It’s not often one can say a person they’ve known for 20 years might be the next President of the United States, but in the case of John McCain, I can say it. First, two points of clarification. I don’t really know John McCain, but I’ve covered him as a reporter and interviewed him and spent hours with him many times over the last 20 years. In that way I know him. Second, you need not worry that the rest of what you’re about to read will be some kind of endorsement. You are fully capable of making your own decisions about people who run for President. What I have to say about McCain is a little of what I learned from him and about him over the last 20 years, and therefore what we can all learn about life in the media and public spotlight.
This topic came to mind because I recently closed the door to my previous life. This Sunday, December 3rd, I will anchor my final newscast. For the last three years I’ve continued to keep one foot in the broadcasting and journalism business by anchoring a Sunday morning newscast here in Phoenix. I’ve decided that’s a book I need to finally close and so, for my last newscast, I asked Senator McCain to sit down with me for one final interview. It brought back some memories, and some lessons.
McCain understands the media dynamic better than any politician I’ve ever met. Want to know his secret? McCain treats reporters like people. He likes them. He enjoys the give and take. And he works at it.
In 2000, when he first ran for President, he invited reporters to hang out with him as much as they wanted. He became the darling of the media and of New Hampshire voters, stunning front runner George W. Bush. McCain knew he didn’t have the money to outspend Bush, but he had something else that was even more powerful. He had the ear of the reporters who were writing the story of the 2000 primaries. It almost got him the nomination and it put him in place to be the front runner this time around.
McCain was also part of the “Keating 5” back in the late ’80s. While most public figures would have suffered a deadly knock-out punch from such a scandal, McCain did not. He held one news conference, in fact, where he said he would stay until every question had been asked and answered — and he did.
For this election he faces a much different scene. He’s out front for now, but he’s also eight years older. If elected for two terms, McCain would be the oldest President ever to serve. When asked about his age he has a ready answer. “I’m old as dirt and I have the scars to prove it. I’d also like you to meet my 94 year old Mother who just came back from touring Europe!” Classic McCain. See the problem, face it head-on and by doing so, he controls the debate.
Over the next two years watch the guy. He understands how to navigate these waters. See what you can learn. I know he’ll make some mistakes. McCain has always been a maverick, so it will be interesting to see how he handles this new role. But one thing I can tell you. McCain has made for an interesting 20 years in this reporter’s life — and I’ll be watching to see how he handles this next chapter.