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U.S. Sen. John McCain dies at 81; NH friends salute his humor, fight, loyalty

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 25. 2018 8:38PM
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., listens as former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee Jan. 31, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Pete Marovich/TNS/file photo)

The New Hampshire people who knew him best said John McCain’s never-quit fight, self-effacing humor and fierce loyalty to anyone in the same political foxhole set him apart as an American marvel during a long and storied career in public life.

“He was so genuine, so real. For all his accomplishments and everything this man did as this incredibly smart, passionate leader, it’s his respect for every human being and selfless devotion to his country which set him apart,” recalled former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the Nashua Republican who won a Senate seat in 2010 after McCain helped her navigate a fierce, bitter Republican primary.

The senator died at his Arizona home Saturday, his office said in a statement. McCain was 81. On Friday, his family announced that he had stopped treatment for a malignant brain tumor.

McCain will be remembered here as the five-year Vietnam prisoner of war who became the two-time winner of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

He was the political Houdini who took his campaign from near-flat broke in July 2007 to the presidential nomination and the Republican conservative lion of the Senate whose name was on every significant piece of defense and national security legislation over the past three decades.

As the son and grandson of four-star Navy admirals, McCain would joke his biggest military accomplishment as a Navy pilot was crashing five jet planes.

But former Republican State Chairman and constant McCain campaign traveling companion Steve Duprey remembers most fondly that scary night on June 19, 2008 during a St. Paul, Minn., town meeting when a woman came with so much hate for Barack Obama that it just exploded.

“I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, he’s not — he’s an Arab,” Gayle Quinnell blurted out.

McCain quickly shook his head, pumped the woman’s hand and took the microphone away from her.

“No ma’am,” McCain said. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.

“He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as President. If I didn’t think I’d be one heck of a better President I wouldn’t be running, and that’s the point. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.”

Duprey said, “I was never more proud of him that night but that was John McCain. Nobody fought harder but there was a core goodness and humanity to the guy unlike anyone I have ever had the honor of knowing.”

For the last year, Duprey had gone out every four to six weeks to visit McCain and his wife, Cindy, at their comfortable compound in Sedona, Ariz.

Duprey had been planning a trip Tuesday to join McCain for his 82nd birthday until the latest news that McCain was ending medical treatment.

“He was his usual self, irreverent, a twinkle in his eye believing he is one of the luckiest guys to ever live,” Duprey recalled of his last visit. “He faced it all and he laughed most of the time doing it.”

Even in facing this aggressive form of brain cancer, glioblastoma, McCain managed to keep it light, Duprey said.

“As he said to me soon after his diagnosis, 'Remember, Steve, nobody gets out of here alive, not even you,'” Duprey said chuckling at McCain’s quip.

Paul Chevalier of Hudson organized veterans for Senator John McCain in both his winning presidential primary campaigns in New Hampshire.

He’s a retired Marine and past state chairman of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Weeks before McCain came down with the cancer, a close friend of the two of them got the same disease, Hollis Pharmacy owner Vahrij Manoukian.

“I talked to John and told him. He was crushed by the news because they were such good friends. I barely got home and changed my laundry and McCain had come down with it as well,” Chevalier said of the cancer that also claimed Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2009.

Manoukian died last week.

“I was in charge of passing letters and messages back and forth to Maurice,” Chevalier said referring to Manoukian as he was known to friends.

“The senator always asked and worried about Maurice. How’s that for selflessness?”

Longtime political strategist Mike Dennehy of Concord saw McCain at the top and at the bottom.

The high point came when he stunned former President George W. Bush with a wipeout victory in the 2000 presidential primary even though Bush owned all the establishment endorsements and money.

“There will never be a better political story in New Hampshire than the one of John McCain and the presidential primary,” Dennehy said.

“Here was an unknown senator from Arizona, slowly and methodically traveling from one corner of the state to another to win the hearts of New Hampshire. It was at a time when voters had lost trust in their politicians due to the Bill Clinton fatigue. Voters were tired of being lied to.”

In both campaigns, McCain broke out the Straight Talk Express, a long and winding bus tour in which the candidate would hold court on the record for hours with reporters.

