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With the death of Sen. John McCain, the Senate has lost a titan, the nation a sacrificial war hero and his family an attentive, caring husband, father and grandfather. But the press corps — the nation’s Fourth Estate — has also lost an unofficial ally.
For all his flaws, McCain was more than just the straight shooter he’s been accurately dubbed over his storied career. He understood and actually seemed to appreciate the vital role that journalists play in the political process, and that is something of which this new, reality-television-generation of politicians needs to take note and try to emulate.
Over the past 12 years, I’ve covered McCain for both Flagstaff and Phoenix’s NPR stations and more recently for national outlets. Whether I was interviewing him for a small local outlet with only tens of thousands of listeners or for publications that reach millions, there was no difference in how McCain responded to questions.
Put another way: McCain was always himself with the nation’s reporters, often to the annoyance of his communications team.
For McCain, that meant treating journalists as humans. At one moment he’d be self-deprecating (when I broke my arm, he signed my cast “Old Geezer McCain”) and hilarious (“What do you want, you little jerks?”) or shockingly blunt (“What are you smoking?”). Seconds later, he’d give us a tutorial on cursing (just ask anyone who’s covered him; many of his tirades remain unfit to print while still ringing in our ears).
In many ways he presented himself to reporters unvarnished, as the flawed human he was. For the most part, that meant he was accessible.
This isn’t intended to sanitize, lionize or canonize the man. Because McCain was no saint, which he would have been the first to admit. He had a temper that engulfed ornate rooms in the Capitol and an indiscriminately fiery tongue that has left more than a few of us reporters charred.
That was the beauty of McCain: He was a man and not a god. He knew it; we knew it too.
The six-term senator’s visible and invisible scars from his time as a POW in Vietnam reminded all who met him of his frail humanity. Physical and emotional, they told a story: He was flesh and blood, not a caricature of what a politician should be (like the farces splashed across our screens).
McCain wasn’t made for reality TV. He was made for the Senate — a legislative body that the nation’s founders envisioned as a place where wise minds from disparate corners of the nation were sent to hash out their deep regional and ideological differences for the national good.
Initially, back in 1789, the Senate was closed to the public and to the press corps, but that proved foolish and the nation’s upper chamber opened its doors to reporters and the public within six years of the nation’s first congressional session. That was because the American people demanded to know what senators were up to when they were away from home. Well, the American people and the press corps always knew what Senator John McCain was thinking.
McCain had political ambition, but it never blinded him from energetically trying to carry out his duty of being a responsive lawmaker. And even with the unparalleled access to politician’s occasional thoughts that we now get via social media, actual openness and transparency are, sadly, becoming the remnants of a bygone era.
There was no need for McCain to lambast, assault or try to undermine the press corps on a daily basis. He argued for what he believed, and he was proud of those often-controversial views. He defended and fought for those positions until his end, both outside and especially inside of his own political party.
Many of today’s new generation of senators are either bomb throwers who are willing to shut the government down to make untenable political demands — disruption and chaos garners headlines, after all — or they hide behind grandiose tweets while running away from simple questions from the press corps with a flippant “Call my press office.” That blatant disregard for the press has become commonplace in Washington and, in reality, it’s a slight to politician’s constituents back home who deserve to know what their lawmakers are thinking when they’re slumming it in the swamp.
That’s no way to be a public official; the press isn’t the enemy, as some politicians now contend.
Sure, reporters deserve the McCain treatment every once in a while when we make a mistake or ask a mind-numbingly ignorant question. They may not teach it in many journalism schools, but being sworn at and berated to our faces is a part of the job.
But that sometimes harsh — and always memorable — McCain treatment was coupled with admiration and access. His momentary flares of anger came from a place of respect for the Fourth Estate.
As a man who got a lot wrong in his 81 years on this earth, McCain didn’t demand or even expect perfection from those whose job was to question him. As a senator who demanded that the witnesses who sat in front of his committees be straight with him, he expected and even, for the most part, welcomed prying questions. It was a part of his duty as a federal lawmaker and was a part of what made him a statesman.
While politicians are tweeting out their well wishes to the late senator this weekend, they’d do better to borrow a page from his book and try to mimic him as they carry the torch he left behind. That means taking questions from and appreciating the role reporters play in this great American experiment.
The experiment now continues without McCain, but we’d all be wise to try to follow his example. For politicians, a simple way to attempt to take a stroll in his shoes is to simply answer questions from the press corps. And to, maybe, curse them out to their faces every once in a while.
Matt Laslo is a reporter who has written for NPR, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and VICE News, among others. He’s also an adjunct professor teaching regularly at The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at Boston University and The University of Maryland.