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NARRATOR: On July 27th, 2017─

NEWSCASTER: The Senate is scheduled to vote on the latest version of the bill to replace “Obama care.”

NEWSCASTER: They’re going to be there all night in what’s called a “voterama”─

NARRATOR: ─Washington was closely watching Senator John McCain. He was the key vote on President Trump’s first major legislative initiative, a repeal of “Obama care.”

SUSAN DAVIS, NPR: Every time we saw him, it was, like, “Do you know how you’re going to vote? Do you know how you’re going to vote?” And he was grouchier and grouchier as the day went on, as he sometimes gets. And he just said, “Stay tuned.” You know, it was sort of like─ he kind of was even saying, like, “Watch the vote. It’ll be a show.”

NEWSCASTER: He is expected to return to Capitol Hill today─

NARRATOR: Just over a week before, McCain had been diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer.

PETER BAKER, The New York Times: Everybody knew at that point it came down to, of all people, John McCain, the one who had been fighting with the president, who had been a maverick, as he portrayed himself all these years. And all eyes are on him.

NEWSCASTER: Today, senators are voting on a repeal-only plan, but─

NARRATOR: It all came down to one vote on one night at 1:30 in the morning.

ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: It was the most dramatic night on the Senate floor I had seen in all my years up there.

SUSAN DAVIS: The vote’s ticking away, the vote’s ticking away. And McCain’s on the floor, but he’s not voting.

PETER BAKER: It was a perfect manifestation of John McCain’s career that it would fall to him, in the middle of the night, to render final judgment on President Trump’s major legislative initiative.

NARRATOR: Fellow Republican senator Susan Collins had been pushing McCain to vote against the bill Trump was backing.

Sen. SUSAN COLLINS (R), Maine: Lisa Murkowski and I knew that he had reservations. We were talking with him about the bill, and all of a sudden, he pointed to both of us and he said, “You know, you two are right.” It was then that I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around and it was Vice President Pence.

NARRATOR: Pence had come to pressure McCain to support the president.

Sen. ANGUS KING (I), Maine: The vice president stood toe to toe with John McCain. And he was in his space. It was very close. They went on for, I don’t know, it seemed like 15 or 20 minutes, back and forth, back and forth.

Sen. SUSAN COLLINS: One of the things I most admire about John McCain is he cannot be intimidated by anyone or anything.

MATT BAI, Yahoo News: He knew he had the power to enable Trump’s presidency, to give him a new lease on life, or to ensure a critical defeat early in his presidency.

Sen. ANGUS KING: Vice President Pence turned on his heel and walked away.

NARRATOR: And then it was time for McCain to vote.

LISA DESJARDINS, PBS NewsHour: You saw Mitch McConnell looking more and more unhappy. His arms were closed, and you could tell from the body language on the Republican side that they were very worried.

SUSAN DAVIS: John McCain walks up to where the vote clerks are, and he lifts his hand very dramatically.

ED O’KEEFE: He knew that this was his one last chance to really take a stand, capture the nation’s imagination in the process, but also remind his party that they have to do things differently.

NARRATOR: McCain, with a thumbs-down gesture, shocked the chamber.



Sen. SUSAN COLLINS: You could hear audible gasps in the chamber. And those gasps of surprise came from both sides of the aisle.

PETER BAKER: This was John McCain as people have come to know him over decades in public service. And it sort of stood out as kind of this cinematic culmination of the career that he has had in Washington.

NEWSCASTER: In a shocking vote, Senator John McCain delivering a death blow─

NARRATOR: President Trump was furious.

McKAY COPPINS, The Atlantic: He tends to lash out most bitterly in those moments. And with John McCain’s thumbs-down no vote, he just watched six months of his presidency kind of evaporate into nothingness. He’d gotten nothing, nothing done in that time.

NARRATOR: The president used the weight of his office to try to punish McCain.

NEWSCASTER: President Trump is holding a “Make America Great Again” rally in Phoenix─

NARRATOR: The occasion was a rally in McCain’s home state.

NEWSCASTER: ─for a campaign-style event tonight─

NARRATOR: Here in McCain country, Trump took him on.

Pres. DONALD TRUMP: They all said, “Please, Mr. President, don’t mention any names.” So I won’t. I won’t! We were just one vote away from victory after seven years of everybody proclaiming “repeal and replace”! One vote away.

JONATHAN MARTIN, The New York Times: He criticizes John McCain, who at this point has been diagnosed with brain cancer, not by name, but it’s clear who he is criticizing.

Pres. DONALD TRUMP: No, I will not mention any names. Very presidential, isn’t it? Very presidential.

NARRATOR: Trump had been targeting McCain for years.

TRUMP TWEET: @SenJohnMcCain should be defeated in the primaries. Graduated last in his class at Annapolis. Dummy.

NARRATOR: He portrayed McCain as a symbol of the old Republican Party.

TRUMP TWEET: Retweet: McCain epitomizes the career politicians who have gotten us into our $19 trillion train wreck.

NARRATOR: Trump attacked him as a failed presidential candidate.

TRUMP TWEET: John McCain let us down by losing to Barack Obama in his run for president.

NARRATOR: And Trump expressed his personal disdain.

TRUMP TWEET: Retweet: Sen. John McCain is always, talking, talking but nothing gets done.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: Let’s stop insulting each other. Let’s start respecting each other. What he did was that he fired up the crazies.

NARRATOR: And for his part, McCain made no secret of his distaste for Trump.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: We need to have a kinder, more respectful debate, not whether somebody’s a jerk or not.

