The recent death of U.S. Sen. John McCain had me reflect on my experiences with him – and they were always very pleasant.
I first met the Arizona Republican through Mike DeWine on Oct. 3, 2005.
DeWine was running the following year for re-election to the U.S. Senate – he would lose to Democrat Sherrod Brown – and was in the Mahoning Valley for a pair of fundraisers with McCain as the headliner of both events. It was also McCain’s first visit to the area.
In a move that’s become almost rare in today’s political environment, DeWine’s campaign arranged a sit-down interview with myself and another print reporter with the two senators at Leo’s Ristorante in Howland. The restaurant was closed except for the four of us and a couple of political aides.
I was expecting 10 to 15 minutes, but it ended up being about an hour in which we talked about a variety of topics.
McCain had unsuccessfully run for his party’s presidential nomination in 2000, losing to George W. Bush, and was considering another bid for the seat in 2008.
I asked him about it.
His response: “Do I want to be president? Yes. The question is: ‘Do I want to run to be president?’ That’s a different question.”
McCain said he would evaluate his options after the 2006 election, saying he needed to determine if he could raise the money for the race as well as “the wherewithal, the ability and the chance” to win.
What I remember the most about that interview was McCain’s candor.
The best quotes came after we had already spent so much time together. He returned from a bathroom break and asked about then-Gov. Bob Taft.
A poll at the time showed Taft, a fellow Republican, with an approval rating among Ohioans of 15 percent after the Coingate scandal that led to him being found guilty a few months prior of four misdemeanor ethics violations.
“I’ve seen a million polls and I’ve never seen a poll with 15 percent; do you think he’ll resign?” McCain asked.
McCain then said if he were Taft, he’d quit.
Obviously McCain chose to run for president in 2008.
During that campaign, it seemed as though the candidates and their surrogates were in the Mahoning Valley almost every day. When I looked at old newspaper articles of that election year the other day, that’s not much of an exaggeration.
Perhaps my fondest memory was McCain’s visit to Youngstown in April 2008. He had just won the Republican primary in Pennsylvania and had already secured enough delegates in earlier primaries to be the party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
Sharing a ride
I was fortunate enough, along with another newspaper reporter, to ride with McCain from a news conference at a closed manufacturing plant to a rally at Youngstown State University.
It was arranged through his campaign and I was given the opportunity to interview him on the drive in the three-row van.
This was a classic case of giving too much power to people who didn’t know what to do with it.
The other reporter and I had two handlers who were in their mid-20s and felt a little too important.
After McCain made a few remarks at the news conference, one of the handlers told me and the other reporter to quickly get in the van with McCain while the other told us to wait. It was a funny sight watching one wave us toward the vehicle while the other had her hand out telling us to stop. They were about two feet from each other.
I pointed at the two of them and then proceeded to walk toward the van. They agreed on one thing: myself and the other reporter were to crowd ourselves into the back seat of the van with the two of them and let McCain sit by himself in the middle row.
I was the last person to get in the van with the handlers yelling at me to get in the back. McCain and I looked at each other and he quickly realized how ridiculous his people were behaving. He patted the seat next to him and urged me to sit there, which I did.
The van’s driver wasn’t a steady hand so we ended up moving all over that vehicle while asking McCain questions. When we arrived at YSU, the handlers ordered me and the other reporter out of the van. McCain was fed up with their behavior, told them to settle down and asked if we had any more questions. After we each asked him another question, he again asked if we wanted anything more from him. We didn’t, but how do you tell him no? You don’t. I pulled another question out of the air and he answered it. We thanked him and headed to the venue.
During that campaign, McCain made three other campaign visits to the Valley, including a September rally with Sarah Palin, his vice presidential running mate, at the Winner Aviation hangar at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna that drew a crowd of about 7,000.
I was part of the motorcade that went from Vienna to Cassese’s MVR restaurant in Youngstown. Rather than stay with the motorcade and drive back to the airport, where a Vindicator photographer’s car was parked, I walked back to the newsroom. It was a lot easier than wasting at least an hour on unnecessary travel.
As hard as McCain campaigned in the Mahoning Valley, he received only about 36 percent of the vote in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, and got 53 percent in Columbiana County on his way to losing Ohio and the national election to Democrat Barack Obama.
But to this day I remember McCain’s professionalism, honesty and integrity. We lost a real good one.