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Despite losses, McCain’s spirit was ‘never broken,’ says former defense secretary

Judy Woodruff looks back on the prolific and storied career of Sen. John McCain, from his military heroism to two disappointing presidential campaigns to a reputation as a party maverick. Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen was a close friend of McCain's, serving as a groomsman at his 1980 wedding. He joins John Yang to remember McCain's irrepressible humor and “restlessness” to do more.

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  • John Yang:

    And now the legacy of John McCain.

    In Phoenix today, his former campaign manager read the senator's farewell to the American people.

  • Rick Davis:

    "Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history. Farewell, fellow Americans. God bless you, and God bless America."

    Judy Woodruff has this look back at the life that John McCain called blessed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    By the time he became the Republican Party's presidential nominee in 2008, John McCain has built up a reputation in American politics, one he sometimes embraced.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    You all know I have been called a maverick, someone who…

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    … someone who marches to the beat of his own drum. Sometimes, it's meant as a compliment, and sometimes it's not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But it was his life before politics that set him apart.

    John Sidney McCain III was born in 1936, the son and grandson of Navy admirals. McCain followed suit. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1958, fifth from the bottom of his class, something he would joke about later in life.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    If my old company officer, who doubted that I would have made lieutenant, much less be able to run for president of the United States — I have had the most fortunate life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the Vietnam War exploded, pilot John McCain was in the middle of it.

    In 1967, he narrowly escaped one of the worst U.S. naval disasters since World War II. A fire aboard the USS Forrestal aircraft carrier left more than 130 of his fellow service members dead.

    Less than three months later, he was seriously injured when North Vietnamese forces shot McCain's plane down over Hanoi. He was pulled out of a local lake and captured, a prisoner of war. McCain refused North Vietnam's offers of early release when it learned of his family connections. He was beaten, tortured and held in solitary confinement over his five-and-a-half years in captivity, until he was finally freed in March of 1973.

    McCain received a hero's welcome back in the U.S., but it took time for him to fully recover. He studied at the National War College, then took on a new Navy post, liaison to the United States Senate. In 1980, he married Cindy Lou Hensley, daughter of a wealthy beer distributor, and soon after retired from the Navy.

    He ran for and won a seat in Congress, and after four years there jumped over to the Senate, succeeding retiring Arizona Senator and conservative icon Barry Goldwater.

    As a freshman senator, McCain was caught up in the Keating Five banking scandal. The Senate Ethics Committee held multiple public hearings looking into whether five senators, including McCain, committed any wrongdoing by meeting with U.S. banking regulators on behalf of political donor and Savings and Loan executive Charles Keating.

    The panel cleared McCain in the end, only reprimanding him for poor judgment. Still, years later, McCain called the hearings a public humiliation.

    McCain's profile rose with the first Gulf War getting under way and as he made defense spending one of his signature issues, alongside campaign finance and cutting government waste, all this as he geared up to run for president in 2000.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    I want to reform government. As I said earlier, I want to reform the tax code. I can't do that unless I give you back your government and take it out of the hands of the special interests and give it back to you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    McCain began as one of several underdogs for the 2000 GOP nomination, and he acknowledged early on that the odds were against him.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    Barry Goldwater from Arizona ran for president of the United States. I'm sure you remember that. Morris Udall from Arizona ran for president of the United States. Arizona may be the only state in America where mothers don't tell their children that someday they can grow up and be president of the United States.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The senior senator from Arizona was up that year against the well-funded operation of the son of a former president.

  • Former President George W. Bush:

    I'm in, and I intend to win.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Then Texas Governor George W. Bush.

  • Former President George W. Bush:

    I think I would be a better leader than Senator McCain. I have been in a position of executive responsibility.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But McCain's pitch was taking hold in the crucial first primary state of New Hampshire. He was the happy warrior, riding his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, from town hall to town hall.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    I am speaking plainly, and I'm not going to do anything that at the end of this campaign if you vote for me that you will say, gee, McCain told me something there at the Rotary Club in New Hampshire, and then he was down in South Carolina and said something else, and then he was in California and said something else.

    In other words, I'm not going to disappoint you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    His win in New Hampshire shocked the political world.

    But, as the campaign turned to South Carolina, McCain became the target of false, racist rumors, including one that he had a black child out of wedlock. John and Cindy McCain did in fact have four children, including an adopted daughter, Bridget, from Bangladesh. All four from time to time joined their father on the trail.

