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'Meet the Press' record holder McCain remembered as a passionate patriot

"He really understood in the marrow of his bones what it meant to be an American," Hillary Clinton said.
Image: John McCain Meet the Press
Senator John McCain appears on "Meet the Press" on April 16, 2017.NBC News

WASHINGTON — Arizona Senator John McCain was remembered Sunday as an American patriot and passionate politician who enjoyed his frequent battles with the press during his three-plus decades in Washington.

"He really understood in the marrow of his bones what it meant to be an American, and how important that was for us to yes, disagree and differ, but at the end of the day come together," former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said about McCain during a phone interview with "Meet the Press."

McCain, who died Saturday at the age of 81 after a battle with brain cancer, appeared on "Meet the Press" 73 times over the course of his career, more than any other guest in the show's history.

Political friends and those who covered him closely joined the show Sunday to discuss the Republican's legacy.

A constant presence in the halls of Congress, McCain was remembered by journalists as approachable and thoughtful.

"The guy wasn't a snob," "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd said Sunday, who added that to many political reporters, McCain was the "first person to acknowledge them on Capitol Hill, to take them seriously as a reporter."

McCain's first appearance as a guest on "Meet the Press" came on Jan. 17, 1988, a bit more than a year after his 1986 election to the Senate.

Over the years, he was a regular fixture on the show, filling his appearances with his patented "straight talk" and aphorisms.

Upon signing off after a 2006 interview with then-host Tim Russert, McCain made a brief nod to his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, joking: "I haven't had so much fun since my last interrogation."

His appearances over the years touched on a variety of topics, including his time as a POW, his two presidential bids in 2000 and 2008 and the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In one memorable appearance, he sat alongside Clinton, then a Senate colleague, as they visited the country shortly after Iraq elected its new Transitional Government.

With Clinton less than two years from announcing her 2008 presidential bid, McCain shared some bipartisan praise when asked whether he thought Clinton would make a good president.

"I have no doubt that Senator Clinton would make a good president," he replied with a smile.

Tom Brokaw, the long-time NBC anchor and editor, pointed to that sense of bipartisanship as he remembered the Arizona senator.

"We're missing that in our public life these days, the kind of authenticity that he brought to the arena," he said.

Arizona's junior senator, Jeff Flake, agreed.

"I don't know if we'll see anybody that's like John McCain, I think he's one of a kind," his fellow Republican said.

"We can certainly try to follow his example in seeing the good in our opponents, in recognizing that people may be on the other side of the aisle or have a different philosophy, but they are our friends, our fellow Americans."

Brokaw, Clinton and others who joined "Meet the Press" on Sunday remembered McCain's passion and energy.

"A warrior and a fighter always, but always with so much optimism, and so much joy, and passion," NBC's Andrea Mitchell said of McCain, who she covered on the campaign trail, in Congress and overseas.

"Passion because he believed so much in his country, in the people of our country. And he believed in a greater vision of America."

McCain didn't lose that trademarked fire even toward the end of his life, as was evident from his final years in Congress. He didn't shy away from criticizing President Donald Trump when he disagreed with him on style or substance, and ended his tenure in the Senate with a dramatic thumbs-down that sunk his party's health care plan after a speech critical of the GOP's efforts.

That passion was evident during one of his last "Meet the Press" appearances on the show in February of 2017. When asked whether he agreed with Trump's declaration that the press is the "enemy of the American people," McCain offered a stern warning.

"I hate the press," he joked. "But the fact is, we need you, we need a free press, we must have it. It's vital. I'm very serious now, if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free, and many times adversarial, press. And without it, I'm afraid we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started."

"I'm not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator, I'm just saying we need to learn the lessons of history," he added.

Speaking with "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Clinton said McCain's loss resonates more now because of what his loss means for those who looked to McCain as a Republican willing to speak out against his party's standard-bearer in Trump.

"Our institutions are being severely tested right now, including his beloved Senate," Clinton said.

"He was, in every way he knew how, trying to sound the alarm, to get all of us as Americans to understand that if we abandon the ideals we have stood for around the globe, if we turn our back on leadership on behalf of human rights and the kind of future we want to forge for our children and grandchildren, we will be giving up on what he fought for, what he was in prison for, what he stood for."