Longtime Staffer Remembers John McCain NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Mark Salter, who worked with John McCain for three decades as speechwriter, biographer and chief of staff.
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Longtime Staffer Remembers John McCain

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Longtime Staffer Remembers John McCain

Longtime Staffer Remembers John McCain

Longtime Staffer Remembers John McCain

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NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Mark Salter, who worked with John McCain for three decades as speechwriter, biographer and chief of staff.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Many images encapsulate this last week of remembrances for John McCain - Arizona residents holding up American flags as a motorcade drove McCain's body away from his ranch, troops standing at attention in his honor, McCain's wife, Cindy, laying a last kiss on his casket. This weekend, the senator and former Navy airman will be buried at the U.S. Naval Academy. Today his body will lie in state in the Capitol rotunda where his family and former colleagues will pay tribute. In a memorial service in Phoenix yesterday, McCain was remembered for his willingness to break with party politics and work with the other side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: My name's Joe Biden.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: I'm a Democrat.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: And I love John McCain.

MARTIN: It is possible that no one understands John McCain better than our next guest, Mark Salter. He worked with McCain for three decades as a speechwriter, biographer and chief of staff, and he joins us now. Mr. Salter, thanks for taking the time to talk to us during this difficult week. Mr. Salter?

MARK SALTER: Yeah, I'm on. Something wrong with that...

MARTIN: Hi, Mark.

SALTER: Yeah. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm doing OK. You OK?

SALTER: Thank you.

MARTIN: I know it's been a tough week. That is an understatement. Our condolences to you.

SALTER: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: May I ask what moments have stood out to you as you have no doubt been involved in a variety of different memorials and remembrances?

SALTER: You know, I think the drive from Sedona is the one that seemed to have quite an effect on me (laughter). I don't know. It was not entirely expected. And I think we lost his ranch in Cornville about an hour after we had notified that - (unintelligible) had passed away. And people started spontaneously showing up, as I'm sure you've seen, and lined even in the interstate with hands over their hearts and flags waving. It was really very touching.

MARTIN: I want to play another clip from...

SALTER: Sure.

MARTIN: ...The eulogy that Joe Biden gave - vice president gave - yesterday in Arizona. Let's listen to this together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: It wasn't about politics with John. He could disagree on substance, but it was the underlying values that animated everything John did. Everything he was could come to a different conclusion.

MARTIN: How was he able to do that? How was John McCain able to separate the political from the personal?

SALTER: Well, you know, we have - he always, you know, argued as strong as he could for his position. He didn't mind a fight. In fact, he enjoyed them. But he knew that we had not just - we had problems in common and common responsibilities. He always thought that the most we could do was make modest progress on the problems of our time and to honor the country - a free country of so many strong opinions. And it was quite a satisfying achievement. He was also just fun to be around. He was exuberant, enthusiastic, fun-loving, sarcastic, witty. And just - he was just good company. And I think you're seeing that reflected in a lot of remembrances from his colleagues.

MARTIN: You helped the senator write several books over many years, and you helped him write his final letter to America. Can you share a little bit about what that was like?

SALTER: You know, sort of typical for him, he - I was out visiting him in April. And he said, you know, when the time comes, you know, I'd like - you know, I'd like to have something ready, kind of a goodbye and, you know, hitting on some of the themes he had been trying to stress in the last year of his life, that, you know, we are - you know, about how much America meant to him and how much it means to the world and how much he hopes it will continue to mean to the world after he's gone. And so we put something together, and he added a little here and subtracted some there.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SALTER: ...And then told me to put it in a drawer and release it after he passed away.

MARTIN: Was it just like falling into an old pattern with him? I mean, you have been writing with him. You have been working with him. You've known him for so long. Or was the gravity of the situation - did it inevitably make it different?

SALTER: No, you know, 'cause at that time, I didn't feel like he was going to pass away imminently, and he was still working on getting stronger. It was just - we had been working on the book. We had - obviously we had had to sort of - not rewrite the book, but we were a few months into writing the last book, and he was diagnosed. And he wanted to make it a little bit of a different book, a little bit more personal than he had intended for. And so we had just been working on that. So it was just the usual way we worked together.

MARTIN: I want to read part - an excerpt from that final letter. It reads as follows, quote, "we weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries." That's how he saw America right now? That's how he saw our politics right now?

SALTER: Well, no, but he obviously observed that there's a growing form of populism that's a particularly noxious kind of nativism - was gaining some strength. He doesn't think it represents the majority view of Americans. He thinks it's a minority view, but he would like to - and he spent much of the last year of his life trying to push back on that and explain that this country isn't a country of land and, you know, blood and soil, but a nation founded on ideals and that those ideals have made us prosperous and powerful and helped to liberate more people from poverty and tyranny in the world than at any point in history. He just wanted to make sure that that continued.

MARTIN: How do you remember him? How will you remember him?

SALTER: Oh, you know, he was a lot of fun to be with. It was a great privilege working with him. I'm going to remember him as I would remember any close friend. He meant a lot to me and my family, and he meant a lot to the country. And I was privileged to help him in service to the latter.

MARTIN: Mark Salter, longtime confidant, friend of Senator John McCain. Thank you so much for your time.

SALTER: Thank you, Rachel.

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Correction Aug. 31, 2018

In this story, Sen. John McCain is incorrectly referred to as a former naval airman. In fact, he was a naval aviator.