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John McCain held on to hope that the world could be better, close aide says

At the nation's Capitol, leaders from both parties spoke fondly of their colleague, Sen. John McCain. But few in Washington were closer to him than his longtime aide, Mark Salter. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the outpouring of appreciation for the late senator, McCain’s personal ideals and what he’ll miss about his dear friend.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, lawmakers gathered in the nation's Capitol today to honor Arizona Senator John McCain.

    Leaders from both parties spoke fondly of their colleague, but few in Washington were closer to him than his longtime aide Mark Salter.

    And Mark Salter joins us now.

    Welcome. We're so sorry for your loss.

  • Mark Salter:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were also known as his alter ego, I think.

  • Mark Salter:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The incredible outpouring for the senator this week, Mark Salter, from one end of the country to the other. Were you surprised by that?

  • Mark Salter:

    Yes, a little bit. And the family has been very moved by it.

    Maybe an hour after his death was announced, we left Sedona for Phoenix, and the roads were lined already. There was a huge crowd at the top of this hill, people along the side of the interstate, overpasses, signs, flags, hands on their hearts. Very touching.

    And it was that way every time the motorcade moved through Phoenix. The streets were lined with people. They stood in line to pay their respects in the state capitol rotunda for hours and hours and hours in 105-degree temperatures, you know, to the point where a number of the McCain children went down there at about 9:00 at night, and there were still 1,200 people in line.

    It was really very, very moving.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You wrote a tribute to him this weekend in which, among other things, you said he was a romantic about his causes and a cynic about the world.

    What did you mean?

  • Mark Salter:

    Well, I think he saw the world as it was.

    He saw it, and with all its corruption and cruelty, and yet he believed he was able to hold onto hope. And I think he had that capacity to believe that things could be made better, that the world can be made better. And I think he had that because he had experienced the worst in human nature and the best in human nature in the very same experience, when he was in prison in Vietnam.

    And it was just gave him a sort of resilience and even, as I think I once worded it, to hold on to hope when hope is for fools. And that was really, I think, the great — his great strength.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's so much written about the — of course, his time in prison in Vietnam and how that shaped him.

    And in that letter that he wrote to the American people that was released after — read after his death…

  • Mark Salter:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … he talked about his love of country.

  • Mark Salter:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Explain that to people. We all think we love this country. What did he mean by that?

  • Mark Salter:

    Well, he loved its values. He loved its ideals, its founding ideals.

    He loved that it wasn't a nation of a particular ethnicity, that it was a nation built on ideals, and that those ideals are universal, and that everyone deserved to have those — the rights that those ideals grant you. And that's what he meant.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And another thing in that letter that I think stands out, he talked about we are a great nation, but we weaken our greatness with tribal rivalries. And then he went on to say we weaken when we hide behind walls.

  • Mark Salter:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He seems to be referring to President Trump.

  • Mark Salter:

    I mean, the arguments of President Trump or some President Trump's supporters aren't new. They have been around in our history before.

    And he's long addressed them . That line about we don't live behind walls, we tear them down, he's been delivering since the Berlin Wall came down. That's what he believes in, the power of our ideals to transform the world, not — not to fear of the world, not — we're one race, one species of living being with more in common than we have apart.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how worried — you were in close contact with him throughout the last year since his cancer diagnosis. How worried has he been?

  • Mark Salter:

    He was concerned.

    I think that's clear from everything he said. But he believes we will get past it and we will be OK. He just knew that time was short for him.

    So there was a great — he lived his life with an extraordinary urgency. He really did. I mean, he hurtled through life like no one I — no one I know.

    And so he always felt he was — he wanted to get his funeral arrangements arranged, wanted to know where his papers would go and all, like he approached everything else, in a great hurry. And he wanted to say as much as he could to the American people in the time he had left, which was a little over a year from his diagnosis.

    So he took — when he thought his voice could be useful to be heard, he made sure it was.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it was reported this week that he spent time this past year planning, himself, planning these memorial services, in effect, sending a message, sending more messages about who he was and what he wanted to say to the American people.

  • Mark Salter:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What should we read in that, because we know President Trump wasn't invited?

  • Mark Salter:

    Sure. Yes.

    And I wouldn't read it as a rebuke to any one person or anything like that. I would read it as this, that — as he had phrased it before, we have values in common, problems in common, and responsibilities to solve those problems in common.

    It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or Republican or a vegetarian or — his long joke he would make of things.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Mark Salter:

    But that we all have a responsibility to do that.

    And, in this country, with so many different opinions, we can only make modest progress in our problems, but that's a magnificent achievement in a country of 325 million opinionated souls.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is that why, among other things — among other people, he has both President Obama, former President Obama, and President George W. Bush delivering eulogies tomorrow?

  • Mark Salter:

    Yes.

    That was very deliberate. It was the first — it was his first idea for the funeral. He said, "I want the two men that defeated me for the presidency to speak on my behalf."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What are you going to miss the most about him?

  • Mark Salter:

    His humor, I think.

    He was a funny guy to be around. I will miss hearing his voice. It's been in my head for a long time. I will miss his friendship.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you think he would be saying right now about all this — all these tributes?

  • Mark Salter:

    He would tell me to stiffen up, is what he would say to me right now.

    But I think he'd be very moved by it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Salter, who was a close friend of Senator John McCain, thank you very much.

  • Mark Salter:

    Thank you, Judy.

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