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Combative, complex and always seeking grace: Recollections of covering John McCain

A wild-swinging boxer at the Naval Academy in the 1950s, John McCain was willful and combative — a Senate scrapper.

The Republican Arizona senator described his personality as “very competitive.”

But he was complicated, puzzling even. He used to sit near Rep. Morris K. Udall's hospital bed and softly talk or read newspaper articles to the former Democratic presidential candidate after Udall's Parkinson's disease had reached an advanced stage. Udall was too ill to respond.

McCain didn't publicize his visits to the Washington veterans hospital to see Udall, who died in 1998 at age 76.

But he once told me that Udall naturally possessed something McCain had to continually strive for — grace.

Udall was a lanky, self-effacing, Lincolnesque man who possessed an ease with people that voters sensed was genuine. McCain could be engaging and jocular but also temperamental, sometimes holding years-long grudges or allowing his passion for a pet cause to override his better instincts.

He would make statements in the moment, occasionally criticizing his own legislative allies' approaches to bills, rather than adopt diplomatic tacks.

He once said he didn’t expect a campaign finance reform bill to pass— it initially didn’t — and then had to walk the statement back because it undercut other senators still fighting for passage.

But what struck me, in covering McCain for nine years as an Arizona Republic Washington reporter until 2000, was how he sometimes circled back to his own behavior and tried to make amends.

On Capitol Hill, acknowledging weakness can be considered admitting defeat. McCain talked about his frailties and rough edges.

Three times, in a 1996 Arizona Republic interview with me, he began sentences by saying he had made “many” mistakes.

“I’ve done many, many things wrong. And one of those is a tendency to become impatient, if not angry. I think those who work with me most closely would agree that there have been some changes over the years. But it’s been an evolving thing with me. I think that Mo was born with some of these natural attributes which, in my case, took time to develop.”

In 1970, a Democratic activist named David Ifshin became known for his Vietnam anti-war efforts, appearing on the cover of Life magazine. At the time, McCain was a prisoner in Hanoi after his plane was shot down and he was captured, breaking both arms and one leg.

McCain was a POW from October 1967 to March 1973. Ifshin spoke against the war on Radio Hanoi, and his messages were piped into McCain’s cell.

Years later, McCain criticized Ifshin’s anti-war actions in a speech. But the passage of time — and introspection — eventually intervened.

Ifshin apologized to McCain during the 1980s. McCain delivered an apology of his own.

When Ifshin died of cancer in 1996, McCain spoke at the funeral. “He always felt passionate about his country,” the senator said. “I learned a lot about courage from David.”

Around that period, McCain wouldn’t speak to me or my Republic colleagues for well over a year after the newspaper printed an editorial cartoon about his wife, Cindy, that he considered cruel. I was barred from his presidential campaign bus, the "Straight Talk Express," in 2000 because of disputes between McCain and the paper. He once refused to shake my hand.

But he wrote me a congratulatory note when I got engaged in 1999. And his mother, Roberta, invited me to tea that year after I profiled her in the newspaper. "I really would love to have you over, any time you are free," said her card.

We had tea and finger sandwiches and she talked about her son (she called him “Johnny”) and about playing bridge and her many foreign trips. She has a sneaky sense of humor and is as tough-minded and feisty as he was but uncomfortable in the public eye.

She turned 106 in February.

Roberta McCain said she once scolded her son for cursing at the guards while a prisoner of war. The senator was no stranger to profanity.

“She said, ‘I'm coming over there and wash your mouth out with soap,’ ”John McCain told a National Press Club audience in 1999.

“She keeps me on the straight and narrow,” McCain told the newspaper.

jebarker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

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