During those travels, McCain would dish out his unique brand of political commentary, jokes and countless displays of prowess for remembering in detail songs, movie dialogue, poetry and sports trivia.

“New Hampshire made John McCain a political hero to many and catapulted him to be loved by millions,” Dennehy said.

“The people of New Hampshire will never know what they meant to John McCain.”

Then there was the nadir, July of 2007 after Dennehy was fired as national political director by a campaign consulting team that blew through millions of McCain’s campaign money.

McCain was left nearly broke and 20 points down in New Hampshire polls to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

McCain fired 80 percent of his staff, started traveling on the road with only one aide and brought Dennehy back on board.

“I thought to myself we might not make it. He said, listen we are not going to drop out until I gave New Hampshire one more shot again,” Dennehy said. “He said if I can make this work I can make it work in New Hampshire because they know me best.”

Duprey was there at the Concord Chamber of Commerce for the “major announcement” in August 2007 when the national media horde packed the room, all reporters assuming this was McCain pulling out.

Instead McCain read a long foreign policy speech from a teleprompter.

After the event, USA Today reporter Susan Page peppered McCain with questions about the end finally asking “under what circumstances” would McCain leave the race.

“John McCain turned to her with that steely look on his face and that twinkle and said, only if I succumb to a fatal disease before the date of the New Hampshire primary,” Duprey said.

“It was that moment I believed we had a shot.”

McCain went on to win that primary, win the nomination and lose the general election to Barack Obama, the first African-American president.

And Duprey said McCain didn’t stew over the defeat but instead threw himself back into Capitol Hill debates.

McCain often helped Obama broker deals on immigration reform, judicial nominees and military reform. One of McCain’s key 2017 votes preserved Obama’s Affordable Care Act much to the anger of President Trump.

“He had no bitterness, didn’t wallow in regret. He thought he ran the best race he could and the country’s economic collapse hurt. He understood that it was a change election. He felt it just wasn’t meant to be,” Duprey said.

“Even after he had a bad day on the campaign trail he would just get over it and move on.”

Ayotte said she’s known no politician who relished tough questions like McCain handled at these town hall forums.

After their first town hall together, Ayotte scooped up the stool McCain had sat on and had him autograph it.

“This is in a special place in my home. I’ll always treasure it,” Ayotte said.
The pair traveled the world together on fact-finding missions in Afghanistan and visiting refugees in Georgia.

Even with brain cancer in 2017, McCain visited 24 countries in four continents covering 100,000 miles at age 81.

“John McCain had more stamina than any person I have ever met,” Ayotte said.

“He always stood up for the people who were oppressed and the little guy. He was a hero to people around the world who longed to be more free. He’s always had that fighting spirit and tremendous courage.”

Former Executive Councilor Peter Spaulding of Hopkinton became McCain’s campaign chairman in 2000 after Bush had lined up everyone else who was prominent.

“Unlike a lot of campaigns it wasn’t work, it was fun. Riding on the bus just being involved with the people around him was a good time and to John McCain that was an important part of the exercise,” Spaulding said.

“This was a very serious man who always loved to laugh.”

Dennehy believes that no-holds-barred, freewheeling style of presidential campaigning that became McCain’s trademark will never return.

“It represents the end of a campaign style that isn’t achievable anymore,” Dennehy said. “We all don’t like to admit it’s gone.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said McCain should be revered for his loyalty to those he had fought with in the political trenches.

Political observers dubbed McCain, Graham and Ayotte the “three amigos.”

“When I ran for President, most of you missed it, John was with me,” Graham said the last time the two appeared together on CNN last year. “The bottom line is the people he served with in jail will tell you the same thing, he is loyal to his friends, he loves his country and if he has to stand up to his party for his country he always will. I love this man to death.”

Duprey remembers the final speech McCain gave in the Senate near the end of last year.

It was about the decay of civil discourse in politics but as always McCain ended it with optimism that this too would one day change for the better.

“He would get discouraged sometimes, who wouldn’t? Overall he felt the best days of America are ahead of us not behind us,” Duprey said.

“He was unique and irreplaceable but when you talked that way around him he’d scowl and say stop that stuff, somebody will step up and carry the torch.”

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