John McCain will launch the next phase of his presidential campaign with a biographical tour across the country next month. Naturally, the tour will bring him back to Arizona, where the former Navy pilot began his career in politics decades ago.
“I’d like to believe that all 300 million Americans know me, but unfortunately that’s not the case,” the Republican nominee told reporters during a news briefing in Phoenix last week.
An interview request for this story went unanswered.
But his personal and political life story is a legend still remembered by his close friends and political supporters. His enemies and detractors are reluctant to talk about him publicly right now.
He first ventured into politics in the East Valley, a region, which like the rest of Arizona, was new to McCain in the early 1980s. During those early years representing Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Scottsdale, he developed a style and reputation that still define him as he runs for the nation’s top office.
He’s always been headstrong, brash, committed and not overly concerned about what others think of him, according to those who were close to him during those early years.
Furthermore, McCain breaks the political axiom that friends come and go, but enemies accumulate. McCain accumulates both.
He moved to Arizona in 1980 and emerged on the political scene after a series of life-altering changes.
On the personal side, McCain had just divorced his first wife, Carol, after 14 years of marriage and had married his second wife, Cindy, the daughter of Phoenix beer distributor Jim Hensley.
On the professional front, he had just retired from the Navy after stints of air combat, as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and as the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. He had gone to work for his millionaire father-in-law’s Budweiser distributorship.
“I was over 40 years old before I could claim a hometown, and I can’t express how fortunate I feel to have found a home in this beautiful state that has come to mean so much for me,” McCain said during his victory speech at the Arizona Biltmore Resort on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5.
BEGINNING OF LONG CAREER
During his early years in Arizona, McCain studied the state’s political landscape and began meeting leading business and political figures, eyeing the congressional seat held by longtime Rep. John Rhodes, a Republican from Arizona. Rhodes was the House minority leader and was considering retirement.
Former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, who was a young public defender at the time, remembers being introduced to McCain at a meeting arranged through an intermediary. Woods had interned for Rhodes earlier, but he was suspicious of McCain. It seemed that newcomers like McCain were overrunning Arizona, Woods said.
“I was skeptical. Then I met with him,” Woods said. “I walked out of the room convinced that he was the right guy for the job.”
Woods was impressed with McCain’s knowledge of the issues. He was sold on McCain’s commitment to duty, honor and country.
McCain made the rounds, meeting with other local political figures and political operatives, plus newspaper executives, developers and bankers, among others. Rhodes announced his retirement, and McCain immediately moved from Phoenix to Rhodes’ district in the East Valley to run for his office in 1982.
He entered a four-way Republican primary. The other candidates already were established in political circles — state Reps. Donna Carlson-West of Mesa and Jim Mack of Tempe, and former veterinarian and civic activist Ray Russell of Mesa.
“Clearly, (McCain) had a tremendous résumé and he was great candidate, but more than anything else, I think he outworked everybody,” Woods said. “And that’s remained true throughout his career.”
During that first race, McCain campaigned door-to-door six or seven days a week in triple-digit heat throughout the summer and fall. He personally knocked on 50,000 doors. He wore out three pairs of shoes.
In hindsight, Woods can’t help but wonder if all that time walking under the Arizona sun contributed to McCain’s later bouts with skin cancer.
The turning point during the campaign came during one of several political forums. Until then, McCain’s critics had gotten plenty of traction by labeling him a carpetbagger who moved to the state and the East Valley seeking a political opportunity.
For months, McCain countered that he moved to Arizona to be with his new wife. It fell on deaf ears. Then frustration led to inspiration one day.
He spat out a retort that his life in the Navy hadn’t allowed him the luxury to settle anywhere until then.
“As a matter of fact, the place I’ve lived the longest in my life was Hanoi,” he said.
The reference was to his 5½-year confinement in the “Hanoi Hilton,” a prisoner-of-war camp where he was held and tortured after he was shot down during a bombing mission in 1967.
That comment ended that discussion and became Arizona political legend.
McCain emerged from the primary with 32 percent of the vote, ahead of Russell who had 26 percent, Mack who picked up 22 percent and Carlson-West who finished with 20 percent. It turned out to be the closest congressional race of his career.
McCain crushed his Democratic opponent in the 1982 general election and hasn’t faced a primary opponent since. No Democrat has offered anything more than token opposition — not in his House re-election race in 1984, nor his Senate campaigns in 1986, 1992, 1998 or 2004. McCain still is most comfortable and at his best reaching out to people in small settings.
When his bloated presidential campaign seemed to implode during the summer, he went back to retail politics, meeting voters one-on-one in early primary states.
“You can see if you flash forward to this year, to this presidential campaign, nothing’s changed,” Woods said.
“He’s just been a relentless campaigner and he never gave up, even though he was written off by everybody. He did the same thing last fall in New Hampshire that he did in Mesa and the East Valley throughout his early years in Congress,” he said.
