The great John McCain story you've probably forgotten.

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April 9 2008 6:47 AM

The Great McCain Story You've Probably Forgotten

What an old anecdote about Mo Udall in the hospital reveals about McCain's character.

Fred Upton, Muhammad Ali, John McCain and Paul Wellstone. Click image to expand.
Fred Upton, Muhammad Ali, John McCain and Paul Wellstone

Back in 1996 and 1997, before John McCain was a presidential candidate or object of media fascination, Michael Lewis followed the Arizona senator around as he campaigned for Bob Dole and worked to reform campaign-finance laws. Lewis' pieces for the New Republic and the New York Times Magazine portrayed McCain as a passionate, cantankerous, astonishingly honest political character who frequently acted in ways that brought him no political gain. In the recent back-and-forth over whether McCain is a regular politician or a true outlier, we remembered a wonderful moment from Lewis' 1997 New York Times Magazine profile of McCain, "The Subversive." The passage below comes at the very end of Lewis' article.

By 7:30 we were on the road, and McCain was reminiscing about his early political career. When he was elected to the House in 1982, he said, he was "a freshman right-wing Nazi." But his visceral hostility toward Democrats generally was quickly tempered by his tendency to see people as individuals and judge them that way. He was taken in hand by Morris Udall, the Arizona congressman who was the liberal conscience of the Congress and a leading voice for reform. (Most famously—and disastrously for his own career—Udall took aim at the seniority system that kept young talent in its place at the end of the dais. "The longer you're here, the more you'll like it," he used to joke to incoming freshmen.)

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"Mo reached out to me in 50 different ways," McCain recalled. "Right from the start, he'd say: 'I'm going to hold a press conference out in Phoenix. Why don't you join me?' All these journalists would show up to hear what Mo had to say. In the middle of it all, Mo would point to me and say, 'I'd like to hear John's views.' Well, hell, I didn't have any views. But I got up and learned and was introduced to the state." Four years later, when McCain ran for and won Barry Goldwater's Senate seat, he said he felt his greatest debt of gratitude not to Goldwater—who had shunned him—but to Udall. "There's no way Mo could have been more wonderful," he says, "and there was no reason for him to be that way."

For the past few years, Udall has lain ill with Parkinson's disease in a veterans hospital in Northeast Washington, which is where we were heading. Every few weeks, McCain drives over to pay his respects. These days the trip is a ceremony, like going to church, only less pleasant. Udall is seldom conscious, and even then he shows no sign of recognition. McCain brings with him a stack of newspaper clips on Udall's favorite subjects: local politics in Arizona, environmental legislation, Native American land disputes, subjects in which McCain initially had no particular interest himself. Now, when the Republican senator from Arizona takes the floor on behalf of Native Americans, or when he writes an op-ed piece arguing that the Republican Party embrace environmentalism, or when the polls show once again that he is Arizona's most popular politician, he remains aware of his debt to Arizona's most influential Democrat.

One wall of Udall's hospital room was cluttered with photos of his family back in Arizona; another bore a single photograph of Udall during his season with the Denver Nuggets, dribbling a basketball. Aside from a congressional seal glued to a door jamb, there was no indication what the man in the bed had done for his living. Beneath a torn gray blanket on a narrow hospital cot, Udall lay twisted and disfigured. No matter how many times McCain tapped him on the shoulder and called his name, his eyes remained shut.

A nurse entered and seemed surprised to find anyone there, and it wasn't long before I found out why: Almost no one visits anymore. In his time, which was not very long ago, Mo Udall was one of the most-sought-after men in the Democratic Party. Yet as he dies in a veterans hospital a few miles from the Capitol, he is visited regularly only by a single old political friend, John McCain. "He's not going to wake up this time," McCain said.

On the way out of the parking lot, McCain recalled what it was like to be a nobody called upon by a somebody. As he did, his voice acquired the same warmth that colored Russell Feingold's speech when he described the first call from John McCain. "When you called Feingold … " I started to ask him. But before I could, he interrupted. "Yeah," he says, "I thought of Mo." And then, for maybe the third time that morning, McCain spoke of how it affected him when Udall took him in hand. It was a simple act of affection and admiration, and for that reason it meant all the more to McCain. It was one man saying to another, We disagree in politics but not in life. It was one man saying to another, party political differences cut only so deep. Having made that step, they found much to agree upon and many useful ways to work together. This is the reason McCain keeps coming to see Udall even after Udall has lost his last shred of political influence. The politics were never all that important.

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