PETER BAKER: Donald Trump is everything John McCain doesn’t like. He’s not somebody who served in the military. He’s not somebody who had given to his country in any serious way. For McCain, it’s sort of, I think, a pretty sour moment in politics.

DONALD TRUMP: ─because I don’t like losers.

NARRATOR: Trump even attacked McCain’s record as a Vietnam veteran.

DONALD TRUMP: He’s not a war hero.

FRANK LUNTZ, Republican Pollster: He’s a war hero.

DONALD TRUMP: He’s a war hero─

FRANK LUNTZ: Five-and-a-half years of─

DONALD TRUMP: He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you.

FRANK LUNTZ: Do you agree with that?

DONALD TRUMP: He’s a war hero because he was captured, OK?

NEWSCASTER: Republican Senator John McCain challenged President Trump─

NARRATOR: It was not the first time John McCain had clashed with a powerful political rival.

NEWSCASTER: John McCain, maverick of legend─

NARRATOR: His more than three-decade career defined by conflict with his own party.

NEWSCASTER: John McCain, of course, a frequent critic of President Obama’s foreign policy─

NARRATOR: A self-styled maverick in an increasingly partisan Washington.

John McCain had been a public figure since that day he was captured in North Vietnam when he was 31.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I was on a flight over the city of Hanoi. And I was bombing and was hit by either a missile or anti-aircraft fire. I’m not sure which.

ROBERT TIMBERG, Author, John McCain: An American Odyssey: He landed in a lake in Hanoi, and went down, somehow managed with his teeth, because his arms were, like, all screwed up, too, to pull the plug that caused the vest to inflate.

NARRATOR: McCain wrote about it in his autobiography, Faith of My Fathers.

JOHN McCAIN: A crowd of several hundred Vietnamese gathered around me as I lay dazed before them, shouting wildly at me, stripping my clothes off, spitting on me, kicking and striking me repeatedly.

JOHN McCAIN: And I was picked up by some North Vietnamese and taken to the hospital, where I almost died.

ORSON SWINDLE, Vietnam POW, 1966-73: John wouldn’t go to sleep. He’s in a cast. His eyes are feverish. He’s in bad, bad shape. I thought he was going to die.


JOHN McCAIN: Lieutenant Commander John McCain.

NARRATOR: The North Vietnamese had discovered McCain was not just any captive─

NORTH VIETNAMESE INTERVIEWER: May I know who is your father? Could you name him and tell me where is─

JOHN McCAIN: Yes, his name is Admiral John McCain and he’s in London, England now.


JOHN McCAIN: He’s commander-in-chief of U.S. naval forces in Europe.

NARRATOR: McCain’s father would soon be in charge of all forces in the Pacific.

ORSON SWINDLE: John was a prize. They referred to him as “the prince.’’ “We’ve got the prince.’’

ROBERT TIMBERG: They realize that they have this exceptional public relations tool. And they say to him, “Aha! You’re the crown prince.’

NARRATOR: The crown prince’s grandfather, they called him “Popeye,” was a legendary admiral in World War II, here posing with McCain’s father in Japan on the day the Japanese surrendered. With the family legacy of service and duty, McCain reluctantly had followed them to the Naval Academy.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I was an arrogant, undisciplined, insolent midshipman who felt it necessary to prove my mettle by challenging authority.

MARK SALTER, Co-author, McCain Autobiography: He graduated fifth from the bottom of his class, and he managed to accumulate, as he calls it, a very impressive catalogue of demerits.

VICTORIA CLARKE, McCain Press Sec., 1983-89: He may not have wanted to go to the Naval Academy, but he got in because of who his dad was. He didn’t get thrown out because of who his dad was, despite his best efforts. And everything in his life was because of what his last name was.

ORSON SWINDLE: It’s hard to grow up in a family with the military legacy that his family had. It goes back to George Washington’s general staff. That stuff is there. It’s like osmosis. So John’s got all of this. Then he goes and he gets shot down. And now he’s almost dead. And he fights to survive.

NORTH VIETNAMESE INTERVIEWER: How many raids have you done until the last one?

JOHN McCAIN: About 23.

NARRATOR: McCain says he made a decision. He would compromise with his captors, cooperate with this interview in return for medical attention and a chance to send a message to his wife.

NORTH VIETNAMESE INTERVIEWER: If you have anything to say to the people you love and the people who love you, please tell it now. This time is yours.

JOHN McCAIN: I would just like to tell my wife I’ll get well and I love her and hope to see her soon. And I’d appreciate it if you tell her.

NARRATOR: Before long, the North Vietnamese wanted even more, a confession of war crimes, something McCain was duty bound not to give them. He refused and was beaten.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: The “Prick” came in with two other guards, lifted me to my feet, and gave me the worst beating I had yet experienced. They left me lying on the floor, moaning from the stabbing pain in my re-fractured arm.

ORSON SWINDLE: There was the sheer pain of it, and the deprivation and the humiliation. It’s a horrible experience. We had to endure it 24 hours a day, seven days a week for five, six, seven, eight, nine years.

NARRATOR: Fearing he would break under torture, McCain saw only one way to avoid dishonor─ suicide.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: Despairing of any relief from pain and further torture, and fearing the close approach of my moment of dishonor, I tried to take my life. With my right arm, I pushed my shirt through one of the upper shutters and back through a bottom shutter. As I looped it around my neck, the Prick saw the shirt through the window. He pulled me off the bucket and beat me.

