain's service to his country or what he endured in Vietnam. And I think to some extent you can't separate the passing of McCain from the feeling that's in the country now. On a different note I think you have to acknowledge that McCain's choice for running mate in 2008, Gov. Palin, in the way she campaigned and in a way she appears was tapping into the kind of more zealous sentiments that Trump successfully tapped into within the base of the Republican party. So for all kinds of reasons, McCain's death throws a spotlight, I think, on where we are today.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Let's talk a little bit about that sentiment that is the fuel for the president now. Coming off of this week where of course his critics say this is one of his worst weeks ever, are supporters are affected by this?

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Well I've been hearing for three years now that this is it for Trump, he can't survive this. I mean we've had this conversation so often we could probably run run tape replays. But you look at what the difference for instance between the Watergate metaphor that everybody raised and said now and once again his party controls both houses of Congress. The people in that congressional wing of the party know that the base of the Republican Party is devoted to Trump and will punish Republicans who dissent from that. And you've got a counter-media, whether it's Fox News or Breitbart or talk radio, that keeps changing the goalposts. Every time we learn, oh that did happen they'll say well it doesn't matter. You know if he uses personal funds to pay off girlfriends to hide affairs well you know that's personal. Campaign finance violations? No no they really aren't. Did, did his lawyer flip and is now saying that the president has done terrible things? He's an admitted liar. So unless and until these different perils, the flipping of Michael Cohen, the immunity granted to his top financial adviser and a tabloid publisher, unless they reveal something that is going to shake that base, I don't think things change, and today's Wall Street Journal NBC poll suggests that the president's support is pretty much where it was when the week started.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right Jeff Greenfield thanks so much.

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    OK.

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