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McCain Put Issues Before Politics Of The Day, Fontaine Says


We are spending time this morning looking back on the life of Senator John McCain, who died over the weekend from brain cancer. On Capitol Hill, his impact on policy was everywhere. There was his chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, his bipartisan efforts on immigration, campaign finance reform, his absolute opposition to torture. McCain himself was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He spoke out against waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques repeatedly, including in November 2016 after President Trump was elected.


JOHN MCCAIN: If they started waterboarding, I swear to you, there's a whole bunch of us that would have him in court in a New York minute. And there's no judge in America that wouldn't say they're in violation of the law because it's a - specifically, in law, now prohibited. So I don't give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do or anybody else wants to do. We will not waterboard.

GREENE: Richard Fontaine was a foreign policy adviser to McCain, as well as a friend. He was a foreign policy adviser both in the Senate and on his 2008 presidential campaign, and he joins us in our studios this morning.

I know it's probably been a difficult couple days, so thank you for coming in and taking the time for us.

RICHARD FONTAINE: Oh, thank you for having me.

GREENE: You wrote in a remembrance over the weekend that McCain's commitment to principle, despite its costs, is what America has lost with the senator's passing. Say more about that if you could.

FONTAINE: Well, I think if you look at his career, you see time and time again, sometimes at political cost to himself, when Senator McCain stood up for either issues that might cost him politically or issues that had no political resonance whatsoever, whether it was opposition to torture - which was not exactly always a winning issue on the Republican side - to his support for democracy activists in places like Burma and Belarus and things like that, to his support for the surge in Iraq, he consistently put things that he thought were important above the politics of the day. And I'm afraid that that's a rare thing these days.

GREENE: What about acknowledging mistakes? I mean, I think about, in his memoir, him talking about the Iraq War and saying that it can't be judged as anything other than a mistake now, a serious one, and that he has to accept his share of blame for it. How did he handle things that he realized were mistakes?

FONTAINE: Well, this is the - one of the things that I really did admire about Senator McCain, both when I worked for him and then afterwards as well, because he'd be the first to tell you that he was a - far from a candidate for sainthood or a perfect oracle of the truth or anything like that. And he was a very imperfect person, but he recognized it, and he admitted it, and he tried to admit when he had made mistakes, whether it was his support for the Confederate flag flying over South Carolina's Capitol or, as you just pointed out, his support for the war in Iraq, which he came to think had been a mistake.

GREENE: He also had a temper, it sounds like. I mean, do you remember maybe a moment you could tell us about when you really felt the wrath of his anger - which sounded like it would be short-lived, but serious.

FONTAINE: Yeah. I mean, there's probably more than one that I could relay.

GREENE: (Laughter).

FONTAINE: I was on the receiving end of a little straight talk from time to time. And it could be from - anything from a transcendently important issue to something relatively minor, but he was quick to have passion about particular things and - but then quick to sort of catch himself. And it always struck me - you know, I would talk to him on the phone or be in a meeting or something, and sometimes he'd be arguing with me, and I'd be arguing back or he would go on about something, and it would get a little heated, and then he would, you know, refer to me as, you know, old pal even though I was four decades younger than him and a staffer and he was the senior senator from Arizona. And then we'd sort of be off and running again on whatever the issue - it was, and he would try to redirect that passion toward an issue rather than just something that was going on that day.

GREENE: You traveled the world with him. And there was a particular story that you told about a night of drinking in Estonia that really said a lot about his funnier side. Can you tell us about that?

FONTAINE: Well, it was interesting. This was my first overseas trip with him. I was in my 20s and didn't know him terribly well. And we got to Estonia, where then-Senator Hillary Clinton had joined up with our traveling party, and we were going to meet with some senior Estonians the next day. And so Senator McCain convened the group for a dinner out on the square outside in Tallinn and, you know, before too long, had started ordering vodka shots for everyone around the table and then some more vodka shots. And all the senators included began to enjoy things. And then he ordered a bottle of Absolut so that it would be easier to pour. And before you know it, he had organized a quite impromptu walking tour of the old city. There was not a huge amount to see because it was dark. The Secret Service was a little interested in this because we were sort of walking around, and we had a U.S. Embassy control officer following behind, I think with the remaining bottle of Absolut because he didn't know what else to do with it.

GREENE: (Laughter) The lawmakers might want more.

FONTAINE: Yeah, exactly. And so this was my introduction to one of the ways in which Senator McCain liked to travel, which is to say, he would go, go, go.

GREENE: And before I let you go, you visited him at his ranch not so long ago in March. What did you take from that?

FONTAINE: It was interesting because, in previous times when I'd get together with him, we'd often gossip or exchange old war stories about trips we had taken or things like that. This was different. It was more philosophical. We talked about history. We talked about everything from General Grant and the Stalin show trials to the Battle of Borodino, when Napoleon was marching on Moscow and the Russian army retreated. And we talked about his place in Arizona and his land there. And it did have quite a feel of the character of someone who was reflecting on his life and his place in the world and, frankly, his gratitude for having played a role in it.

GREENE: Richard Fontaine was a foreign policy adviser and friend to Senator John McCain. Thanks a lot for talking to us.

FONTAINE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.