ORSON SWINDLE: We wanted to take our lives because we couldn’t take the pain. And if we couldn’t take the pain, we were scared to death we’d do something to hurt our country.

NARRATOR: He had failed to kill himself. They continued to beat him. Eventually, John McCain gave up. They would get their confession.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: Finally, they had me sign the document. The next morning, they ordered me to record my confession on tape. I refused, and was beaten until I consented.

NARRATOR: He believed he had dishonored his country and disgraced his family.

ORSON SWINDLE: We all feel guilty because the Code of Conduct says you’ll give only name, rank, serial number and date of birth. And John Wayne, of course, could do that because he was tough and he could spit in their eye and get away with it. Well, the real world is this. You can get information from people.

JOHN McCAIN: To the Vietnamese people and the government of the DRVN─

NARRATOR: And they did.

JOHN McCAIN: I’m John Sidney McCain, 624787, lieutenant commander, U.S. Navy.

NARRATOR: The confession was broadcast as North Vietnamese propaganda.

JOHN McCAIN: I have bombed your cities, towns and villages and caused many injuries, even death, to the people of Vietnam.

I couldn’t rationalize away my confession. I was ashamed. I felt faithless and couldn’t control my despair. I shook, as if my disgrace were a fever.

MARK SALTER: He was quite disconsolate about it. But it was the guy in the cell next to him who told him he had done the best he could, gather his strength, go back at them the next day. And I think that was─ that was the great moment of self-discovery for him.

VICTORIA CLARKE: He realizes what is important in life. You really have to count on yourself. You have to lean on the guy next to you, and he has to be able to lean on you and depend on you. Some very, very basic, core fundamental things in life that some people go through their whole lives and never learn, he learned at a relatively early age.

And I think he went from being a─ probably a real cocky SOB to being a fellow who’s pretty well grounded in what’s important in life.

NARRATOR: McCain’s fellow POWs point to a key event in his detention. With his father about to take charge of the Pacific command, including the war in Vietnam, McCain was offered special treatment, an early release.

ROBERT TIMBERG: McCain believed that this was an effort on the part of the North Vietnamese to embarrass his father, to show the son of a high-ranking admiral being released and having special privileges. And you know, so basically, McCain smelled a rat.

NARRATOR: This time, McCain did not give in.

ORSON SWINDLE: He’s got a family legacy. And it’s─ again, it’s about honor. It’s about those obligations spoken or sworn to that you just don’t do things like that.

NARRATOR: In the end, it would be nearly five more years before John McCain was released.

Pres. RICHARD M. NIXON: We today have concluded an agreement to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam.

NARRATOR: The effects of the torture and his injuries would remain. He’d never be able to raise his arms above his head.

He was a former POW, a war hero, a celebrity, so the Navy put him right out front with the politicians.

Sen. GARY HART (D-CO), 1975-87: When members of Congress travel, they usually have a captain or colonel as escort officer, and John was our escort officer on several trips.

Sen. WILLIAM COHEN (R-ME), 1979-97: He was just fun to be with. And he had a sense of derring-do and let’s go do something and let’s hop on a plane, let’s go to such-and-such a country.

ROBERT TIMBERG: Rather quickly, he becomes friends with some of the younger senators─ Gary Hart, Bill Cohen, later secretary of defense.

WILLIAM COHEN: We would hit a couple of bars and have some beers together. It was mostly three relatively young guys who were having a good time together.

NARRATOR: After a while, McCain decided he wanted to join the club.

VICTORIA CLARK, McCain Press Sec., 1983-89: He’s a bright, sharp guy. And I’m sure he looked around and said, “Boy, if these guys can do this, I can do this.”

NARRATOR: The Congress John McCain wanted to join was very different from the one today. He got to know a young staffer in Bill Cohen’s office, Susan Collins.

Sen. SUSAN COLLINS: When John was the navy liaison, he saw a Congress that worked much more collaboratively, that was far less partisan, and that got more done.

PETER BAKER: Republicans and Democrats saw each other as colleagues, not enemies, and it would color his view. It would shape his view of how Washington should work for the rest of his career.

NARRATOR: But before getting into politics, McCain rearranged his personal life. His wife, Carol, had dutifully waited through the POW years. A former model, she’d been severely crippled in a car accident while McCain was in Vietnam. But soon the couple would divorce.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: My marriage’s collapse was attributable to my own selfishness and immaturity more than it was to Vietnam, and I cannot escape blame by pointing a finger at the war. The blame was entirely mine.

NARRATOR: He was known to have an eye for women and a taste for the high life. One night in Hawaii, he found what he was looking for.

WILLIAM COHEN: It was love at first sight, and that was it, said, “I met a gal that you’ve just got to meet.” And he said, “I think this is the gal I’m in love with.” And that was it.

GARY HART: Bill Cohen and I were members of his wedding party when he and Cindy were married in Arizona.

NARRATOR: Cindy’s father owned a lucrative beer distributorship in Arizona. He was rich and connected. Soon John McCain would be, too.

WILLIAM COHEN: For me, it was a natural saying, “You’re in love with this young woman from Arizona. You’re a conservative. Arizona’s a conservative state. Go run in Arizona. You’ll have your family there, and that’ll be the basis where you’ll start.”

ANNOUNCER: John McCain has energy and optimism. Just what we want. His leadership is giving us something precious, hope for the future.

NARRATOR: He ran as an old-fashioned pragmatic small government conservative. He won a congressional election and then Barry Goldwater’s former seat in the Senate.

