Caswell Cooke has been telling the story for nearly two decades. Long before he was elected to the town council in my hometown of Westerly, Rhode Island, the local businessman hosted a “dorky public-access show” for which he managed to interview an astonishing number of big-name celebrities. Cooke tracked down Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, Vanilla Ice and Conan O’Brien, members of the Beach Boys and the Who. In 1999, at the age of 25, he set the ambitious goal of talking to presidential candidates. That’s when John McCain welcomed him aboard his campaign bus, the “Straight Talk Express.”
“Nobody knew who the hell I was,” Cooke told me recently. “I called up all the campaigns—Dan Quayle’s, George W. Bush’s, Al Gore’s—and I got a call the next day from McCain’s people saying, ‘Yeah, come on up!’”
Cooke joined McCain for two days in New Hampshire—riding along with national political reporters as the Arizona senator regaled the traveling press corps over coffee and donuts. McCain famously gave the media unprecedented access to his campaign, and was willing to speak candidly, as much as journalists wanted, on any subject under the sun. He didn’t just grant Cooke an interview; he cut a promo for him, posing with a Caswell Cooke Show baseball cap.
Thoroughly charmed, Cooke became an alternate delegate for McCain at the Republican National Convention and ran as “a John McCain Republican” for the Westerly Town Council, where he served from 2002 to 2014. No professional journalist would embrace the senator that explicitly, but many now look back on the “Straight Talk Express” with misty-eyed nostalgia. “McCain’s first run for the presidency in 2000 will always be remembered by those of us who covered it as one of the most exhilarating campaigns ever,” Jeff Greenfield wrote last year in Politico Magazine. This month, New York Times columnist Gail Collins called it “the absolute best political event I ever covered”:
It was what everybody imagines an underdog campaign would be like—a few reporters and the candidate, driving around in a bus, telling jokes, talking about issues, and of course arguing about where to eat dinner that night. But it was also a crusade—McCain thought if you reformed the way politicians raised money to run for office you could change the world.
As McCain, 81, fights brain cancer, the press is weighing his legacy. Some believe he has mostly lived up to his image, cemented on the campaign trail in 2000, as a Republican who tells hard truths and takes on tough fights. “He is, in a way, not of our time,” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote this month, “for his creed—country before self—is unfamiliar to many who serve in office and utterly foreign to the man in charge.”
Yet critics say McCain the political “maverick” is a myth. “It all started in New Hampshire in 2000,” said Alex Pareene, the politics editor for Splinter. “He obviously was a charmer in an interpersonal setting, and people liked that he was crusty and funny, but that grew into this absurd version of him that was an American hero and a bold truth-teller.”
But everyone I spoke to agreed on this much: McCain ran a pathbreaking campaign, which no presidential candidate has emulated since.
“I really think McCain created a template for modern campaign communications that unfortunately no one else paid attention to,” said Ron Fournier, a national political writer for the Associated Press in 2000. “The next great presidential candidate—and the next great president—will look a lot like the ‘Straight Talk Express.’”
McCain’s media-friendly strategy first emerged after the Keating Five scandal of the late 1980s, when he and four of his Senate colleagues were accused of inappropriately intervening with federal regulators on behalf of a campaign donor. “This was the beginning of a pattern that he has developed,” former Arizona Republic reporter Jerry Kammer recently told PBS. “At moments of crisis, he’ll stand there until the last reporter sits down. And I think it’s worked very well for him.”
The press also latched onto McCain’s campaign-finance reform advocacy with Senator Russ Feingold, a liberal Democrat from Wisconsin, in the 1990s. “Whether it was out of sympathy to the cause or simply a fascination with the David vs. Goliath-style struggle, McCain and Feingold became national media mainstays,” the Republic reported. “By 1995, references to the ‘maverick Republican’ McCain were ubiquitous. Some conservatives nursed grudges against him for years over the positive coverage McCain received during this period.”
But that coverage buoyed McCain when he decided to seek the White House.
“The reporters were there on the bus dubbed ‘the Straight Talk Express’ because it was one of the most entertaining shows in politics,” John Dickerson recalled on his Slate podcast Whistlestop in 2016. He described McCain’s primary battle against Bush as “a historic moment—not just for the rags to riches political story of a long-shot insurgent taking on the establishment. It was the last gasp of a pre-internet age without tweeting and instantaneous blogging—where a candidate could offer some semblance of their actual self on the campaign trail without being plunged into instantaneous controversy by a constantly needy machine of fresh hot takes, partisanship, and permanent warfare that’s all required to keep the money, clicks, and adrenaline flowing.”
“It was really like a once-in-a-lifetime experience in terms of covering a campaign,” CNN anchor Jake Tapper told me, having reported from the bus for Salon that year. “[McCain] had ten times the energy any of us younger people did, and a much better attitude, even though he was in the middle of losing his presidential race. He was just bouncing around like Tigger while the rest of us were like Eeyore.”
Fournier remembers intimate moments like watching McCain’s aides comb his hair and help him into a sweater—assistance the senator required after his Vietnam War injuries left him unable to raise his arms above his shoulders. “It just stuck me: Holy shit. This guy can’t comb his own hair,” Fournier said. “It doesn’t make him any better or worse to be a president, but boy, it was a compelling moment that for the rest of the campaign kept him human for me.” Fournier added, “McCain has been covered pretty fairly and pretty honestly by most reporters.”
