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Sen. John McCain wants us to see we are more alike than different

While Republican Sen. John McCain has lately undergone treatment for brain cancer, he still speaks his mind. Judy Woodruff talks with Mark Salter, co-author of a new McCain memoir, "The Restless Wave," about his Senate service, Russian election interference, American society and politics in the age of President Trump and much more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Republican Senator John McCain is known as a maverick, familiar with tough fights, from prison camps in Vietnam to the floor of the U.S. Senate.

    Recently, he has been staying close to the Arizona ranch he calls home, as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer.

    But he still speaks his mind. And there are new glimpses this month into McCain's life and thinking.

    He and his family are part of a new HBO documentary, "John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls," which debuts next Monday.

    Here's a look.

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    Come on, Verma. Come on, honey.

  • Jack McCain:

    I got a phone call from my mom that said, "Jack, you're going to see some stuff in the news. Your father has brain cancer. I'm with him right now. He knows his diagnosis, and he's the same as he's always been. He said, 'All right, let's push forward.'"

  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    You know, these doctors keep talking to me about people who, if you tell them the truth, and then they just give up and die, that you really want to — and I keep saying them, just tell me. Just tell me. That's all I want to know, you know?

    Some say, well, it's not good. And I say, well, you know it's just (EXPLETIVE DELETED) and it really drives me crazy.

    But then I talk to other doctor friends of mine and say that most people, that's not what they want to hear. Why wouldn't they want to hear, you know? Why wouldn't they want to spend a few more days here, you know?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    McCain's battle with cancer is also ever-present, whether explicitly or implicitly, in a new memoir out today.

    There are reflections about living and past decisions, but it also makes clear that McCain still has plenty to say about America, American society, and politics in the age of President Trump.

    It is called "The Restless Wave," and McCain co-wrote it with one of his close longtime aides, Mark Salter, who joins me now from New York.

    Mark Salter, thank you for being with us.

    Give us an update on how…


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you — how Senator McCain is doing.

  • Mark Salter:

    He's hanging in there.

    He's fighting, working hard at getting stronger. He had an operation a couple weeks ago that knocked the wind out of him a little bit. But he's back home, and he's working on getting stronger and still staying engaged with his office and doing all the things he wants to be doing right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have been writing books with him for, what, almost 20 years. This is your seventh book together.

  • Mark Salter:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This book sounds like — it reads like he's still got a lot rolling around in his mind that he wants to get out there.

    Restless wave, what did he mean by that?

  • Mark Salter:

    Well, it's a line from the Navy hymn "Eternal Father." It refers to eternal father, strong to save, whose arm hath bound the restless wave.

    And most people know who know John McCain know him to be a very restless individual, and only God can restrain him. So, we thought that was an appropriate title, under the circumstances.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But a lot to get off his chest in this book.

  • Mark Salter:

    He did.

    The book — we had started working on the book before his diagnosis. And it was a little bit different of a book. It was going to concentrate mostly on foreign affairs and national security.

    But he wanted to write something more personal and tell stories about the causes that matter most to him and to write about what America means to him and what America means to the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, one of the many things he writes about — he rally covers his entire public career — he writes about choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008.

    He takes responsibility for any of the problems in that campaign and her role in it, but he also says that he wishes he had chosen Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate.

    How much does that bother him?

  • Mark Salter:

    Well, I think that was his first choice. He wanted to do it. He was persuaded by his aides and from senior members of the party that it would cause a divided convention and a challenge perhaps on the floor to the nomination of his vice presidential pick, and was convinced not to do it.

    He would have — looking back, he wished he had stuck with it. That's not to say he regrets choosing Governor Palin. There is a distinction there. And I think people have mixed that up a little bit.

    But it's not. Once he decided or was convinced that he couldn't pick Senator Lieberman, he chose Governor Palin, and he never regretted it publicly or privately. He's never said a word of regret about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He writes at some length about how much he has loved serving in the Senate. He makes that very clear. His friendships across the partisan aisle. Why has that been so important to him?

  • Mark Salter:

    Well, he served there for over 30 years now, a long time.