McCain adjusted quickly to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s Washington, where Republicans often worked with Democrats to pass legislation.

Sen. ANGUS KING: I worked here in the Senate 40 years ago as a staff member. If you did a scatter plot of the voting records of the hundred senators, there were at least 20 who overlapped, more liberal Republicans ─ there’s a term you don’t hear much anymore ─ and conservative Democrats.

NARRATOR: In that environment, John McCain’s star was rising. But then his career was nearly derailed.

NEWSCASTER: Never before have five senators been accused of intervening with federal regulators.

NEWSCASTER: ─the Keating 5, four Democratic senators─

VICTORIA CLARKE: Everything is going great. And then, bam, this scandal hits. And even by today’s standards, it was a big scandal involving five very important members of the United States Senate.

NEWSCASTER: The worst financial scandal in U.S. history─

NARRATOR: At the center of the scandal was McCain’s friend and contributor, Charles Keating, an Arizona high roller and the owner of a failed savings and loan.

JOHN WEAVER, McCain Adviser: McCain understands, and he’ll admit, that when his obituary is written, the Keating scandal will be somewhere high in the obituary. And so he understands the dark stain that that had on his career. He understands that.

NARRATOR: McCain and four other senators were accused of pressuring government regulators to back off of Keating and his bank.

VICTORIA CLARKE: And it got to the core of the things that John McCain cares about most, his personal integrity, his honesty. It got to the very core of what is most important to him.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I seek a speedy and just resolution to this process, and I will continue to cooperate and assist the committee in every way possible.

ORSON SWINDLE: He was angry about it. He was hurt by it. He felt guilty about it.

NARRATOR: McCain decided what he called “straight talk” was called for.

VICTORIA CLARKE: He said, “So from this day forward,” he says, “we’re going to take every interview that we can take. We’re going to prioritize Arizona media over national media, but we’ll do them all.”

NEWSCASTER: This man is a United States senator, and you are about to hear him say something that very few senators have ever said before. Listen carefully.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: It was a very serious mistake on my part. The appearance of a meeting with five senators was bad and wrong, and I agonized it over the time.

JERRY KAMMER, The Arizona Republic: This was the beginning of a pattern that he has developed. At moments of crisis, he’ll stand there until the last reporter sits down. And I think it’s worked very well for him.

NARRATOR: The press backed off and the Congress all but cleared him of wrongdoing.

FINDING: Senator McCain has violated no law of the United States or specific rule of the United States Senate.

NARRATOR: They said he was guilty of poor judgment.

VICTORIA CLARK: Most people said, after having gone through what he went through in the Keating five, that’s it. His chances of any national office are over, are done with. And by the way, he’s probably not going to be very successful in the United States Senate. He proved them wrong. His life has been proving people wrong.

NARRATOR: In the wake of the scandal, McCain began to repair his political image.

PETER BAKER: He will survive a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. He will survive political scandal. And he is relentless. Nothing will stop him, no matter how many times he trips up.

NARRATOR: But the Republican Party was changing around McCain.

NEWSCASTER: ─one of the most contentious elections ever─

NEWSCASTER: ─a few sweet moments for the Democrats─

NEWSCASTER: The Republican revolution of election ‘94 shook Capitol Hill.

DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: The ‘94 elections had fundamentally changed the nature of the Republican Party. And so, you had the Gingrich revolution, which had created the idea of a party with a much harder edge than it had been prior to that, whether it was George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan.

NEWSCASTER: There could be a fundamental shift in the American─

NARRATOR: The leader of the party was now speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The Republicans were becoming more ideological, and McCain didn’t fit.

Rep. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA), House Speaker, 1995-99: I think McCain has a really deep, desperate sense of marching to his own drummer. And what that means, at one level, is that it expresses itself sometimes in a need to go kick people in the shins. And he occasionally adopts an idea which is abhorrent to modern conservatism.

NARRATOR: McCain would chart his own course as an independent-minded Republican, a champion of campaign finance reform, a supporter of environmental protections, and he wasn’t afraid to take on the religious right.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.

ELISABETH BUMILLER, The New York Times: McCain had called leaders of the Christian right “agents of intolerance.” This was a phrase never forgotten.

RON BROWNSTEIN, Author, The Second Civil War: McCain was willing to go into battle with his base on issue after issue. He was still a conservative Republican, but he was more willing to break from the party mainstream than almost any other national GOP leader.

NEWSCASTER: This morning, the candidates are already in New Hampshire─

NEWSCASTER: With the caucuses behind them, the presidential campaign trail─

NARRATOR: By 2000, with a national reputation as a maverick and reformer, John McCain had decided to run for president.

CHARLIE BLACK, McCain Adviser: John felt there might be a grass roots populist rebellion brewing about reforming government, reforming the campaign system. And so he decided to do it.

NEWSCASTER: A look at John McCain, on the trail and in the lead─

NEWSCASTER: It’s helped him steadily win a bigger and bigger slice of the Republican─

NARRATOR: He ran an insurgent campaign out of a bus he called the “Straight Talk Express,” challenging the establishment favorite, George W. Bush.

REPORTER: Would you instruct the party not to take any money from─

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I would instruct the party not to take any soft money, and that’s tobacco, steel, whatever it is.

MATT BAI: To beat George W. Bush in the Republican primaries in 2000, you had to make a virtue of what was at your disposal. And what was at his disposal was this great personality and this great sense of humor and this true reformer/maverick spirit, and the decision was to go out and put it on display.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I’ll be satisfied with whatever the voters decide, OK, guys?

