AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
John McCain hasn't walked to the Senate floor since December. He's been at home in Arizona receiving treatment for brain cancer. The Republican senator still manages to make headlines and for some of the same reasons he has in the past, being at odds with the White House. In the last few weeks, he tried to get his Senate colleagues to reject Gina Haspel as CIA director. He's also weighed in on what the U.S. should do in Syria, on veterans' health care and on sanctions on Russia. But in his new book, John McCain is looking inward.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE RESTLESS WAVE")
JOHN MCCAIN: (Reading) Maybe I'll be gone before you hear this. My predicament is, well, rather unpredictable. But I'm prepared for either contingency, or at least I'm getting prepared. I have some things I'd like to take care of first, some work that needs finishing and some people I need to see. And I want to talk to my fellow Americans a little more if I may.
CORNISH: That's from the audio version of John McCain's new book. It's called "The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights And Other Appreciations." He wrote the book with his longtime co-author, speechwriter, adviser and friend Mark Salter. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.
MARK SALTER: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: I know that you have been writing with him for a long time. What's it like though to hear his voice, like in that instance?
SALTER: Well, for me, I hear his voice pretty frequently. So it's...
CORNISH: At this point, you probably hear it in your own head.
SALTER: Yes, I do. And somebody asked me would I ever write in my own voice, and I said, I don't know what it sounds like anymore. And I'm on the phone with him pretty frequently still, and I go out there every couple of weeks, so.
CORNISH: Tell us a little bit about what this writing process is like, especially for someone like you who's written so much for this person and in their voice. What is a typical day like in creating this?
SALTER: Well, this one was a little different. It had started off as a book mostly about foreign affairs and national security. In the middle of that process, he was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer, and it immediately became a different kind of book. And his dedication to it became very intense.
CORNISH: You said it changed midstream - the tone because of his diagnosis.
SALTER: Yes, he knew he would probably not be strong enough to record the entire book. So we stopped what we were writing after his diagnosis. And we wrote the first and the last chapter because he wanted to record those two. He was being very frank with his family. And so he was being very frank with me. And you're bound to get a little emotional once in a while. And if I dwell on it, I will. But it's just the way he is. He doesn't want to - because he told me right after the diagnosis, when I was I'm sure offering some poorly chosen words of, you know, sympathy - he said, I'm 80 years old. Nobody cheated me. I think what he wanted it to be was a look at roughly the last 10 years of his public life but more to look at what politics have become and what he wants this country to be when he's gone.
CORNISH: It's interesting because the last 10 years are complicated in terms of his political legacy, right?
SALTER: Yeah, sure.
CORNISH: That these were times when people criticized him for changing positions on topics and accused him of not living up to the maverick idea.
SALTER: Yeah, he occupies an interesting place in American politics. He's criticized from the right and the left. He gets it from both sides. So he's kind of used to it. And he usually just tries to do what he thinks is in the best interests of his country. And he's used to getting dinged up a little bit from time to time over that.
CORNISH: In this moment, does he feel like he's getting dinged up more than he needs to be? And I ask because of this comment out of the White House from a staffer Kelly Sadler...
CORNISH: ...Talking about a pending vote and saying, well, we don't care about that vote. He's dying anyway.
SALTER: He doesn't care what some low-level staffer at the White House says about him. It'll bother his family. It will make his friends angry. But I'm sure he would say something like, I've been insulted worse.
CORNISH: What does John McCain feel like he can still contribute right now?
SALTER: Well, I think his probably chief priority is to continue to advocate for America's leadership of the liberal international order that we organized and lead for 75 years.
CORNISH: So he's focused on the U.S. - our role in the world.
SALTER: Our alliances, our care for refugees, all the things he's served - I don't know that people really appreciate the high esteem he's held in by oppressed people almost everywhere. From Burma to Byelorussia, there are people that will tell you he's the most important American in their lives. And that's probably the legacy he's proudest of.
CORNISH: At the same time, it's a legacy that is not exactly welcomed especially in the Republican Party of today. You don't hear people talking about globalism. You don't hear people talking about using the military in the ways that he's talked about. Where does that leave him?
SALTER: Pretty much exactly where he's always been - advocating for it whether it's a commonplace view of his party or not.
CORNISH: But I ask because has he essentially been losing an argument for some time?
SALTER: Well, I mean, that's why it's - I don't want anybody - or he wouldn't want to say this is all personal to Trump because it's not. But he does take issue with whatever you want to call it - Breitbart-ism, this sort of nativistic, American first - you know, sort of the opposite of everything he thinks this country's supposed to represent in the world.
CORNISH: Does he ever look back and see the seeds of that in his 2008 campaign embracing Sarah Palin?
SALTER: No, I don't think so. I think - you know, people have asked me that question before. And I think if Sarah Palin had remained mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Donald Trump would have still probably been elected.
CORNISH: You do?
SALTER: I do, sure. There was certainly a brewing populist movement. You know, you could see at the beginnings of '08 that it was out there, that it existed in the country, that it exploded in 2010 and then obviously helped - you know, got Donald Trump elected president. I think that would have been there irrespective of who would have been the nominee and vice presidential nominee of the party in 2008.
CORNISH: He spends some time in the book addressing voters directly. And when you think of the Republican Party of today, are they still listening?
SALTER: Oh, I think in some quarters. You know, we get wrapped up in a bubble sometimes. I look at Twitter all the time. And if it's after 6 o'clock, and I've had a drink or something, I'll get angry and think that's what humanity has become. But it isn't. He went to a ball game here. He's a sports nut, and he loves all the Arizona teams. And the Diamondbacks were playing the Nats. This was before he was diagnosed. And it was Navy Day or something at the ballpark. And the announcer noted the presence of Senator John McCain. And the entire park stood up and applauded him. There are very few politicians that are received that way anymore, but he still is.
CORNISH: One thing I think that reflects an American character and makes him such an interesting American figure is that he is a part of crafting the mythology around who he is and his story, right? He knows how to tell a story. And you're a part of that. So what kind of story is he trying to tell now?
SALTER: Well, you know, I think the story of his life. And he would say - he's always prefaces everything by saying, I'm an imperfect servant of my country. But the story of his life is that he has a larger sense of himself. There's more satisfaction in serving something more important than himself. He always often talks about his biggest hero being a fictional character - Robert Jordan from Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," about a guy who sacrificed his life, was rather cynical about the cause he did but believed in the people it served and sacrificed his life for what was essentially a lost cause. That has always appealed to him. And he said, I never have as much satisfaction from a personal gain or realize as I do from even fighting in a losing cause.
CORNISH: Mark Salter, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SALTER: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: That's Mark Salter. He co-authored Senator John McCain's new book. It's called "The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights And Other Appreciations."
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "FRANKLIN AVENUE")
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