The politician who wanted to live in the real world

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The politician who wanted to live in the real world

The Luckiest Man: Life with John McCain by Mark Salter, Simon & Schuster, US $30.00, Pp 608, October 2020, ISBN 978-1982120931

Senator John McCain was a larger-than-life politician in recent political history. But a comprehensive and authentic biography of the man who came close to becoming the president of the United States was missing until recently. After serving on Senator John McCain’s staff for 18 years and collaborating with him on seven books, Mark Salter has written a very personalized account of Senator McCain’s life. In The Luckiest Man, Mark Salter tells the story of Senator John McCain – supported by anecdotes from his life– both as a man and as a politician.

Mark Salter says he was a humble and down-to-earth person. He writes, “[McCain] disliked the coddling he and his colleagues received, the routine perks of senatorial life that he thought were intended not just as conveniences or security precautions but to elevate them as a privileged class.” He didn’t like any accommodation reserved for “senators only,” including the elevators in the Capitol Building off limits to unaccompanied staffers, custodial workers, lobbyists, journalists, and the throngs of tourists. He went out of his way to beckon passerby to share an elevator with him.

Senator McCain believed that American politicians like himself lived in a bubble. And he hated the bubble, hated the constraints, its barriers to normal experiences. Motorcades were part of living in the bubble and he hated the motorcades. Salter says that he wanted to be in the world, not protected from it. He wanted to go to the ball game or the movies, eat in a restaurant, buy a cup of coffee, shop at the grocery store, browse a bookstore without an intervening force preventing incidental human contact. He put off accepting Secret Service protection as long as he could in 2008, until his pleading family and senior aides wore down his resistance. On election night, he dismissed his detail with genuine gratitude but firmly when the plan had been to continue protection for another week or so. The night he lost the election for president, he chose to look on the bright side. He rejoiced when he was told that he could go ahead and deliver his concession speech. “No more motorcades.”

Salter tells us that McCain was an avid sports fan. He often joked that he would stay up late to watch “the bed wetters play the thumb suckers” if there were no other games available. He was a devoted follower of all Arizona’s teams, college and professional. He went to their games whenever he could. Games he couldn’t in person, he watched on TV or checked the score on his phone, doing it surreptitiously only when he was chairing a hearing or occupied with some other official duty.

He was himself most of the time, in private and public, a man, his mother observed, who “has no sides,” one personality for some people and another for others. Salter tells us that McCain was lousy at posing. It’s not that he didn’t attempt it occasionally. Any of his staffers can attest to witnessing an overdose of fulsome charm accorded someone he was trying to impress, a visiting celebrity he admired or a profile writer. Those occasions were not many and were always comically unconvincing. You could tease him about it afterward, when he had relaxed, and the next time you caught him buttering up a new acquaintance and gave him a look, he’d likely flash a grin to acknowledge it and take it down a notch. But in his public persona, for most people, for most of the time, he kept it real to a degree unusual for a politician. And most people seemed to appreciate it.

He understood the world as it was, with all its corruption and cruelty. But he believed it a moral failure to accept injustice as the inescapable tragedy of our fallen nature. Salter says that McCain was a fatalist but never a pessimist. He never believed the world couldn’t be made better or wasn’t worth trying to make better. He believed we could use whatever shaped our psychologies, the strengths and weaknesses of our personalities, the codes we tried to live by, to help make it better.

Senator McCain emerges as a humane politician who strove hard to make this world better. We all would love to see a little bit of John McCain in every politician. Despite his deep admiration for Senator McCain, Mark Salter is not blind to late boss’s shortcomings. As you turn pages, you become convinced that Senator McCain would have made a good president. Salter covers all the personal and political events of Senator McCain — from childhood to death — which make it an authentic biography. It is a highly personalized biography that brings the to life. The Luckiest Man is a lucidly written biography of a lucky man who found a wonderful biographer in Mark Salter.

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