NARRATOR: He put together a coalition of moderates and independents, and in a key primary, he upset George W. Bush.

NEWSCASTER: ─victory over the favorite son─

NEWSCASTER: ─an extraordinary political day as the voters of New Hampshire have spoken.

NEWSCASTER: The McCain win was so overwhelming, the fact that he won in every demographic─

MARK SALTER: The primary night itself, I think he loved it. I think he loved the experience of New Hampshire.

NARRATOR: McCain’s victory sent shockwaves through the Bush campaign and the party establishment.

LISA DESJARDINS, PBS NewsHour: People don’t realize how much the Republican establishment was nervous about John McCain. They really did not think they could control him. And that’s why we saw so much power, wealth and focus go against him in South Carolina. It was incredible.

NARRATOR: Just over two weeks later in South Carolina, the establishment and the Bush team struck back.

MARK McKINNON, Bush Adviser, 2000: Things happened in South Carolina that were pretty ugly. South Carolina’s got a long tradition of being very tough. Listen, politics is a tough, tough, tough, tough sport, and there’s no tougher than South Carolina in America.

NARRATOR: Bush allies orchestrated a bitter underground attack designed to appeal to the Republican base.

Sen. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: It was a series of attacks─ personal life distorted, political record distorted. It’s a real smear campaign, but it hurt.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: There were rumors all over the state that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock and that his wife, Cindy, was a drug addict.

NARRATOR: McCain’s daughter, Bridget, was adopted from Bangladesh. And Cindy McCain had been open about how she had overcome a prescription drug addiction.

ORSON SWINDLE: It’s just despicable. What they did was despicable. I think they were desperate. And if you think about it, had Bush lost South Carolina, it was over for George Bush.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: And it’s wrong. And it’s wrong. My friends, this is what’s going on around here.

LISA DESJARDINS: You saw more and more anger from Senator McCain himself, who was openly frustrated and angry about the ads against him, the attacks against his wife. And you could also sense that he wasn’t sure what to do about it, that he had a conflict within him over how hard he pushed back.

NARRATOR: Some McCain staff wanted to counterattack, to fight fire with fire, but McCain wasn’t willing.

DAN BALZ: He’s a scrapper and a battler, but he did not want to battle on those terms in South Carolina at that point. He wasn’t going to do it in the way that he felt was being done to him. He wasn’t going to answer in kind.

NEWSCASTER: John McCain brought his insurgent presidential campaign to an end today.

NARRATOR: He would go on to lose by almost 12 points. Before long, he shut down his presidential campaign. George W. Bush went on to win the presidency. As John McCain returned to the Senate, to many Republicans, he was an outsider.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: It had been bad for him in the Republican caucus. He had been booed at one point when he walked in. He really felt like these are not the guys he was comfortable with. They didn’t have much in common. He was really a bitter man in those days.

Sen. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), Majority Leader, 2001-03: He was angry for the way he was treated. He was angry because his staff were not asked to be part of the new administration. He was angry because he thought George Bush was playing to the most conservative elements within his own party. And for all those reasons, he felt alienated.

NARRATOR: McCain positioned himself as the voice of dissent in Bush’s Republican Party.

RON BROWNSTEIN: McCain came out of the 2000 campaign drawn to the idea that he had become a brand. He represented something to the American public of independence, pragmatism, bipartisanship, and he moved very aggressively to maximize the leverage of that brand legislatively.

NARRATOR: McCain fought the Bush administration’s tax cuts as benefiting the wealthy. And while he supported the Iraq war, he criticized the president’s strategy as inadequate.

NEWSCASTER: Demonstrators gathered outside Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison─

NARRATOR: But it was the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib that most enraged the former POW.

MARK SALTER: He was incensed. He thought it was shameful.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I’m gravely concerned that many Americans will have the same impulse as I did when I saw this picture, and that’s to turn away from them. And we risk losing public support for this conflict. As Americans turned away from the Vietnam war, they may turn away from this one. Now, Mr. Secretary, I’d like to know, what were the instructions to the guards?

DONALD RUMSFELD, Secretary of Defense, 2001-06: That is what the investigation that I’ve indicated has been undertaken is determining.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: Mr. Secretary, that’s a very simple, straightforward question.

NARRATOR: McCain would insist the Bush administration change its policy on torture.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: This isn’t about who they are, it’s about who we are. These are values that distinguish us from our enemies.


NARRATOR: He’d been fighting with the Bush administration for years. But as the 2008 election approached, McCain still had ambitions to be president.

PETER BAKER: It takes a while until he kind of comes around to the idea that for his own interest, he needs to find a way to reconcile with the president and reconcile with the party. It is, at this point, George Bush’s party.

NARRATOR: First he would make peace with George W. Bush.

CHARLIE BLACK: If he could forgive and make peace with the leaders of North Vietnam, who tortured him for six years, it wasn’t that hard to get over it and make reconciliation with George Bush.

TALK RADIO: Is this the best the Republicans can do? Because you know─

TALK RADIO: ─tempted to vote for the McCain ticket─

NARRATOR: Even more challenging, McCain had to win over the Republican voters who had rejected him last time.

TALK RADIO: And if he wants those votes, the best thing─

NEWT GINGRICH: He decided that to become the nominee, he had to make peace with the Bush wing of the party and with people who were avid Bush supporters. And he set out to do so.

