John McCain was a funny, smart, maddening, driven, awkward and caring person all wrapped in a short, gray haired package. From the 1980’s until 2006 I covered him as a news reporter, then stayed in touch as I transitioned into the business world. While a lot has been written and said about him, I want to use this time to talk about John McCain, the communicator.
Funny: In many years of covering public figures I’m not sure I knew anyone who used humor quite as well as McCain. He was literally ALWAYS giving someone a hard time – whether it be his wife, a staffer or a fellow elected official. It helped him stand out from the scripted, boring politicians of the day and reporters ate it up. Here’s my favorite story to explain. In 1992 the Republican convention was in Houston, housed inside the giant Astrodome. One afternoon McCain was to practice his speech at the podium, so he would be more comfortable that evening delivering one of the keynote addresses. The huge hall was empty except for some staffers and myself and my photographer. We were there to get some video of the practice session. However, instead of practicing his speech McCain immediately stepped to the microphone and started: “It’s so great to see Cary Pfeffer has been bailed out of jail in time to be here today. It looks like his time in Tent City (then part of the jail system in Phoenix) has done him some good and hopefully he’s learned his lesson…” and on and on. It was classic McCain – I’d heard it aimed at me before – the more public setting the better – public meetings, busy airports, etc. But this location took the cake. Booming through the giant sound system in the Astrodome, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So much for practicing his speech.
Awkward: For a guy with that much personal charm, all the personality just drained out of him when he was required to read a speech off teleprompter. He came across as tentative, halting, awkward. Not at all McCain. Easily bored with practice (as evidenced by the previous story) he just never took to it and that’s a shame. The big stage often requires teleprompter skill and he never made the required progress to be able to truly show people who he was in a scripted setting.
Caring: If you truly care about people it will infuse everything about your communication style just as surely as a cold personality can never effectively connect with people, no matter how hard they try. McCain cared about people and it made him stand out at every turn. (As an example, check out my Linked In profile for a clip I posted about what he said on my last day as reporter.) He was not a perfect person but could show a depth of concern for his fellow human being that made him stand out. It’s not surprising to see the clip from the 2008 election year town hall where he stops a questioner who starts saying untrue things about fellow candidate Barak Obama. It seems almost quaint in today’s setting, but it speaks to who McCain was and the clear standard he kept in his mind.
As a communicator, McCain was a very smart, engaged mix of strengths and weaknesses – with a foundation of humanity that made him so much fun to be around. As I look back I’m not sure I ever met someone who was so alive. Rest in Peace, my friend. You deserve it.
Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer
Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting, www.clear-comm.net, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication.
Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.