Published 1:40 p.m. UTC Sep 4, 2018
WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain's life took on a fierce urgency after he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017, and he moved quickly to complete his final projects even as his health challenges sequestered him at his family home near Sedona, a close friend told The Arizona Republic.
McCain also never gave up hope that he might someday return to the U.S. Senate and until his April surgery for an intestinal infection related to diverticulitis was plotting a possible Capitol Hill comeback.
Rick Davis, a longtime member of McCain's inner circle who visited McCain frequently this year at the McCains' Cornville property, revealed new details about the final months of McCain's life out of the public eye.
The six-term senator from Arizona and 2008 Republican presidential nominee was battling glioblastoma, a deadly form of brain cancer. He died Aug. 25 in Cornville at age 81.
McCain was determined to plan his own memorial services, write a final book with his longtime collaborator and former chief of staff Mark Salter, participate in an HBO documentary about his career, and clear out a portion of the Cornville property that had been overgrown with brush and trees.
"He initially called Salter and I in shortly after the diagnosis," Davis recalled in an interview with The Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network. "He said, 'OK, we've got to start planning my funeral.' We're like, 'Uh, can't it wait? This is depressing.' He said, 'No. We've got to get it done. We've got to get it done right now.'"
McCain's final goals were accomplished.
His life was celebrated with memorial services in at North Phoenix Baptist Church and Washington National Cathedral. He was eulogized by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and by former Vice President Joe Biden. He lay in state at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix and in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. After a funeral service at the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel, he was buried Sunday in the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery.
His and Salter's book "The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations," was published May 22.
HBO's "John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls" premiered in May.
A 40-page document included details on all the McCain memorial activities and eventually McCain was satisfied that they had gotten "about 80 percent there."
Davis said, laughing, that it was more like "120 percent" given McCain's ambitious plans.
He described the Arizona ceremonies as "building blocks" that built to "the big national events, the lying in state and then the cathedral on Saturday and then going back to where it all began, at the very end," with McCain's burial at Annapolis.
"It was so nice that he was able to articulate himself what the end was going to look like. It was just amazing," Davis said. "You look now and you say, 'Thank God, we got the book done. Thank God, we got the planning for the funeral done. Thank God, we got the HBO thing done. And we got that area cleared, thank God. Because he was going to drive us all nuts with that.
"He was a man in a hurry all the way to the end."
Davis served as campaign manager for McCain's 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns and today is a partner in a private equity fund in New York. He was one of McCain's closest advisers for years.
Here are some more details from Davis about McCain's final months while battling brain cancer in Cornville.
McCain's health went up and down
McCain's health condition varied between the time he was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, in December and his death last month.
"It just depended on what month it was," Davis said.
He entered the hospital for side effects related to his anti-cancer chemotherapy and radiation treatment and a viral infection. McCain returned to Arizona Dec. 17 and never went back to Washington, D.C.
McCain wound up tearing both of his Achilles' tendons last year, which was a consequence of the steroids he had been getting in the cancer fight, he said. That hurt McCain's ability to get around.
"So then he's in a wheelchair at the very end of the year and I'm very confident that that contributed to him getting some fluid in his chest, because he wasn't moving around like he always does," Davis said. "That's when we pulled him out of D.C. and got him back home. He didn't look well. And for a lot of people, that's what gets them: a bout of pneumonia. He fought that off nicely."
In Cornville, McCain began a regimen of exercise and therapy. He could walk around the grounds of the family property.
McCain's condition improved, but his April 15 surgery at Mayo Clinic for an intestinal infection related to diverticulitis appeared to mark a turning point.
"That really took it out of him," Davis said. "He didn't have a lot of reserves and so the surgery itself really, I think, flattened his physical capability. He never really recovered."
McCain did work his way back to some mobility and got to the point where "he was sitting in chairs and eating dinner at the table," he said.
"It was a pretty normal existence, but that was as good as it was going to get," Davis said. "We realized at that point that we weren't going to get him up and walking around and back to D.C.
"His thing was always, 'If I'm in D.C., I've got to be able to walk.'"
McCain did not contemplate resigning
McCain kept hoping that he would go back to the Senate at least one more time.
Such a return might have been as powerful, if he could have pulled it off, as his dramatic thumbs-down "no" vote on the Senate GOP health-care repeal plan in July 2017.
By March, Davis suggested, such a comeback was being discussed in some detail.
"Until his surgery in April, there was a plan to get him back, right? We were actively contemplating like we did for the health-care vote," Davis said. "What's the arrival look like? What issue will he take out on? What kind of speech will he give when he gets back? You can imagine what kind of impact that would have had, right, with him actually coming back."
The bout with diverticulitis essentially put an end to that dream.
"He was getting healthier and then it just took a turn for the worse," Davis said. "We were optimistic that he could continue to improve. He'd done it before — he'd been through these cycles with the pneumonia, with the Achilles' tendons, and other stuff — but there was just not enough reserve left for him to really recover properly."
McCain never talked to Ducey about an appointment
McCain never talked to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey about who Ducey might pick to fill the Senate seat vacated by his death.
McCain and Ducey respected each other's roles, Davis said. That's why McCain was deferential to Ducey on state issues that fell into his realm of responsibilities and Ducey was deferential to McCain on federal issues.
During the 2017 health-care debate, McCain consulted with Ducey to try to shield Arizona's Medicaid system from the GOP's proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act.
"In this case, the succession thing, Ducey gets to make that decision," Davis said. "And honestly, I don't think there was a single day, that I was around, when John McCain thought he was not still going to be the United States senator from Arizona."
Demeanor never changed while sick
McCain remained driven to finish as much of his work as possible.
"He was on people 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to get all that stuff done," Davis said of the various McCain projects that were pending.
"That's the way he always was," Davis said. "He never changed his demeanor all the way through his illness."
Though far from the Senate, McCain continued regularly dealing with his Senate staff and continued to put out written statements as developments warranted.
"He wanted regular reports on how the book was selling," Davis said. "(His daughter) Meghan had been going around making some speeches on his behalf and he had been getting involved in those. He was very busy. He felt like he was still in the game even if he wasn't in the arena."
Eventually, McCain came to terms with his health.
"I think there was a part of him that always knew there was a shot at trying to get back into the arena," Davis said. "But he knew he was fighting something that was bigger than Congress. He accepted that. He knew the first battle he had to win was the health battle."
McCain was able to spend time with family members and was entertained by a steady stream of friends coming to visit.
"He was comfortable. Cindy created a wonderful environment for him where he didn't have to go back and forth to the doctor," Davis said. "... She had two nurses on duty at all times. She had a therapist there. He got daily massages, daily therapy. It was like going to Mayo for one person. Of course, it's in this beautiful surrounding. So he was happy."
What did McCain make of White House aide's joke about him 'dying anyway'?
In May, Kelly Sadler, a communications aide in President Donald Trump's White House, caused a furor by making a bad-taste joke about McCain, which subsequently was leaked to the media.
Sadler was responding in a meeting to McCain's announced opposition to Gina Haspel, whom Trump had nominated to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
"It doesn't matter; he's dying anyway," Sadler said.
Sadler was out of the White House job by June.
What did McCain think of the insensitive quip and the days-long news coverage of it that followed?
"He didn't give a s--t. The guy's got thick skin," Davis said. "... Stuff like that didn't get to him.
"When Trump gets with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and Putin gets the better of him, that's what got to him. He cared about those type of people, not White House staffers."