Sen. Collins on John McCain: A hero and a friend
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The military cargo plane careened, corkscrew-style, toward the landing strip at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, performing an evasive maneuver aimed at avoiding incoming fire.
In her seat, Sen. Susan Collins had a case of the jitters.
Sen. John McCain reached over and patted her hand.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, Susan. I am never going to die in a plane crash. I’ve had so many close calls. I know that’s not how I’m going to end,’” she recounted.
It was one of many trips together for the studious senator from Maine and the maverick from Arizona. All told, the two Republicans were together for four trips to Iraq, four trips to Afghanistan, along with trips to Yemen and Libya. “All the garden spots,” she joked.
Collins and McCain were buddies and saw eye to eye on many issues.
They were part of several so-called “gangs” of Republican and Democratic senators who tackled tough issues, like finding a solution to the delays of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees and coming up with a framework for ending a government shutdown in 2013.
There was no better ally, she said.
“He was such a towering figure in the Senate. He had no use for partisan political games. He wanted to solve problems. That’s why I so enjoyed working with him,” Collins said.
Collins first met McCain when she was a staffer in the office of Republican Sen. Bill Cohen, who went on to become defense secretary for President Bill Clinton. Cohen, who was part of McCain’s wedding party, will be a pallbearer at McCain’s funeral Saturday.
McCain was the son and grandson of four-star admirals, and he came to Maine to see a Navy destroyer, the USS McCain, christened at Bath Iron Works. In July, the Navy held a ceremony in which he became the third official namesake for the destroyer.
Collins praised McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, as “an American hero who devoted his life to serving his country.”
But he was also a friend.
Once, when McCain got stuck in the Bangor International Airport, he called Collins, who lives in Bangor. She ended up joining him.
It turns out the local “troop greeters” were there, as well. Bangor is a major refueling stop for aircraft headed to and from Europe, and the greeters welcome military personnel either departing or returning from deployments.
McCain greeted hundreds of soldiers that day, smiling and pausing for photos, and delayed his departure to greet another planeload, Collins said.
“That, to me, was vintage John McCain. He would do anything for our troops,” she said.
McCain mentioned some of his adventures with Collins in his book, “The Restless Wave.” One of the anecdotes was a trip to Libya where senators were kept waiting for hours before being whisked into the night to meet Moammar Gadhafi in an elaborate tent in the desert.
Those trips weren’t easy. McCain tried to cram as much as possible into the fact-finding missions, turning them into grueling affairs, Collins noted.
She said her friend’s comments on that plane flying into Afghanistan were prophetic.
After surviving crashes in Vietnam and during naval training, as well as several other close calls, McCain joked that his death was not meant to be on an airplane. Instead, he told her he was going to die at home, in his own bed.
He died at age 81 on Aug. 25. “He was right,” she said. “He died in his own bed, surrounded by people he loved best, in the place he most loved.”