“He is a completely charming, likable, charismatic guy,” said Ana Marie Cox, who covered McCain’s second presidential bid for Time magazine in 2008. “And funny, and interested in other people. That’s also the other thing that gets lost about why the press likes him: He’s interested in the press.” Cox believes McCain was genuine in his interest, and that it stemmed from his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “Think about it: If you spend years locked in prison isolated from everyone, what’s going to be your dominant personality characteristic coming out of that? You’re going to be curious.”
“That trait, though—being interested in other people, being interested in the reporters themselves, being likable and charming—definitely skews coverage,” she added. “It’s hard for it not to. You’re definitely more likely to listen and try to understand someone who’s listening and trying to understand you.”
Bill Press, who was a liberal co-host of CNN’s Crossfire in 2000, remembers falling for McCain hard. “I was a self-professed McCainiac,” he told me with a laugh. “I remember admitting it on the air.” Press even described McCain as the politician he most admired in all of Washington. “If, in fact, he was able to guile us by not being antagonistic toward the media but open and welcoming and direct—if that worked to get him better press coverage—then bravo,” he said. “That was very smart on his part. Maybe more people ought to try it rather than calling us the enemy of the American people.”
Pareene, of Splinter, doesn’t necessarily disagree with any of this. “At one level,” he said, “I absolutely support a politician who is open to directly interacting with the press and not treating them like an enemy—cultivating them and talking to them and answering every question. That’s obviously something good that more people should do. It’s actually shocking that more people haven’t followed his lead in doing that.” But Pareene argues that McCain’s “maverick” image isn’t borne out by his legislative record. “Most of his worst offenses are just him acting like a normal Republican senator,” he said, “but because people allowed themselves to be spun so effectively by him, they act shocked every time. I guess it doesn’t have to be pernicious, but in practice with McCain it was used to paper over all of the ways in which he hasn’t lived up to his own myth-making.”
McCain’s record is certainly contradictory, as the Republic’s comprehensive review of his legacy documents. He did buck his party—not just on campaign finance, but on immigration, environmental issues, tax cuts for the wealthy, and, most righteously, torture. Last year, in a dramatic moment on the Senate floor, he gave the decisive thumbs-down to a Republican bill to repeal Obamacare. (McCain opposes the health care law, but thinks it should be replaced in a bipartisan way.)
But McCain was also a conventional Republican in many respects. He voted with Bush 90 percent of the time, and was one of the most stalwart supporters of the Iraq War. “That’s one of the tragedies of John McCain in terms of policy,” Cox said. “His experiences in war brought him to a place of utter compassion and humanity when it comes to torture—he could see the wrongness of it—but somehow it didn’t turn him against war in general, or even make him more doubtful about war in general.”
The 2008 presidential race showed that even McCain wasn’t immune to his party’s worst impulses. While he stood up to racism and nativism against Obama, he selected as his running mate Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor whose post-truth politics were a precursor to Trumpism. This dented his reputation with the media.
“He’s not a maverick on every issue,” Press conceded, “but compared to the other spineless politicians of either party? You don’t have to stand on your hands to be a maverick in that environment. Yeah, I fell out of love with him at one time, but I fell back in love, too.” As Milbank put it this month, “the Mac always came back.”
“His is a very complicated legacy,” Tapper said. “He at times has been a maverick, but at times he has not. He at times has been candid, but at times he has not.... Even if it’s relatively small amounts of courage compared to what you’d like to see, it’s a lot more than what you normally see. Even if it’s relatively small amounts of candor compared to how your uncle talks, it’s a tremendous amount of candor compared to the average politician.”
McCain understands something elemental about journalists: They love to hear good stories, and they love to tell good stories. This might seem obvious, but few politicians, in 2000 or 2018, have shown a willingness to give reporters the necessary access for such stories—nor do many politicians have personal stories as dramatic as McCain’s. Thus, most campaigns and congressional offices these days are more tightly scripted than a prime-time crime procedural on CBS.
And then there’s Trump. Whereas the media landscape in 2000 conferred tremendous power to national newspaper and TV reporters, whom McCain duly serenaded aboard his bus, Trump in 2016 realized that the power was in his own hands, thanks to Twitter. He could straight-talk directly to the public, without any intermediary—and thanks to hyperpolarization, he didn’t have to play nice. Trump understood, perhaps even more than McCain did, that the press cannot resist a politician who breaks all the rules.
But in the age of Trump’s attacks on “fake news,” as American politics become ever more partisan and nasty, the press is clearly hungry for honorable politicians like McCain who, however flawed he may be, engaged with reporters in good faith.
“I wish more politicians were like that,” Cox said. “I don’t think that would solve all of our problems, and I still think we would probably need to argue about policing and military intervention and women’s right to control their bodies. But I think we wouldn’t hate each other as much. That’s sort of what McCain stands for to me: He offers a vision for talking about politics that doesn’t wind up with, ‘And fuck ’em.’”
One particular memory of McCain moves her to this day. “The 2008 campaign was a period of my life where my drinking and drug use escalated,” said Cox, a recovering alcoholic. “I was keeping it together for the most part, but one of the people who noticed was John McCain. He’s one of the first people in my life who approached me with concern about my drinking.”
She choked up. “I wish I could tell him.”