NARRATOR: He even embraced Reverend Jerry Falwell, the founder of the evangelical Liberty University, a man he had previously called an “agent of intolerance.”

MARK SALTER: Reverend Falwell came to see him, said, you know, “Put our past differences behind us,” our acrimony behind us or something, and then asked him on the spot if he would consider giving the commencement address at Liberty. And he responded on the spot, “Sure.’

JON STEWART, The Daily Show: Senator! I heard this crazy story that Senator John McCain is giving the commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s university.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: Well, before I bring on my two attorneys, I’d like to─ [laughter]

JON STEWART: Don’t make me love you!

DAN BALZ: It cut against, you know, everything that McCain had done and said up to that point.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: Why I did it is because of the fact that my kids said, “Why haven’t you been on the Jon Stewart show lately?” And I figured that was the best way to do that.


MATT DOWD: John McCain is a politician. He’s been elected to the Senate. He’s involved in politics. He understands that yesterday’s battles are yesterday’s battles, and if you’re going to win tomorrow’s, you may have to do things differently.

JON STEWART: Are you freaking out on us? Because if you’re freaking out and you’re going into the crazy base world─ are you going into crazy base world?

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I’m afraid so.

MATT BAI: McCain has demonstrated both a temperamental inclination and a real ability over the course of his political life to─ to do things that are politically expedient, and at the same time signal with a sense of irony and detachment that he doesn’t really like doing it, that in a sense, he’s being forced by political necessity to do it.

NARRATOR: By the first Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire, it looked like McCain was on the right track.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: My friends, you know, I’m past the age when I can claim the noun, “kid,” no matter what adjective precedes it. But tonight, we sure showed ‘em what a comeback looks like!

NARRATOR: McCain had positioned himself as the heir apparent to George W. Bush, but there was a growing problem. The party was changing, the president’s support among the base deteriorating.

PETER BAKER: No Republican wants to be the third term of George W. Bush. He is a radioactive figure at that point for the party. And they are divided over what the party should stand for, at this point.

TALK RADIO: McCain, frankly, has shown conservatives little but contempt over─

NARRATOR: Inside the Republican Party, a rebellion was under way, and McCain, now the establishment candidate, was a target.

TALK RADIO: I think John McCain has a big problem with conservatives!

NEWSCASTER: They called him a RINO, “Republican in name only.”

TALK RADIO: He is confusing Republicans with─

TALK RADIO: He’s going to reach out to Democrats─

MATT BAI: How’s this guy going to unite his party? What’s he going to do? Rush Limbaugh’s out there on the radio every day telling people they’d be crazy to vote for this guy.

NARRATOR: The opposition to McCain came to a head here, at the annual meeting of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. They reluctantly agreed to hear John McCain plead for their support.

DAN BALZ: I’ve never seen an instance where somebody in his position, who is the de facto leader of the party heading into the next election, walks into an audience like that and gets the kind of boos that he got. I mean, it was extraordinary to hear it. Now, it’s not as though everybody in the audience was booing, but it was loud and it was real.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: It’s been a little while since I’ve had the honor of addressing you, and I appreciate very much your courtesy to me today. You know, we should do this more often!

Sen. LINDSEY GRAHAM: John wanted to make the case that, “Here’s who I am on judges. Here’s who I am on taxes. I believe in limited government. Here’s why I fight earmarking. Earmarking is a corruption of government.”

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I believe today, as I believed 25 years ago, in small government, fiscal discipline, low taxes, a strong defense, judges who inform and not make our laws─

MATT DOWD, Political Consultant: It’s like the thinnest balance beam that’s probably existed because on one side, he’s trying to still retain the, “I’m the independent, I’m the moderate. I can appeal, I’m the maverick.” And the other side is, “You can trust me. I’m a good Republican.”

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I am pro-life and an advocate for the rights of man everywhere in the world. I will never waver in that conviction, I promise you.

DAN BALZ: That day was a reminder that he still had a considerable amount of work to do with the conservative base of the party.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: Thank you, and God bless you. [cheers and applause]

NEWT GINGRICH: I think what McCain did, which almost killed him, was he tried to become Mr. Insider and he tried to become Mr. Establishment. And the truth was, it didn’t work, I mean, that nobody believed it on either side. And it made him look kind of foolish. He’s not an insider.

Sen. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), Presidential Candidate: Are you fired up, ready to go? Fired up! We can finally bring the change we need to Washington!

NARRATOR: Making things worse for McCain, he faced a formidable opponent in the general election.

Sen. BARACK OBAMA: The American people are looking for change in America!

NARRATOR: Barack Obama was surging in the polls.

PETER BAKER: McCain’s looking at his campaign, and he sees that the energy is on the other side, that the momentum’s on the other side, that the freshness is on the other side.

Sen. BARACK OBAMA: And because somebody stood up, a few more stood up. And then a few thousand stood up, and then a few million─

MATT BAI: It was really hard for John McCain, especially having worked so hard to prove himself a real conservative, to run against the first African-American candidate, this exciting young, charismatic figure who represented change just by getting up in the morning.

Sen. BARACK OBAMA: We will win this election! We will change the course of history and of the world!

NARRATOR: McCain was in trouble and he knew it. He needed a dramatic gesture.

CHARLIE BLACK: By the summer, when McCain got ready to make a vice presidential selection, we were behind and we would have expected to go into the fall behind. So John wanted to do something a little different.

NEWSCASTER: This is where John McCain will appear with his running mate─

NARRATOR: The announcement of his vice presidential running mate was a closely guarded secret.

