Woodbridge, Va. — Senator John McCain nearly leaps out of a black sport-utility vehicle and makes his way toward the door of American Legion Post 364. He grins widely and shakes a few hands. His jowly face looks ancient, but his frame is lean, and he moves quickly. “Hey there! How are ya?” he says, as he grabs the shoulders of silver-haired men in garrison caps.
Four years ago, McCain lost a presidential election by 192 electoral votes, but to Vietnam veterans and other former service members, he remains a towering figure. The second McCain steps inside, the packed banquet hall erupts with applause. As he walks toward the lectern, past a table piled high with Romney-Ryan posters, several men stand up and salute him. McCain squints and nods. This isn’t a mere rally; it’s a homecoming.
“I really appreciate that introduction,” McCain says a couple of minutes later, after a local Republican has briefly introduced him. “It’s far nicer than the one I got at the Scottsdale Rotary Club, where the guy said, ‘Here’s the latest fellow from Washington.’” The crowd laughs. McCain flashes that sideways smile and goes on. “When I graduated from the Naval Academy, I tried to get into the Marine Corps, but my parents were married,” he says, glancing at two elderly Marines. The grandfatherly veterans slap the table and roar. “Then I had a son, who at 18 joined the Marine Corps,” McCain tells them, winking.
McCain loves these jokes, even though he’s been telling them forever. He loves these men. Many of them served with him in Southeast Asia. Some of them are younger, veterans of the conflicts in the Middle East, but they still look at McCain with reverence. “Today is a little bit nostalgic for me,” McCain says, walking slowly around the dais, his hand clutching the wireless microphone. “It was 45 years ago today that I intercepted a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane and parachuted into a lake in the center of the city of Hanoi.” The drive to the prison, he says, chuckling, took only five minutes.
The laughter at that remark is lighter. Everyone in the room knows that McCain then spent more than five years as a prisoner of war. He was severely beaten, and to this day he needs assistance in order to comb his hair and tie his shoes. But McCain doesn’t get into that. Instead, he turns his wistful thoughts toward a more recent struggle: his presidential defeat. “After I lost, I slept like a baby,” he says. “Sleep two hours, wake up and cry; sleep two hours, wake up and cry.” The veterans exhale and clap, relishing McCain’s self-deprecation. He lost the presidency, but kept his sense of humor.
Officially McCain is here to help Mitt Romney, who is trying to close the gap in Virginia, a key swing state. McCain lost it four years ago, and he is determined to help Romney put it in the GOP column this time around. When he’s not in Arizona, McCain lives in a condominium in northern Virginia, and he has taken many daytrips this year to Richmond, Norfolk, and other towns in the region. This afternoon event is McCain’s second Legion appearance of the day, following a morning stop at American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, a leafy suburb near Washington, D.C.
As a decorated veteran, a former presidential nominee, and the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain gives the Romney campaign a certain gravitas among military audiences. In his 15-minute speech, he hits on two key themes: President Obama’s mishandling of the Benghazi mess, and his failure to take action to stop “sequestration,” a series of looming (and large) defense cuts that was brokered by the White House and congressional leaders in the effort to cut a spending deal.
But this speech and the others he has made this cycle are more than rote pro-Romney orations. They are a reminder that McCain, at 76 years old, is still in the game. After his loss four years ago, many of his friends urged him to retire. McCain ignored them. He yearned to remain a force, and that meant spending Sunday mornings in television green rooms, not on an emerald-green golf course. He became a fierce critic of the administration during Obama’s first year in office, and a year later, he won reelection to the Senate. “By the way, I’m going to be on Face the Nation on Sunday,” McCain tells the crowd. “Be sure to watch!”
One of the attendees, Bill Watts, tells me he admires McCain’s “fight” as much as his politics. Bill’s wife, Jo, sitting next to him, agrees. They met while they were both serving in Alaska. Bill was in the Army, and Jo was in the Air Force. “He’s a trooper. I love that he’s out there, still doing this,” Bill says. “Maybe, if Romney wins, there will be room for McCain to be defense secretary. You never know.” He is also hopeful about Romney’s chances. “Last election, when the economy tanked, there wasn’t much McCain could do,” Watts recalls. “It was game over, Obama wins. It feels different this year.”
McCain is optimistic. He tells the crowd that Romney is gaining. He can sense the momentum, and he wants these men to lead the charge. “I’m going around the state asking our veterans to go on another mission,” he says. “Make sure that you call all of your friends, your relatives. The state of Virginia is one of a handful of swing states. It’ll probably all come down to get-out-the-vote. I’ll be grateful to you for carrying out that mission.” McCain wraps up his speech by quoting Richard Daley, the late mayor of Chicago. “Vote early and vote often,” he says. The crowd laughs and gives him another standing ovation.
McCain steps down from the small stage and shakes more hands. Veterans politely ask him for a picture, and two grandsons, wielding iPhones, take snapshots. There are no Secret Service guards, a small cluster of local reporters, and, in the back of the room, two lonely television cameras. Much has changed since McCain was crisscrossing the country with Sarah Palin. But McCain doesn’t seem to mind. He’s happy to be here. He spends more then 20 minutes talking animatedly with the veterans, and cracking more jokes.
“It’s like the old horse that draws the milk wagon,” McCain tells me, when I pull him aside near the Legion’s noisy bar. “I feel at home here and places like it. It’s very nostalgic in some ways, especially today.” Of course, he’ll always have some regrets about his presidential campaign, but to him, bitterness is a choice. “I’ve watched other defeated candidates, for the presidency and other offices, and you almost feel sad,” he says. “They go into a shell and get angry. But you know what? Life is too short. I mean, my gosh, you can’t just stay angry.”
Finally, McCain makes his way outside, and walks toward the waiting SUV. A young man is at the wheel, ready to drive McCain to his next event. The press secretary hurries McCain along. Out of the corner of his eye, McCain spots a heavyset man off to the side, watching the departure. McCain turns toward him. “You deserve a dozen sideboys,” the man tells McCain. He stiffens his spine and salutes the senator. “This is the best I can do,” he says.
McCain makes a fist and pumps it, as a gesture of thanks. “As an old Navy man, you’re worth a dozen sideboys,” McCain says. “God bless you, pal. God bless.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.