Staff Columnist

In Iowa: McCain's advice: Keep your sense of humor

In his final run to become president, Republican nominee John McCain, second from right, and running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, second from left, give brief statements Sept, 18, 2008, as they tour flood damaged areas of northwest Cedar Rapids after a campaign rally. Walking with McCain and Palin were, from left, Rep. Kraig Paulsen, Cedar Rapids City Council member Brian Fagan and John Smith, owner of CRST trucking and member of Cedar Rapids Area Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corporation. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
In his final run to become president, Republican nominee John McCain, second from right, and running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, second from left, give brief statements Sept, 18, 2008, as they tour flood damaged areas of northwest Cedar Rapids after a campaign rally. Walking with McCain and Palin were, from left, Rep. Kraig Paulsen, Cedar Rapids City Council member Brian Fagan and John Smith, owner of CRST trucking and member of Cedar Rapids Area Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corporation. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

John McCain was funny. That’s what I’ll remember.

Yes, of course, he was a war hero, a towering figure in the U.S. Senate and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Reams are being written about all that in the wake of the Arizona senator’s death last weekend.

But I’ll always recall him fondly as the self-professed “wiseass” who almost became president.

We, the chronically sarcastic, seldom are handed the reins of power.

“What I try to do is be myself. I get accused of being somebody different. But I try to be myself. And by the way, I try to keep a sense of humor,” McCain told me during an interview in April 2007 as he launched his presidential bid.

Sure, McCain’s brand of humor could careen over the line, jumping from funny to cringeworthy and even mean. Like the time he called the Arizona retirement community Leisure World “Seizure World.”

Or there’s the time he changed the lyrics of the Beach Boy’s “Barbara Ann” to “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” at a campaign rally. I asked him about that episode, and critics who panned his incendiary joke.

“Get a life,” he said to his critics.

“A sense of humor got me through some very difficult situations in my life. Most Americans appreciate a sense of humor,” McCain said.

Most of the time, McCain’s barbs were less blunt, more playful, and often self-deprecating.

“A guy came up to me and said, ‘Did anyone ever tell you you look a lot like John McCain? Doesn’t it just make you mad as heck?’” McCain joked many times during campaign stops in 2007.

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As journalists followed McCain through the Iowa State Fair that year, the Arizona senator tried in vain to cajole the fair’s “big boar” from his summer slumber.

“We’ve made far more pork in Washington,” McCain said, gazing upon 1,200 pounds of slumbering pork.

Later, speaking to fairgoers, he compared the sweltering fairgrounds with his adopted, arid home state. “We have so little water in Arizona that the trees chase the dogs.”

Then there were the bears. Always the bears.

“Congress spent $3 million for a program to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Now, I don’t know if this was a criminal issue or a paternity issue,” McCain said, always drawing a laugh.

Where ever McCain showed up in Iowa, there seemingly are stories. One great one was shared this week by longtime GOP operative Craig Robinson on his Facebook page. Robinson waited backstage with McCain at a state Republican event in 2007 as other candidates droned on and on.

“Bored by being stuck backstage with me, McCain started pacing. He found a large chest freezer and to my chagrin opened it up saying out loud, ‘Is Mitt Romney in here?’” Robinson wrote.

Iowans, unfortunately, really never got the full McCain, who sidestepped our caucuses entirely in 2000.

In 2007, he gave Iowa a try but skipped the once-vaunted Iowa GOP Straw Poll. It was the source of much Republican consternation at the time. And by late summer, McCain’s campaign was shedding staff and running on fumes, so he turned his attention to New Hampshire and beyond.

In New Hampshire, a high school kid asked him if he was too old to be president.

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“Thanks for the question, you little jerk,” McCain quipped.

Funny. McCain was only joking. Is it just me, or has political humor taken a turn toward the dark side over the last decade? The last two years?

But hey, President Donald Trump is only joking, too. Right?

Sure, like when he’s encouraging Russian hackers, mocking a disabled journalist, waxing wistfully about being president for life, snarling at s-hole countries or accusing Democrats who failed to applaud his State of the Union Speech of being “treasonous.”

Trade wars are easy. North Korea is no longer a threat. He’s a stable genius. The yucks never stop.

But, remember, just kidding! Lighten up, will you? Locker room talk, etc.

McCain told plenty of jokes as he ran for president. He sprinkled his substantive “straight talk” with humor and wisecracks.

Now we’ve elected a petty taunting punch line. Straight talk has left the building. Plenty of ‘cracking. all unwise.

“Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history,” McCain wrote in his farewell letter. No joke.

Still, hold on to your sense of humor — tight.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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