LISA DESJARDINS: It was amazing! It was so amazing. They were─ all the secrecy about it, the secret cars and secret names and the false airports. And it was the most wanted story by any political reporter in this country. Everybody wanted to find out who this was.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: He needed to find someone. An African-American running, you got to find a woman. But you have to find a woman who meets some of the litmus tests in your own party.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I am very privileged to introduce to you the next vice president of the United States, Governor Sarah Palin of the great state of Alaska!

NARRATOR: At the time, few realized that the decision was a turning point for the Republican Party and the history of American politics.

MATT BAI: It was probably the rashest decision that John McCain and the people around him ever made. The truth is they didn’t know enough about her other than the fact that she excited the base.

RYAN LIZZA, The New Yorker, 2007-17: McCain’s advisers thought she was very different than what she turned out to be. They didn’t realize that she would be this populist crusader and turn into a sort of right-wing grass roots populist.

NARRATOR: As she arrived at McCain’s Republican convention, Palin stole the show.

Gov. SARAH PALIN: Well, I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment.

PETER BAKER: Palin’s arrival on the scene is the opening chapter, in a way, of the transformation of the Republican Party into the Tea Party movement, the idea that we are going to reward people who want to blow up the system, who are bomb throwers, who are firebrands, who appeal to anger, who appeal to grievance.

Gov. SARAH PALIN: I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion, I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this great country!

NARRATOR: She electrified the crowds with her own brand of prairie populism─ attacks on the Washington establishment and those she labeled the “elites.”

Gov. SARAH PALIN: I’ve learned quickly these last few days that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone. But─

MICHAEL SHEAR, The New York Times: She didn’t talk like politicians. She wasn’t careful with her words. She didn’t make a lot of sense sometimes.

Gov. SARAH PALIN: I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick. [cheers]

MATT BAI: Sarah Palin was whatever she needed to be to get attention and applause and money. She was an entertainer. And she was antithetical to everything John McCain believed about politics.

Gov. SARAH PALIN: Thank you, and God bless America!

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: John McCain ushered an insurgent, somebody coming in from the outside, literally from Alaska, and then also in every other way in terms of her background and her regard for elite institutions.

TALK RADIO: But this governor of Alaska, she’s something else!

TALK RADIO: Sarah Palin has completely transformed the Republican Party and the next presidency─

NEWSCASTER: Boy, were you right about this one! Did you know how great she is? She’s unbelievable!

NARRATOR: McCain stood by as Palin connected to the party’s base in a way he never could.

CHARLIE BLACK: I kidded John about it constantly. One day a week, they campaigned together, and he would always double his crowds when she was there. She had tremendous appeal among the conservative grass roots.

NARRATOR: And among the campaign’s grass roots supporters, the anger was boiling over.

LISA DESJARDINS: I remember going to John McCain rallies in 2008 and for the first time having members in the crowd start to throw things at reporters, you know? That was new. There was so much anger that, you know, members in the McCain audience were─ wanted to throw it somewhere.

NARRATOR: Much of the anger was directed at McCain’s opponent, Barack Obama.

DAN BALZ: One thing that was observable and yet ignored was the degree to which there was real hostility toward Barack Obama on the right.

PROTESTER: Obama’s a terrorist, don’t you know that? Obama’s a Muslim. He’s a terrorist himself!

NARRATOR: He saw the hostility first hand.

WOMAN: 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 is not─ no?

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: No ma’am. No ma’am. No ma’am. He’s a─ he’s a decent family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with.

NARRATOR: McCain wouldn’t take advantage of racial prejudice.

RYAN LIZZA: They had a rule in the McCain campaign that if you─ if there was any hint that that─ that the McCain campaign was going to use racial animus against Barack Obama, you would have been fired and banned from Republican politics. It was a red line that was never crossed in 2008.

MAN: My wife and I are expecting our first child April 2nd next year ─ thank you! ─ and frankly, we’re scared. We’re scared of an Obama presidency.

NARRATOR: McCain tried to reassure his supporters.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I have to tell you he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared as president of the United States. [boos] Now, I just─ and I just─ now, look, [boos] I─ if I didn’t think─

PETER BAKER He doesn’t want to play into that, and yet he has picked somebody as a vice president who encourages that kind of politics. So he has both tapped into this force that she is, at that point, and is wary of what he has gotten himself into.

NEWSCASTER: Barack Obama is projected to be the next president─

NEWSCASTER: ─that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois─

NARRATOR: When John McCain’s quest for the presidency ended, on the conservative airwaves, they blamed him.

TALK RADIO: This campaign never had a prayer, and everybody knew it from the get-go.

TALK RADIO: John McCain is a disaster, a complete, unmitigated disaster.

TALK RADIO: The McCain campaign was one of the biggest, ridiculous disasters in the history of campaigning!

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him [boos] ─ please! ─ to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.

NARRATOR: John McCain’s time as leader of the Republican Party was ending.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I am also, of course, very thankful to Governor Sarah Palin, one of the best campaigners I’ve ever seen. [cheers]

NARRATOR: But McCain’s decision to choose Palin would go on to shape the future of the Republican Party.

TALK RADIO: I’m glad at least he didn’t blame Palin.

TALK RADIO: The flash of brilliance was choosing Sarah Palin.

MATT BAI: I know the people around him regret it, that he had not only given a platform to someone who was very corrosive to the political process and to the party, but had very nearly put her, you know, within a few feet of the presidency. And I would be very surprised if that didn’t haunt him from then after.