    And even before that he was the Senate's — the Navy's Senate liaison officer. And he got to know some of the lions of the Senate back in the '70s, Scoop Jackson, Barry Goldwater, John Tower, traveled with them overseas quite a bit, had bipartisan friendships, became good friends with some of the then younger members, Gary Hart, Bill Cohen, Joe Biden.

    And he's just — it's a place that he's seen do enormous amount of good and work together collaboratively to make progress on the problems of our time, something that he's worried is getting a little lost now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On the — moving around, there's so much in this book, Mark Salter. At one point, he does write about getting a copy of the so-called Steele dossier, the report written by the former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, turning it over to then-FBI Director Comey.

    It is clear that he takes the Russia interference in the last election seriously. What does he think about how other Republicans see that?

  • Mark Salter:

    Well, he thinks most of his colleagues in the Senate take it pretty seriously. I'm sure he's been a it a little — like many people who worry about Putin and Putin's challenge to the U.S. and his challenge to American allies, he probably worries a little bit about some people in the House Intelligence Committee not taking it that seriously.

    But he takes it seriously. He's had a pretty good sense of Putin. Going back all the way to the late '90s, he has been warning about him. So, he thinks probably China is our long-term challenge, you know, over the next generation or the work, but our immediate problem is Vladimir Putin.

    And he would like the see members of Congress in his party and the Democratic Party confront that challenge honestly and forcefully.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much of this book, or at least a good chunk of it, reads like what he is standing up — what he stands for is in opposition to what President Trump stands for.

    He talks about being a champion of compromise, being someone who believes in working with the other side, and toning down the harsh rhetoric.

    And let's air just a little bit of what he himself read from the audio version of this book at the end.

  • Mark Salter:


  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.:

    Before I leave, I would like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations.

    I would like to see us recover our sense that we are more alike than different. We're citizens of a republic made of shared ideals, forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one.

    Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it. Whether we think each other right or wrong in our views on the issues of the day, we owe each other our respect, so long as our character merits respect.

    And as long as we share, for all our differences, for all the rancorous debates that enliven and sometimes demean our politics, a mutual devotion to the ideals our nation was conceived of hold, that all are created equal, and liberty and equal justice are the natural rights of all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Salter, that's a very different message from what's in the political atmosphere right now. Why did he want to get that out?

  • Mark Salter:

    Well, you know, he has served in uniform and in public office. He's served this country for 60 years, quite a long stretch of time.

    And serving this country to him has meant serving her ideals, to see them advance in the world and to see them safe here at home. That's been the most just cause of his life, and a cause that he believes has given his life honor and purpose.

    So, he is obviously concerned when he thinks that we're losing sight of that, that we're — whether it's, whatever you call it, nativism or America-first nationalism, that is only concerned about getting what advantages there are in the world for us, and to hell with the rest of humanity.

    I don't want anyone to think, and he wouldn't want anyone to think that this book is just an anti-Donald Trump diatribe. It's not. They have differences on many issues that are very important to the senator, and he discusses those issues quite forthrightly. But the book is about a great deal more than that.

    It's about his love of this country and what it means to him and what it means to the world and what he hopes it will continue to mean to the world in the future he may not be here to see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How many of his Republican colleagues in the Senate does he think share those views?

  • Mark Salter:

    The vast majority of them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But why aren't we hearing from them, does he think?

  • Mark Salter:

    Oh, I think you do.

    And they do — a lot of the work — you know, it's always the controversies that get all the attention, for obvious reasons, but take a look at the committee he chairs, the Armed Services Committee. That — every year, year after year, that committee reports out its bill, the defense spending — authorization bill, almost always unanimously, always in a bipartisan fashion.

    Everybody works collaboratively, with a sense that American — America's leadership of the world is important to us and important to the world. That doesn't get as much attention as noisier, more confrontational or controversial statements and actions on the part of some members of Congress, but it's more the norm than not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is he hopeful for the country's future?

  • Mark Salter:

    He believes — yes, he believes this country is a match for its challenges in the present and in the future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Salter, who wrote the book with John McCain "The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations."

    Mark Salter, we thank you.

  • Mark Salter:

    Thank you, Judy. Appreciate it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that book is out today.

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