EARLY YEARS: HARD WORK
Once in office, McCain initially focused his career on a fairly typical Ronald Reagan-style Republican agenda, though he also worked side-by-side with Rep. Morris Udall, a Democrat from Arizona, on environmental, water and land issues.
One of his early signature accomplishments concerned aircraft overflights at the Grand Canyon. Tour operators argued that airplane and helicopter flights over the Canyon provided easy access and speedy access to the landmark, particularly for elderly and disabled people.
McCain sided with environmentalists who said aircraft noise destroyed the natural quiet at the Canyon.
McCain flew back to the district nearly every weekend during those years to attend town hall meetings, chamber of commerce breakfasts and to meet one on one with constituents, Woods said.
When former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater announced his retirement from the Senate just four years after McCain had joined the House, McCain campaigned to succeed him.
Wes Gullett, now a partner at the Phoenix public relations firm Hamilton, Gullett, Davis & Roman, traveled throughout the state in 1986 and came to know McCain well.
However, the best insight to McCain’s personality came three weeks after McCain won the race, Gullett said. McCain asked Gullett to go with him to Winslow to walk in the town’s Thanksgiving Day parade, which was held the Saturday following Thanksgiving. McCain also asked Gullett to set up meetings with the mayor and anyone else in town who might want to meet him.
It struck Gullett that no other newly elected member of the Senate was involved in a small town campaign-style event three weeks after winning office. The parade was nearly six full years before McCain’s re-election.
Gullett was stunned that during a time in an election cycle when most politicians are practically missing persons, McCain went to Winslow to wave to 800 people at a parade.
Then things got stranger.
On the way out of town, McCain turned to Gullett and said, as Gullett recalls, “We’re going to work really, really hard for two years. I want to go to every town once a year. I want you to go to every town once a month. I want to cover the state. I want to make sure that we work really hard for two years. Then we’ll see how we’re doing, and then, maybe then, we’ll take some time off.”
“It just showed how hard he wanted to work and how hard he has worked ever since. It’s press, press, press,” Gullett said.
It wasn’t until years later, particularly after Republicans gained control of the Senate, that McCain emerged as a leading national figure on his better known issues — national security, campaign reform, immigration, earmark reform and government spending.
SETTLING INTO THE GOP
To understand Republican politics in Arizona is to understand that there are just two types of Republicans — McCain loyalists and McCain opponents.
In some regards, McCain’s world is like the priesthood or the Mafia. Once a person’s in, he stays until he dies.
His former staff members and associates are scattered throughout the Republican infrastructure. They frequently cross back and forth between paid and volunteer positions on his and other leading Republicans’ government or campaign staffs.
Doug Cole, vice president of High Ground, a Phoenix political consulting firm, is among those longtime associates. McCain works his staff hard, but solicits their opinions and includes them in the decision-making process on meaningful issues, Cole said.
Cole recalls working in McCain’s press office in 1984 in Washington, when his mother came to visit just as McCain stepped back into the office after a floor vote. Cole made a brief introduction.
“He said, ‘Well, Mrs. Cole, come on in,’ and sat down and spent 20 minutes talking to my mom,” Cole said. “You know, it’s that type of stuff that the general public does not see, that garners great loyalty. Here I am in 2008 reflecting on a story from 1984.”
Woods remembers sitting in the gallery as McCain was sworn in for his first Senate term in 1986. Woods was overcome by emotion and cried.
Tom Liddy, a former Marine and history buff, remembers dropping by McCain’s office in 2004 when Liddy served as Maricopa County Republican Party chairman.
“I stuck my head in to say hello and he sat me down and we talked about all things politics and all things World War II,” Liddy said.
“I had to study the Battle of Peleliu when I was an officer in the Marines ... He had just read a book about that and we spoke about the Battle of Peleliu and some of the others in the island-hopping campaign for the better part of an hour. I was really struck by how detailed his knowledge was on that part of American history,” said Liddy, who’s working on McCain’s current campaign.
Fellow Republicans Sen. Jon Kyl and Reps. Jeff Flake and Rick Renzi all signed on early as state co-chairmen of McCain’s presidential campaign.
Renzi has since dropped off after being indicted on money laundering and other federal charges.
Even Republican Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who supported then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential primary and initially campaigned for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the 2008 primary, recently said he has switched his support to McCain.
The anti-McCain split within the state party largely comes from Republicans who differ with McCain’s approach to immigration reform, who say he’s too chummy with Democrats, and who privately contend that “King John” is a man who is much too impressed with himself.
“There are others in that faction who are just people that want to be in charge and want to be nay-sayers,” Liddy said. “And McCain’s always going to be a convenient target. If McCain had never moved to Arizona, I’m sure they’d be mad at somebody else.”