TALK RADIO: ─of President Obama lying to the people, deceiving─

NEWSCASTER: ─a giant step backwards in race relations.

NARRATOR: In the months that followed─

Gov. SARAH PALIN: ─and rammed it down America’s throats!

NARRATOR: ─the populist anger Sarah Palin had tapped into exploded into the Tea Party movement.

TEA PARTY PROTESTER: You want to kill my grandparents, you come through me first!

TEA PARTY PROTESTER: The things that Obama’s doing are the exact things that Hitler did!

NARRATOR: The politics of grievance and resentment that McCain had resisted were on the rise.

TEA PARTY PROTESTER: Radical communists and socialists!

LISA DESJARDINS: This is a party that John McCain and most Republicans don’t recognize anymore. And they didn’t even have the vocabulary to talk to the members of their party.

NEWSCASTER: There is an ugliness with these fringe people who comparing the president to Hitler.

MATT BAI: From that point on, he’s a misfit in the party, and clear to everyone watching and involved that he no longer speaks for sort of the ascendant Republican base.

NEWSCASTER: 2016, and the road to the White House begins in Iowa─

NARRATOR: McCain could only watch as the changes in the Republican Party culminated in a crucial moment in 2016─

NEWSCASTER: ─to win Iowa. Everybody wants to do it.

NARRATOR: ─as the woman McCain had anointed─

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Candidate: Governor Sarah Palin, special, special person. Thank you.

NARRATOR: ─endorsed a new maverick.

SARAH PALIN: Thank you so much. It’s so great to be in Iowa, lending our support for the next president of our great United States of America, Donald J. Trump!

PETER BAKER: John McCain sees Donald Trump, and in effect, what he’s seeing is the manifestation of what he brought to the table in 2008 by picking Sarah Palin.

SARAH PALIN: Heads are spinnin’! Media heads are spinnin’! This is going to be so much fun!

LISA DESJARDINS: Sarah Palin was something Republican voters loved in 2008, and you saw Donald Trump completely take advantage of it and take all of these sort of Palin voters and add to them.

NEWSCASTER: And breaking news from the campaign trail. Trump is picking up the endorsement from Sarah Palin.

NEWSCASTER: ─struggle within the Republican Party─

NARRATOR: As the Republican nominee, Trump exploited the forces that McCain would not.

DONALD TRUMP: We are led by very stupid people!

We’re going to drain the swamp of Washington. We’re going to drive the cars over the illegals! Build the wall!

DAN BALZ: Almost everything stylistically, and many things about Trump substantively, were anathema to John McCain. There’s almost nothing about Trump that is in the same space as John McCain.

NEWSCASTER: ─stunning upset. Donald Trump is on his way─

NARRATOR: And on election day, Trump did what McCain could not, win the presidency.

NEWSCASTER: ─pulled off one of the biggest political upsets in America history.

NEWSCASTER: ─one of the most shocking elections in our political history.

NEWSCASTER: After watching President Trump’s inauguration─

NARRATOR: As Donald Trump took office, John McCain began his third decade in the Senate.

DAN BALZ: It’s an uncomfortable Washington for John McCain, I mean, in part because there’s a president with whom he is at odds, and there is a Senate and House that are doing things that are probably more conservative than he thought was wise.

NARRATOR: Congress was now very different from the one that McCain had witnessed all those years ago.

Sen. JACK REED (D), Rhode Island: It was a different sort of period of time when we both first entered the Congress. There were certain issues that were very divisive, but most of the issues, there was a way forward on common ground. And that common ground was shrinking dramatically. And I think his reaction was, that’s─ you know, it’s not good for us. It’s not good for the country.

NEWSCASTER: There’s gridlock in Washington, and the public, as well─

NARRATOR: Gridlock─

NEWSCASTER: ─the paralysis of the─

NARRATOR: ─confrontation─

NEWSCASTER: ─and the deep dysfunction─

NARRATOR: ─and ideological purity had replaced collaboration. For McCain, Washington was an increasingly difficult place.

PETER BAKER: McCain is one of the last of the giants in the Senate who has an independent identity that is separate from his party, and it’s hard to imagine whether there can be another one these days. The system doesn’t encourage independent thinkers and mavericks. People will get punished for that.

NEWSCASTER: Sad, shocking news about senator and former presidential candidate John McCain.

NEWSCASTER: Doctors found the tumor after─

NARRATOR: Last summer, even as he was diagnosed with brain cancer, McCain was again the center of attention─

NEWSCASTER: ─that much anticipated vote on health care that is still too close to call─

NARRATOR: ─as he voted against the president’s attempt to repeal “Obama care”─

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: No. [gasps]

NARRATOR: ─and stood up to deliver a message to his colleagues.

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: Our deliberations today are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than at any time that I remember. Right now, they aren’t producing much for the American people.

LISA DESJARDINS: It felt like it really was symbolic of who he has wanted to be. This is who John McCain thinks he is in his heart.

NEWSCASTER: John McCain critical of the president─

NARRATOR: McCain was again fighting back─

NEWSCASTER: ─after a scathing statement from Senator John McCain─

NARRATOR: ─earning him the ire of a president, putting him again in conflict with his own party and at the center of battles that continued.

NEWSCASTER: Senator John McCain says the only person smiling today is Vladimir Putin.

NEWSCASTER: ─McCain saying that those public statements emboldened Syrian president, Bashar al Assad─

NEWSCASTER: John McCain said President Trump is sending a dangerous message to the world.

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