"The Luckiest Man" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
“Fifth from the bottom of my class, and the Republican nominee for president. Unbelievable.”
Those words were spoken by John McCain himself, the former prisoner of war who suffered physical limitations and chronic pain for the rest of his life because of the brutal treatment he received at the hands of the North Vietnamese and who was defeated in several attempts to become President of the United States. Yet, he also summarized his life by saying he was the luckiest man in the world.
Mark Salter writes, “He never stopped feeling that he had been blessed by providence more than most people were. His rebellious teenage years, his lackluster performance at the Naval Academy, his early mixed reputation in the navy, the crashed airplanes, the close scrapes with death, a disaster at sea, and five and a half years in prison where he almost died, all of that was followed by his rise to a position of national and international prominence from which he could do good in the world and help make history.”
Salter, speechwriter and chief of staff for Senator McCain for 18 years, has written an intimate biography of the Arizonan Republican. Drawing on information for the seven books he wrote with McCain, Salter documents the congressman's rebellious behavior as the son of a U.S. Navy Admiral, the cruel ordeal he endured as a POW, and his political career in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The focus on McCain's legislative record reflects his stick-to-itiveness and “his refusal to give up causes that appeared hopeless.” This persistence is demonstrated by McCain’s fourth attempt to pass a bipartisan immigration bill soon after his 2017 brain cancer diagnosis,
Though the senator was grateful for his life and mostly dealt with people cordially, he could be prickly and contrary. McCain could blister anyone who disagreed with him, “He didn't think his reputation—or anyone's reputation, for that matter—should be so delicate a thing that it couldn't admit to failings, rough edges and contradictions.” He was an independent thinker who refused to be controlled by party affiliation and often crossed the aisle to vote with the Democrats.
An especially heartwarming incident in the book records McCain’s extraordinary effort to fly from Arizona to Washington D.C. in July 2017 to defy President Trump's pressure to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Even though McCain was quite ill, he made it to the floor of the Senate so he could vote.
Other memorable sections of the book include author Salter’s detailed explanation and firm critique of McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 as well as his support for the military’s “Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy.”
Salter and McCain were close friends and confidantes giving Salter unparalleled access to the restlessness, curiosity and courage of this decorated public servant. Devotees of political history will find this biography an inspirational and satisfying read.
Especially poignant is Salter’s account of the moment the senator died on August 25, 2018:
“We had wheeled his bed onto the deck outside his bedroom and pointed him toward the creek he loved. He was surrounded by loved ones as the intervals between his breaths grew longer. Just before 4:30 p.m., one of the black hawks flew over his bed to the other side of the creek, settled on a sycamore limb and looked down on the scene. He never drew another breath. The music playlist Cindy had made for him, an eclectic mix of his favorite pop songs and jazz standards, was running. A moment after he passed, the mourners heard Sinatra's voice singing ‘My Way’.”
Regardless of your political leanings, if you want to read about a life well-lived, “The Luckiest Man” is an excellent choice. This 608-page, extensively researched chronicle of McCain’s lifespan is the most deeply personal and candid political memoir I have read in a long time. In addition, there are 16 pages of captivating photographs depicting key events in McCain’s life.