John McCain was not a model midshipman. While at the Naval Academy, he earned so many demerits for unsanctioned outings that by graduation he was made to march the equivalent of 17 round trips between Annapolis and the fleshpots of Baltimore. He later regretted finishing fifth from the bottom of his class instead of dead last. As his mother—still alive at 106—often said, “He was really a scamp.” McCain preferred “maverick.”
A distinct, good-natured irreverence was among John McCain’s abiding features, and for decades I saw it firsthand. He kept friends at his side during both of his presidential campaigns—not only to tell him the unpleasant truth when he made mistakes dealing with the press or answering town-hall questions, but also to share in his biting wit and wry sense of humor.
When turbulence frightened the local politicians aboard a flight across the Midwest, McCain put them at ease with one line delivered cool as ice: “You are safe. I know that I won’t die in a plane crash—I already tried that three times.” He was referring to his naval career, which involved two crashes before he was famously shot down over North Vietnam.
Sometimes McCain’s humor struck closer to the bone. On the morning of the 2008 New Hampshire primary, he addressed the press outside a hotel owned by his friend Steve Duprey. Asked for his thoughts on the primary, with Mr. Duprey at his side, McCain answered: “I am so glad to be leaving this terrible hotel, with threadbare towels, thin soap and cheap furniture.”
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