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Political Adviser On McCain: A Principled Model For Future Public Servants

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we turn to Mark McKinnon, the principal media adviser for Senator McCain's presidential bid in the 2007 primaries. On Friday, McKinnon wrote a very personal piece for The Daily Beast in which he said in part there simply is no other John McCain to take your place. And Mark McKinnon is with us now. He's currently the creator, executive producer and co-host of the Showtime series "The Circus: Inside The Greatest Political Show On Earth." Mark McKinnon, thanks so much for talking to us even though it's a sad day.

MARK MCKINNON: It is a sad day. We knew that this disease was going to take him, but it's still too soon. And, you know, my immediate reaction was I just missed the man, John McCain, but more broadly, I just think we're really going to miss his voice in Washington and in the world.

MARTIN: You were a longtime media adviser for President George W. Bush. You worked with Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign, the campaign that beat out Senator McCain for the presidential bid. So how did you get involved with Senator McCain, you know, seven years later in 2007, and why did you want to work with him?

MCKINNON: Well, I always liked John McCain even when I was working with Bush. Of course, I was for Bush for president, but I admired McCain. I admired his service. And then when he decided to run, he asked me if I'd help him out on the campaign. I said, Senator, I'd go mow your lawn in Sedona if you wanted me to. I'd do anything.

MARTIN: But you had a caveat. You actually had an agreement with him that if he and then-Senator Barack Obama wound up facing each other in the general election that you would step out because you said that you didn't agree with a lot of Senator Obama's politics, but you thought he'd be good for the country. You said that if he steps out, I don't want to be the tip of the spear attacking Obama. I didn't think I'd be the right person under the circumstances.

MCKINNON: Yeah. It was a very unusual sort of agreement. When he asked me to join the campaign, I said, Senator, I'd be honored and will do all I can to help you get the nomination. But if this guy, Barack Obama, gets the nomination, I've met him, I like him, and, as you said, I thought his candidacy would be good for the country. And I said, I just don't think I would be the right person to be the, as you said, the tip of the spear in attacking this guy that I'm kind of fond of. And he kind of - he said, OK, fine, whatever because at that time, nobody really thought Barack Obama was going to be the nominee. And then it happened, and then I sort of sheepishly walked in with the memo, and he kind nodded his head and he goes, oh, yeah, and then he, you know - but he didn't get angry, and he just hugged me. And he said, thanks for helping me get here, McKinnon, and God bless you and good luck.

MARTIN: What do you think that means?

MCKINNON: One of the things that I loved about him - everybody did - is he's just a man of principle. He had this shining moral compass that was always true north, you know? He just had a sense of right and wrong, of good and evil and doing the right thing, doing the principal thing. And so he knew that while he wanted me to stick around, it's kind of a weird thing. If it was an important principle for me, he felt that I should honor it.

MARTIN: I'm going to allude to something you said earlier, which is that there really isn't anybody else like him on the scene right now. And maybe people can disagree with that, but that has been a common theme of the people that we've been speaking with today. I wanted to ask if you can articulate what it is that you think is so - was so rare about him, and why is it so rare today?

MCKINNON: I think it's because we've become so partisan and so predictable. And John McCain was never partisan or predictable. And half the time, the Democrats were mad at him; half the time, the Republicans were mad at him because he was unconventional but always stood on principle. And the one thing that I hope his passing will do is to make us reflect and remember those characteristics. I mean, it's the kind of thing that I think young people looking to go into public service and journalism can look at just the kind of man he was in his life and his politics and aspire to that. Let's see if we can get some way toward the direction that John McCain was always headed.

MARTIN: That's Mark McKinnon, principal media adviser for Senator McCain's presidential bid in the 2007 primaries. He does a lot of other things. As we said, he's currently creator, producer and co-host of the Showtime series "The Circus." Mark McKinnon, thanks so much for talking to us.

MCKINNON: Hey, thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.