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McCain, The Presidential Campaigner


Senator John McCain was a towering presence in American politics, and yet he never won the top job. He made two presidential runs, and the closest he came was in 2008 as the Republican nominee.


JOHN MCCAIN: Tonight, I have a privilege given few Americans - the privilege of accepting our party's nomination for president of the United States.


MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley covered that campaign, and he's with us now. Scott, welcome. Thanks for coming.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, as you look back at - on that campaign, what stands out to you?

HORSLEY: You know, the tremendous amount of access that the public and members of the news media had to John McCain - so different than what we saw in 2016 and actually pretty different from most campaigns even at the time. John McCain was at his best when he was mixing it up with reporters or voters, and he held scores of unscripted town halls during that campaign. There were also some challenges, though, with his message. You know, he campaigned during the primaries saying Islamic terrorism was the transcendent issue of the day, and that was quickly transcended by economic woes. He didn't really have much of an economic message. He also said he wanted to inspire a generation of young people to serve a cause greater than themselves. A lot of young people were inspired, but many of them were inspired by McCain's opponent, Barack Obama.

MARTIN: And he named Sarah Palin his vice presidential nominee, the governor of Alaska - then-governor of Alaska. She was virtually unknown at the time.


MCCAIN: She's not from these parts, and she's not from Washington. But when you get to know her, you're going to be as impressed as I am. She's got the grit, integrity, good sense and fierce devotion to the common good that is exactly what we need in Washington today.

MARTIN: Now, the reason I'm bringing this up is that in his book "The Restless Wave," which was released earlier this year, McCain reflected on his choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. And he wrote that he regrets not having chosen Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut instead. So Scott, I want to ask you, why did he choose Palin?

HORSLEY: Well, he needed a game changer at the time. He had been trailing Barack Obama in the polls all summer. The choice of Palin was sort of a Hail Mary pass. It was described by one of his advisers as high risk, high reward. There were rewards at first. For a while, Sarah Palin lit up the campaign. She drew much bigger crowds than McCain had on his own. But ultimately, the risks became evident, and she flamed out. Sarah Palin never built a national political career of her own, but she did pave the way for another candidate, Donald Trump. And I think both McCain and his aides have voiced some regrets over that.

MARTIN: And nevertheless, though, McCain has been praised for the way he led his campaign. And one memorable moment came in Lakeville, Minn., in October of 2008 when a woman stood up and took the mic at a town hall meeting.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I can't trust Obama. I have read about him. And he's not - he's not - he's a - he's an Arab. He's not - no?

MCCAIN: No, ma'am. No, ma'am. He's a decent family man - citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that's what this campaign is all about.

MARTIN: So, Scott, what do you think this moment tells us about John McCain?

HORSLEY: It's a window into his integrity and the way he could fight over policy without demonizing his opponents. I think you're hearing that from all the bipartisan tributes that have been - flowed in over the last day or so. Obama in his own statement last night said he and McCain saw their political battles as something noble and a chance to serve as stewards of high ideals.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.