During an exclusive interview with the Daily Mail published just hours after news broke of Sen. John McCain’s death from brain cancer on Saturday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin talked about her former presidential running mate’s legacy as an American war hero.
But while Palin maintains nothing but “respect” for his “military service,” the one-time Republican vice presidential nominee believes that McCain was surrounded by people who “weren’t serving him well” in his final days.
McCain passed away on Saturday at 4:28 p.m. at his Arizona ranch after a year-long battle with a rare form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma. The 81-year-old is remembered for his military service, during which he endured five years of brutal conditions as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, and for decades of civic service as an Arizona legislator, which was underscored by unsuccessful presidential bids in 2000 and 2008.
Appearing with her husband Todd, Palin lamented her experiences on the campaign trail with McCain in 2008, but the 54-year-old Alaskan argued that an entourage of political hangers-on unduly influenced McCain during his final months.
“I respect his military service,” she explained. “I think it’s unfortunate that he had people around him — and they continued to be around him for a very long time — who weren’t serving him well. They certainly weren’t serving the country well with what they were trying to do.”
Palin went on to blame the negative influence on the Washington establishment.
“I believe he was told things about what America really wanted or really needed because he’s been in that D.C. bubble for so many years,” she said, adding, “I don’t think inherently he necessarily was really connected, so he did rely on people telling him — in polls — telling him and… he went from there.”
A “maverick” senator who once considered defecting from the GOP in 2001, by 2008 McCain was firmly entrenched within the Republican establishment, recruiting his staff straight from the old George W. Bush camp just in time for that year’s primaries. Conservative commentator Robert Novak noted the change, pointing out how establishment Republicans like Sens. Trent Lott (R-MS) and Pat Roberts (R-KA) took McCain under their wing and introduced the former GOP insurgent to corporate executives and D.C. lobbyists.
“They were selling him to establishment Republicans as the establishment’s candidate,” Novak wrote. “Nothing could be further from McCain’s guerrilla-style presidential run in 2000 that nearly stopped George W. Bush.”
Lost in the swamp
Speaking on Saturday night, Palin suggested that these lawmakers had an adverse influence on the senator, lamenting: “I think that’s unfortunate because he had some strange people around him and…disloyal people, and you know, I don’t say that as like hate speech or griping about it, it’s just a fact they were just some not nice people.”
Todd agreed, remembering how his wife was always surrounded by people with “cue cards” who sought to mold Palin into someone else.
“But sit in the back of the bus with John and her and it was awesome to watch,” he said. “So, I just respected John and he had a huge heart, you know.’
Palin said that she spoke to her former running mate about not allowing people to “mold you into something you’re not,” and McCain agreed.
“You can’t do that. You can’t be insincere and not genuine and accomplish what needs to be done, but yeah, that was a huge lesson,” Palin recalled. But while she acknowledged that her friend will undoubtedly be remembered for his stellar record of military service, Palin worries that some of McCain’s inner circle have tarnished that history.
“Part of that legacy, unfortunately, will be some of these people that had influence on him,” she told the Daily Mail.
Palin’s comments were very likely informed by a passage from McCain memoir, The Restless Wave, published in April. In it, the senator reflected about how he wished he would have taken Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate instead of Palin.
During an earlier interview with the Daily Mail, the former Alaska governor attributed that statement to “his ghostwriters.” Reacting to the sentiment, Palin told reporters: “Well, with that headline though that he evidently regretted picking me, well my thought was, ‘Well he’s never said that to me.’ We’ve always had great conversations and thankfulness that I accepted the opportunity, and was given the opportunity. It’s all been good.”
Still, Palin expressed sympathy for McCain if he did, in fact, regret selecting her as his vice president.
“It’s a shame to live life with regrets especially like that, that would be a huge regret,” she remarked. “That’s life-changing, nation-changing regret. Let it be a lesson that we not live life with regrets.”
Palin went on to say that she will always “remember the good times” and reflected that the two have kept in touch throughout all of these years.
“John McCain will be remembered,” she said. “I think he should be remembered as an American hero.”