WILKES-BARRE — It was one of those moments that stays with you forever.
It was July 24, 2008, and then-Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain agreed to be interviewed by this reporter in the back of his tour bus — “The Straight Talk Express.”
I considered it an honor then and I still do today. Sen. McCain was a real American patriot and a man who always stood by his convictions. Although I didn’t agree with some of Sen. McCain’s ideas, I still think he could have been a great president — there’s no doubt he was a great leader.
I was covering McCain’s campaign stop in Wilkes-Barre — he held a rally at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts. I got to ride with McCain on his bus after his rally at the Kirby Center.
But before I could ask the senator any questions, he had a few for me. He wanted to know who I was and where I came from, who my parents were and he asked all questions with complete sincerity. He really was interested.
So I told him as much as I could stumble out. When I told Sen. McCain about my parents, his interest piqued. I told him my mom and dad both lived most of their lives with a disability — mom had polio and wore a brace on her left leg and dad lost his right leg in World War II when he stepped on a land mine in Northern France.
McCain asked more questions of me. I answered them all. When we were through discussing my parents — a discussion that was filled with details — McCain said this to me.
“Your parents are typical of the people who have always made this country great,” he said. “They are part of the fabric of America. They are examples of the people who built this country and made it strong. Thank you for sharing their stories with me.”
And Sen. McCain meant every word he said because, like my parents and so many other Americans, he was one of them. People like Sen. McCain are what this country needs and always has needed.
When I got to ask him some questions, I could tell that here was a man who has already made a difference, but who had much more ahead of him. I could also tell that he knew he could be a great president, a great leader, a great example for all Americans and for the world.
McCain admitted, almost apologetically, that he really didn’t know a lot about Northeastern Pennsylvania. But he did know the region was a key for him to win Pennsylvania’s vote.
McCain leaned back in his seat on his bus and talked candidly about politics, excessive spending and critical issues.
“We have to do what is for the good of America,” McCain said.
Asked what his presidency would mean to the region, McCain didn’t hesitate: “Reform, prosperity and peace.”
McCain said the U.S. needs to reform its system of government.
“We have to keep people’s taxes down,” McCain said. “We have to stop the annual transfer of $700 billion of America’s wealth to foreign countries.”
McCain said he is proud he never asked for or received a federal earmark or pork barrel project. He said the playing field for allocation of federal dollars should be leveled.
“I’m not going to use taxpayers’ dollars to build museums or bridges to nowhere,” McCain said. “Where federal dollars go should not be determined by the seniority of a congressman. We have to make the competition open and fair.”
When the bus stopped and media members had to leave, McCain thanked local reporters for their time, shook their hands and sat back in his seat in anticipation of the next wave of questions.
I remember thinking that I probably just interviewed one of the best candidates for the presidency who would never win the office. And I remember how sad that made me feel.
And as I read McCain’s obituary and refreshed my memory of what a great man he really was — what a great family man, great soldier, great public servant — it made me even sadder to realize he is gone.
I’m glad I got to meet him and shake his hand. I’m glad I got to see how sincere he was. I’m glad I got to tell him about my parents and I am really glad that he listened and that he, too, valued them and all Americans like them who made this country great just by being who they were.
Godspeed Senator McCain and God bless. Rest in peace, sir.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle, or email at [email protected]