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Remembering McCain's 2008 Campaign


We are remembering Senator John McCain, who died yesterday at age 81. He served the country for six decades as a military officer, lawmaker and in 2008 as the Republican nominee for president. NPR's Scott Horsley covered that campaign a decade ago and joins me now. Scott, what sticks out for you most about that campaign?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Melissa, I think it was the senator's resilience. Remember, that campaign all but collapsed in the summer of 2007. They were virtually out of money. But McCain just kept plugging away, lugging his own suit bag up to New Hampshire on Southwest Airlines. And ultimately, he became the GOP standard bearer. I think that's emblematic of the way throughout his life. John McCain was often at his best when things looked bleakest, certainly in Vietnam, in his response to the Keating Five scandal. And I think we see that, too, in the way he and his family dealt with this last challenge and the way he lived out his last year of life.

BLOCK: One of the hallmarks of that campaign in 2008 was the town hall meeting - and John McCain had a lot of them - some of which produced memorable moments.

HORSLEY: He did have a lot. They were cheap...


HORSLEY: ...And that worked for him. They also showcased him at his freewheeling best. You know, he would just roam around a high-school gymnasium or whatever the setting was with a microphone, answering whatever question his supporters put to him. There were no screeners. And one moment that a lot of people remember from that time was when he actually confronted one of his own supporters who was spreading misinformation about his opponent, Barack Obama.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I can't trust Obama. I have read about him, and he's not - he's an Arab. He is not...


JOHN MCCAIN: No, ma'am. No, ma'am.


MCCAIN: No ma'am. No ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that's what this campaign is all about. He's not. Thank you.

HORSLEY: You get a glimpse there of John McCain's integrity and something I think we'd all like to see more of in our politics today.

BLOCK: We should remember, Scott, that this is the campaign in which John McCain plucked a relatively little-known Alaska governor and put her on the ticket as his vice presidential nominee, which a lot of people think was a really, really bad mistake.

HORSLEY: It was a Hail Mary pass. No question about it. The only time when McCain came close to Obama during that summer and fall of 2008 was right after he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. But she ultimately became a liability. And while Palin herself did not go on to a national political career, she did pave the way for another reality TV star, Donald Trump. And I think McCain himself and certainly some of his staffers feel some responsibility for that.

BLOCK: We have seen former President Barack Obama issue a tribute to John McCain last night. And he said that for all their differences, they both saw their political battles as part of something noble.

HORSLEY: They did. And, you know, this was not a beanbag campaign. There were a lot of tough competitive moments between the candidates, but there were also some grace notes. One that I remember came just weeks before the election when both men spoke at the Al Smith Dinner in New York - it's kind of a roast. They both did a standup routine. McCain's was very funny. But he ended on a serious note saying even though it's tough for political rivals, he had seen Obama at his best.


MCCAIN: There was a time when the mere invitation of an African-American citizen to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage and an insult in many quarters. Today, it's a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. And good riddance. I can't wish my opponent luck, but I do wish him well.


HORSLEY: And Obama returned the compliments that night, talking about McCain's decades of service to the country. He was - issued a gracious statement last night. And we expect the former president will be among the speakers at John McCain's memorial service.

BLOCK: And John McCain also slated to be lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda, I believe.


BLOCK: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.