Before I could start talking, McCain grinned with a fierce gleam in his eyes and leaned toward me, as if to say he was eager to feel some heat. If memory serves, I asked him how he felt about Joe the Plumber's then-recent claim that McCain had ruined his life by using him as a political prop during the 2008 election.
I don't really remember McCain's response—I think he wished Joe well—but I do remember that combative grin on McCain's face. He thrived on throwing down. Among friends—and I had no reason to count myself as one—he had a salty tongue and a fierce temper softened by a wicked sense of humor. Some of his best jokes were at his fellow politician's expense, or his own. But he was always ready for a fight.
That fighting spirit was a constant through his many stages as a politician: The newly elected "right-wing Nazi" (to use McCain's own sarcastic assessment of himself); the man who got caught up in the Keating Five campaign finance scandal; the champion for campaign finance reform; the straight talker; the man who visited the ailing Mo Udall, the Southern Arizona congressional legend who spent his final years wasting away from Parkinson's disease; the maverick who ran for president in 2000; the frequent critic of the Bush administration on taxes and torture; the born-again conservative running for president against Barack Obama in 2008; the "build-the-danged-fence" immigration hawk in 2010; the reluctant Trump supporter in 2016 (in the wake of the "grab-them-by-the-pussy" tape, McCain withdrew his support for Trump but still didn't endorse Hillary Clinton); and the man who, in his final vote, sank a terrible bill aimed at almost-kinda-sorta repealing Obamacare in 2017.
During his Straight Talk Express days, McCain was often seen as the Republican that Democrats could see themselves voting for. Those same maverick qualities made him a heretic to the purity wing of the GOP; the Arizona Republican Party censured him in 2014, but McCain's GOP critics could never find a candidate who could come close to knocking him out of office, despite their many efforts. (Nor could Democrats.)
Someone once said that the key to understanding John McCain was knowing that he would often act according to whatever grudge he was holding at the time. That's why he was such a thorn in the side of the Bush administration—he was angry over the way the negative campaigning (including a whisper campaign that he had fathered a child with an African-American prostitute) had gone against him during his presidential campaign. He even flirted with the idea of becoming an independent and joining John Kerry's 2004 presidential ticket, but that was just a bridge too far for someone who had been at home in the Republican Party for so long.
McCain's ability to nurse a grudge also explains why he found his way back home to standard-issue GOP opposition to Obama after he lost the presidential race in 2008. He reveled in undermining Democrats during the Obama administration and turned against some of the positions he himself had taken during the Bush administration—a reborn champion of tax cuts and an opponent of efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, for example.
Nonetheless, McCain respected Obama; he invited the former president to speak at his funeral, alongside George W. Bush. Notable absent was McCain's final foe: President Donald Trump. Trump came after McCain early in his campaign, disparaging his record as a Vietnam POW. The battles between the two would continue, but McCain paid Trump back last year, with his famous "thumbs-down" vote that finished off that effort to repeal Obamacare.
In a speech following that vote, McCain called on both parties to find a way to work together.
"What have we to lose by trying to work together to find those solutions?" McCain asked. "We're not getting much done apart. I don't think any of us feels very proud of our incapacity. Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn't the most inspiring work. There's greater satisfaction in respecting our differences, but not letting them prevent agreements that don't require abandonment of core principles, agreements made in good faith that help improve lives and protect the American people."
Would that more politicians embraced that ethos.
Rest in Peace, Sen. McCain.
The televised edition of Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel airs 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Creative Tucson network, Cox Channel 20 and Comcast Channel 74. This week, Arizona Daily Star political reporter Joe Ferguson and Tucson Weekly reporter Danyelle Khmara will unpack the primary election results and look ahead to key races in the November general election. The TV show repeats Sunday mornings at 9 a.m. and on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. The radio edition of Zona Politics airs at 5 p.m. Sundays on community radio KXCI, 91.3 FM.