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The code and character of John McCain, as explained by longtime aide Mark Salter

More than two years have passed since the death of Arizona Sen. John McCain, but his legacy and influence are being felt during this election year. McCain’s widow, Cindy, recently endorsed Joe Biden for president. Mark Salter was a longtime aide and confidant of Sen. McCain, whose life he examines in Salter’s new book, “The Luckiest Man.” Salter joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been more than two years since the death of Arizona Senator John McCain, but the legacy and influence of the former Republican presidential nominee is being felt during this election year.

    His widow, Cindy, recently endorsed Joe Biden for president, and she made an appearance with him on the campaign trail earlier this week.

    Mark Salter was a longtime aide and confidant of Senator McCain, and he examines his life in a new book, "The Luckiest Man," which comes out on Tuesday. And he joins us now.

    Mark Salter, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    I don't say this about many stories about politicians, but this is a beautiful book. I dare anybody to read it without tearing up.

    You were not only his longtime aide. You wrote for him. But you were also his close friend. And I noticed, at the very beginning of the book, you said he — John McCain felt called by history.

    What did you mean?

  • Mark Salter:

    Well, he — I titled "The Luckiest Man" book because that's how he viewed himself.

    And he had improbably survived multiple near brushes with death and survived what he would call the flaws of his own nature and impetuosity, his rebelliousness in the institutions he was a member of, his irascibility at times.

    He used to remark all the time. He had this line, fifth from the bottom of my class at the Naval Academy and the Republican nominee for president. Unbelievable.

    And that he got to participate in history in great events, and help influence the course of history and the course of his country's success mattered greatly to him. He always told the story of his father, who was an admiral, four-star admiral, but was a young officer in World War II, a submarine commander.

    And when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, a black sedan pulled up in front of their house in New London, Connecticut and collected his dad. And he doesn't remember seeing his father again until the end of the war.

    But, as he said — he told me that he thought — it felt like that black sedan was history, and it had come to collect his father. And he deeply wanted that for himself. And I think he managed to do it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many wonderful stories here. You talk about the small gap between the private John McCain and the public John McCain.

    His character jumps out throughout this book. You talk about the — as you said, the impatience, the generosity, the restlessness, how he rarely lost hope.

    But the bottom line, you wrote, Mark Salter, you said: "What mattered to him was that you acted honorably, in service of something more important than yourself, and you treated people fairly."

    It was pretty straightforward.

  • Mark Salter:

    He was a man who lived by a code, a code that he had learned from his father and from his grandfather and from his — his family were in the military in every generation as far back as the Revolution.

    He got it from the honor codes at the Episcopal boarding school. It's where he went to high school and from the Naval Academy, even though he was very rebellious at both those places. He never — he never violated the honor code. He lived by it.

    And I think the central premise of that code to him was that you redeem yourself from your flaws and failings by — through courage and self-sacrifice and service to others. And he did that at great cost over and over again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you write — I mean, we remember John McCain for his fight for campaign finance reform, for immigration reform, certainly for his advocacy of a strong defense, for his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, when he was the Republican nominee for president in 2008.

    But it was the summer of 2017, Mark Salter, after he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, when he insisted on coming back to Washington for that Senate vote on the Republican effort to repeal Obamacare, the ACA, and he was determined to be there.


  • Mark Salter:

    Well, it's — it's — I think, because the way he dealt with any adversity was to just keep plowing ahead.

    He had called me before he had been diagnosed to talk about how the leadership was writing this alternative, or what they were proposing as an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, and that the committees weren't doing it, we weren't going by regular order, which meant we were just going to have a Republican alternative that had no buy-in from the minority, from the Democrats, and it wouldn't last — and it wouldn't keep their promise to replace Obamacare with something as good or better.

    So, he had already had that on his mind. He had had a physical coming. But we didn't — none of us anticipated the diagnosis he got. That was — stunned all of us.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Mark Salter:

    When he called me to tell me what the diagnosis was, he sort of glossed over it.

    Then he said: "I'm going to fly back to Washington. The doctors are telling me I can't. But I'm going to."

    And he did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he was going against his good friends in the Republican Party, I mean, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham.

  • Mark Salter:

    They called him the maverick and thought he seemed to enjoy sometimes disappointing his fellow Republicans.

    He didn't enjoy it. It wasn't anything he took pride in or pleasure in or anything else. And he felt the burden of wanting to be a — he said, "I don't always want to be the dog in the manger."

    And — but he knew, here he had received a bad diagnosis, but he would have access to the best medical care attainable. Many other people in his situation wouldn't. He didn't want to be part of a process that was a political gesture, really, more than anything else, not a really a policy gesture.

    It was a political gesture that would deny others adequate medical care, and not offer anything in replace. So, he — it was a difficult decision, but not one I think he second-guessed himself on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we said a moment ago, his widow, Cindy, has endorsed, been very public in her support for Joe Biden.

    What did Senator McCain think of Donald Trump?

  • Mark Salter:

    Well, he didn't care for him. I think that was clear. He didn't vote for him last time.

    And were he alive, I don't want to say what he would do in the election. That's not fair to him. He's not here to tell us. But I don't think Donald Trump is someone who improves on longer acquaintance.


    So, I imagine he didn't support him last time, and he wouldn't this time. He thought he was something of a clown.

    And he didn't — for a guy — going back to what I consider the sort of the central tenet of his code that he lived by, that you act bravely and sacrifice for others. Donald Trump is the antithesis of that.

    He's also, through ineptitude, through ignorance, doing great damage to alliances that John McCain spent a great deal of time tending to and valuing and helping to thrive. That would stop him.

    And he's also — his affinity, Trump's affinity for dictators, like Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin and Erdogan and others, bothered him greatly. And, in fact, the harshest statement I ever heard him make about any president was the statement he made after the Helsinki summit, when Trump said he took the word of Vladimir Putin over the assessment of America's own intelligence services.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the book is definitely one to remember. It's "The Luckiest Man: Life with John McCain."

    And, Mark Salter, we thank you very much for joining us.

  • Mark Salter:

    Well, you're very kind to say so and very kind to have me on, Judy. Thank you very much.

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