Politics & Policy

McCain: The Man Who Came Back From the Dead

Scenes from an unlikely victory celebration in New Hampshire.

Nashua, New Hampshire — Back in 2006, in the worst days of the Iraq war, John McCain used to talk about keeping a “steady strain.” It’s an old Navy term McCain uses a lot, and it refers to keeping the right level of tension on lines tying one ship to another, to prevent abrupt motions that could sever the lines and lead to disaster. Applying the idea to Iraq, McCain would tell nervous war supporters that it was important not to get too excited when something went well in the war, or too depressed when things went badly.

Last summer, McCain found himself giving the same advice to supporters of his own campaign, which nearly died from the twin crises of out-of-control spending and McCain’s hugely unpopular stance on illegal immigration. “In the Navy, we often talk of the need to keep a ‘steady strain’ on the lines between ships, to avoid a sudden jerk or movement that could easily snap the line,” McCain told supporters in a fundraising email last June. “In campaign life, we ride the high crests and sail through low troughs…It is through those experiences that I know we must keep the ‘steady strain.’“

For a while, McCain found it hard to follow his own counsel. During the campaign meltdown, there were reports of ugly scenes, with the senator blowing up at top aides over problems for which McCain himself bore the ultimate responsibility. Yet despite all that — despite McCain’s reputation for having a hot temper — when things were truly bad, he was the one who kept his head and kept going. And there he was Tuesday night, in a crowded ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Hotel here in Nashua, addressing his supporters as the winner of the New Hampshire primary.

Who would have believed it? Certainly not some of McCain’s top aides. “They have this saying, ‘steady strain, steady strain,’” campaign adviser Mark McKinnon recalled last night, moments after McCain’s victory had been announced. “In the darkest days, he was the guy who said to soldier on.” It might sound inspiring, but McKinnon sometimes had a hard time keeping faith. “I think there were a lot of us who just respected him so much, we wanted to band together to make sure to restore his dignity,” McKinnon said. “But the chance of this actually happening was pretty remote.”

And yet it did, and by the end of the night it was clear that McCain’s victory over rival Mitt Romney was nearly across-the-board. According to the Fox News exit poll, among voters who cited the war in Iraq as the most important issue facing the country, McCain beat Romney 45 percent to 27 percent. Among those who said terrorism is most important, McCain beat Romney 42 percent to 24 percent. Among those who said the economy is most important, McCain beat Romney 39 percent to 22 percent. Only those who said illegal immigration is the most important issue preferred Romney, who beat McCain in that category 53 percent to 20 percent.

And when Fox asked voters which of the candidates is most qualified to be commander-in-chief — the bottom-line issue for many Republicans — McCain beat Romney handily, 43 percent to 28 percent.

The crowd cheered when they saw those results on a big-screen TV tuned to Fox, but for McCain’s loyalists, the margin didn’t matter as much as the fact that a victory celebration was happening at all. As he stood in the noisy ballroom, Jim Goff, from Davenport, Iowa, thought back to what it was like a few months ago when the campaign could hold an event for McCain and nobody — well, almost nobody — would show up. “I remember a meeting on August fifth, a breakfast meeting with him in Cedar Rapids, and there were six people there,” Goff told me as we waited for McCain to speak. “It was pretty lonely.”

Goff served as the East Central Iowa co-chairman of McCain’s campaign. After the meltdown last summer, he had very little to work with — no money for TV ads, very few paid staff, not much else. But there was still McCain himself. “I have a commitment to this,” Goff told me. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I had left him when he was down.” So last week, at home in Davenport, as Goff watched the apparently tightening race in New Hampshire, he couldn’t stay put. On Friday night, he bought a ticket for a Saturday morning flight to Boston. “I just had to be part of this,” Goff explained. “I did phone banking, I did sign waving.”

When McCain appeared — standing on stage with just his wife Cindy and two giant American flags — he was clearly a happy man, but happy in a decidedly un-cocky, deeply grateful way. “My friends, I learned long ago that serving only oneself is a petty and unsatisfying ambition,” he told the crowd. “But serve a cause greater than self- interest and you will know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of fame and fortune. For me, that greater cause has always been my country, which I have served imperfectly for many years, but have loved without any reservation every day of my life.”

“However this campaign turns out — and I am more confident tonight that it will turn out much better than once expected — I am grateful beyond expression for the prospect that I might serve her a little while longer.”

With that, the crowd began chanting, as it had many times during the night, MAC IS BACK! MAC IS BACK! MAC IS BACK!

And he is — at least for now. A few months ago, I traveled with McCain to the farthest reaches of northwest Iowa, where he spoke to not-terribly-large crowds, rode hours in a van between campaign stops, and worried about having enough money to go on. I wrote at the time that there was something gallant about the way he pushed ahead, at 71 years old and in reduced circumstances, still trying to win a prize that seemed impossible to attain. But McCain kept a steady strain. He may still mess things up — he has a remarkable ability to do things that hurt his own cause — but tonight in Nashua, all that steadiness finally paid off.

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