Remembering John McCain and his relationship with the press

When news broke Saturday evening that John McCain had died, it felt like the climax of a slow-motion eulogy that had been steadily playing out since the Arizona Senator announced his brain cancer diagnosis last summer. His obituary appeared on Sunday front pages of local and national newspapers, and coverage of his life and work dominated television broadcast for much of the weekend.

McCain’s five decades in public service—from prisoner of war to the cusp of the presidency—provided enough accomplishments, commendations, and contradictions to challenge any journalist attempting to sum up his life. His New York Times obit ran to more than 6,000 words. In the months leading up to his death, the gravity of his condition provided for a rare sort of memorializing, with a final memoir, numerous interviews, documentaries, and appreciations rolling in over the past year.

Though McCain could be prickly with the press, journalists remembered him as a lawmaker who was generous with his time, respectful of the media’s role, and possessor of a surprising sense of humor. His six terms in the Senate meant that McCain was a constant presence for the vast majority of national politics reporters. “I want to say thank you, John McCain,” CNN’s Dana Bash said in a tribute over the weekend. “Thank you for teaching reporters like me, who followed you around for a living, how to be serious, without taking ourselves too seriously.”

RELATED: The complicated task of covering John McCain’s final days

As the press came under attack by President Trump, McCain directly challenged the leader of his own party, defending the media in a Washington Post op-ed. “Journalists play a major role in the promotion and protection of democracy and our unalienable rights, and they must be able to do their jobs freely,” he wrote in January.

The press largely returned McCain’s love, often holding him up as the standard bearer for all that is decent and noble in American politics. This depiction, which at times verged on hagiography, glossed over some of McCain’s missteps and contradictions, even those—such as the choice of Sarah Palin to be his 2008 running mate—for which McCain later expressed regret.

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The evaluations of McCain’s legacy will continue this week and beyond, but it’s undeniable that he held a unique position in American politics. When The New York Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg asked him in 2015 what he wanted written on his tombstone, McCain responded, “He served his country.

Below, more on John McCain and the press.

 

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.