    He lost that primary and, in his concession speech, derided the smear campaign.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    I will not take the low road to the highest office in this land.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The 2000 campaign never recovered. But McCain plunged right back into his Senate work. His passion for reforming the campaign finance system led to the bipartisan passage of a law with his name on it, McCain-Feingold.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    I think we understand — and America understand as well — if you have ban the soft money, you ban the union member, the trial lawyer, the corporation head, whoever it is, from being able to corrupt this process.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He was also part of a bipartisan push for an immigration law overhaul.

    But it was his advocacy of a more aggressive global posture for the U.S. that led to McCain's calls for a larger American footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    Having been a critic of the way this war was fought and a proponent of the very strategy now being followed, it is my obligation to encourage Americans to give it a chance to succeed. To do otherwise would be contrary to the interest of my country and dishonorable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    McCain's 2008 presidential campaign ran into trouble early. His fund-raising at first lagged badly behind others. In response, candidate McCain trimmed staff, focused hard on the early states, and almost single-handedly got things back on track.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    Thank you very much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    After a win in New Hampshire, he turned the tables in South Carolina, and from there pressed on to the Republican nomination.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    She's exactly who I need. She's exactly who this country needs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    McCain took a gamble by tapping a little known governor, Alaska's Sarah Palin, to be his running mate, the first woman on a Republican presidential ticket.

  • Sarah Palin:

    We can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On the stump, she revved up the Republican base and channeled the populist anti-establishment fervor that competed with her inexperience.

  • Sarah Palin:

    I reminded people that, no, government is not always the answer. In fact, too often, government is the problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And more than her share of controversy.

  • Sarah Palin:

    Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Still, her message backed up that coming from the top of the ticket.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    My friends, I wasn't elected Ms. Congeniality in the United States Congress again this year, I'm sorry to say.

    When I'm president, the first earmark, pork barrel bill that comes across my desk, I will veto it. You will know their names. We will make them famous. And we will stop this corruption.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The 2008 financial collapse hit, but only boosted McCain's Democratic opponent, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, the first ever black presidential nominee from a major party.

    That fall's debates laid bare their differences. As McCain highlighted Obama's inexperience, Obama linked McCain to the unpopular policies of the sitting Republican president.

  • Former President Barack Obama:

    Pursuing the same kinds of policies that we pursued over the less eight years is not going to bring down the deficit. And, frankly, Senator McCain voted for four out of five of President Bush's budgets.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Trump, you should have run for years ago.

    I'm going to give a new direction to this economy and this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the run-up to Election Day, McCain stood up to ugly rumors some of his own supporters were spreading about his opponent.

  • Woman:

    I have got to ask you a question. I don't know believe in — I can't trust Obama. I have read about him, and he's not — he's not — he's a — he's an Arab. He's not…

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    No, ma'am. No, ma'am.

  • Woman:

    No?

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    No, ma'am. No, ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that's what this campaign is about. He's not.

    Thank you.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the end, McCain sell well short, losing the popular vote by 6 percentage points, some nine-and-a-half million votes.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans, and please believe me when I say, no association has ever meant more to me than that.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    After the election, he again returned to be a force in the Senate.

    McCain remained an influential voice on immigration, though he sounded more conservative during his 2010 Senate reelection bid.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    Complete the dang fence.

  • Man:

    It'll work this time. Senator, you're one of us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He also took over as chair of the powerful Armed Services Committee. And he never abandoned his maverick reputation, not shying away from a clash with either President Obama or President Trump and their foreign policy.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    To refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain the last best hope of Earth for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Most notably, his was the dramatic no-vote that sank his own party's effort to repeal President Obama's health care reform.

  • Man:

    The senior senator from Arizona.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In one of his final speeches on the Senate floor, he made this emotional appeal to his colleagues.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    We are getting nothing done, my friends. We're getting nothing done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Resist today's divisive politics, he told them. Bring bipartisanship back.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    The Senate is capable of that. We know that. We have seen it before. I have seen it happen many times. And the times when I was involved, even in a modest way, with working on a bipartisan response to a national problem or threat are the proudest moments of my career, and by far the most satisfying.

    What a great honor and extraordinary opportunity it is to serve in this body. It is an honor to serve the American people in your company.

    Thank you, fellow senators, Mr. President.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • John Yang:

    That was Judy Woodruff on John McCain, the public man.

    To learn about the private man, we're joined by someone who knew him well, former Defense Secretary William Cohen. They served together in the Senate. And 38 years ago, Secretary Cohen was a groomsman at John McCain's wedding. This weekend, he will be a pallbearer at his funeral.

    Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.

  • William Cohen:

    Good to be with you.

  • John Yang:

    When you first met John McCain, you were not Senate colleagues or even congressional colleagues. He was the Navy liaison to the Senate.

    What drew you two together?

  • William Cohen:

    A call that came from Howard — Senator Howard Baker's office saying that he wanted me to join three other senators to meet the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, in Beijing.

    And so I went on that trip with Senator Glenn, Senator Hart and Senator Nunn. And John was the escort officer. And during that time, he regaled us with stories, funny stories, always self-deprecating, always telling kind of Irish jokes on himself, and would talk about the O'Reilly twins in a bar. And I won't go into the details on that.

    But it was always just a lot of fun. And when you traveled with John, you knew that you were going to enjoy the trip. You may be on a very serious mission, but you always knew that being with him, in his presence, was going to make the trip really fun-loving.

    And that's the way it was with him, whether he dealt with the press and called you jerks in a very humorous way, and meaning as a compliment, never as a derogatory term. But he wanted to — he wanted to make friends. He wanted to tell you who he was. He wanted you to know that there's a real conscience in there.

    And when he violated his conscience, he did something he knew in his heart he didn't feel, he was the first one to admit it, not privately, but publicly, as a public figure, as a national figure, as an international figure.

    And that's something that is rare today or even yesterday. And so one thing that really attracted me to him, the sense of, I'm going to do what I think is right. And, if I fail, and I probably will fail, I will try to make it right.

    And so that was who John McCain was, somebody who was flawed. And he loved to quote Hemingway. And Hemingway wrote in one of his books, maybe "A Farewell to Arms," but he said, the world breaks everyone, he said, but afterwards, many are strong at the broken places.

    And, to me, that was John McCain. He was strong at the many broken places that he had on his body. But what was never broken was his spirit and his fire and his willingness to stand up for what America, in his mind and those of us who loved him, believed was the America of promise, of opportunity, of equality, of doing the right thing, of making sure that we stayed a beacon of light in a world filled with darkness.

    That's who John was. He fought that to the end. And when the end was no longer inevitable in terms of keeping going, he said, it's time for me to rest.

    And so I will miss him. But he, as he said, had a good life, a long life, and one that few can ever match in terms of his heroism, but also his willingness to challenge authority.

    I was with him in Munich. I think it was 2007, when President Putin was invited to the annual security conference in Munich. And most of the people there were eager to have Putin come in and say, let's be friends. After all of these years, let's be friends.

    And Putin gave an extraordinary Cold War speech. He stunned everybody in the audience. And John didn't hesitate a moment. When it came time for him to speak, he really went after Putin directly and said, you want to take us back to the Soviet empire, you want to take us back to a Cold War? That's something that all of us can never go back to, never want to go back to.

    And he spoke out against it very vigorously that day. Once again, everyone in the audience applauded him for the courage to speak out against the leader that was consolidating power and has continued to do so.

  • John Yang:

    You talk about the sense of fun of being with John McCain.

    And I think so many — to the public, it's been the stern — was the stern John McCain at the dais, at the Senate Armed Services Committee, usually tough questioning, someone from the Pentagon.

    Is are — their stories you can share with us about what it was like to be with John McCain?

  • William Cohen:

    I can't share the stories on public television.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Cohen:

    But I can say what it was like to be with him.

    He was never really at rest, even when he was cooking hamburgers out in the back of his yard, even when he was sailing down the Colorado River or whatever. He was never really at rest.

    It was always a sense, I have got to do something. I have got to make every moment count.

    And we only had to think of how many moments he had alone, five-and-a-half years, two at least, or more, in solitary confinement, beaten day after day. He had a lot to make up for. And so I think that was the restlessness that he had to continue to want to do good for the country.

  • John Yang:

    It's been widely reported that the two people who will speak at his funeral at the Washington Cathedral will be former President George W. Bush and former President Barack Obama, the two men who defeated him for the presidency.

    To you, what does that say about who John McCain was?

  • William Cohen:

    Well, it puts an exclamation point on who he was.

    But remember this. He was tortured for five-and-a-half years. Who was the man who joined John — Senator John Kerry and said, that's the past, we need to do this for the good of the country, I am willing to make peace with the people who beat me and tortured me, because it's in the best interest of the United States?

    That tells you who John McCain was.

  • John Yang:

    Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, remembering John McCain, thank you very much.

  • William Cohen:

    My pleasure.

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