Opinion | Alan Wirzbicki

When I didn’t cut the mustard with John McCain

John McCain celebrated in Miami in January 2008 after winning the Florida Republican presidential primary.
John McCain celebrated in Miami in January 2008 after winning the Florida Republican presidential primary. Charles Dharapak/Associated Press/File

The only time I interviewed John McCain one-on-one, he spilled mustard on my pants, questioned my vocabulary choices, and eventually asked me skeptically what I got on the SATs.

The magic of McCain, though, is that when he insulted you, it somehow seemed endearing.

My meeting happened in the summer of 1999, when he was campaigning “north of the notch” in New Hampshire, sprinting around rural Coos County. So far from the primary day, and in such an inconvenient part of the Granite State, there were only two media outlets following McCain that day: his hometown Arizona Republic and my college newspaper.


McCain was bickering with the Republic over some long-ago slight, so his staff made it a point to be especially nice to me instead. After a stop at a fiddle festival, where he made a short appearance, a staffer told me to wait in the back of the senator’s campaign SUV. I hadn’t expected an actual interview, and was completely unprepared.

McCain appeared a few minutes later carrying a jumbo sausage from the fairgrounds, dripping with onions and peppers and mustard, and clambered over me into the window seat he wanted, all while trying to keep hold of his lunch. McCain moved awkwardly in such situations, the result of his wartime injuries, but wasn’t deterred. Meanwhile, the toppings slid onto my lap.

The group took off for Berlin, the next stop on McCain’s itinerary. With the Arizona Republic reporter trailing in his car, banished from the interview, the campaign had made its point. But now the senator was stuck talking to me for 45 minutes. I tried to ask him about campaign finance reform, his signature issue at the time, but he cut me off after a few minutes when the way I’d phrased a question provoked his ire.


“What you mean is . . .” he said, and the rest of the trip was a blur, as he held forth on campaign finance and military spending and higher education and all the other questions he felt I should have been asking him. Fearing at one point that I might not be grasping his point, he demanded to know my SAT score (so he’d know how much to dumb down his explanation, I guess).

Lost in the policy details, and stained with congealing grease and drying mustard, I was relieved when we finally got to the next stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Berlin and the interview ended. Still, there’s a key difference between McCain and someone like George W. Bush, who demeaned staffers with belittling nicknames, or Donald Trump, whose abuse of critics is so often laced with racism and his own insecurities. Ask McCain stupid questions and he’d tell you so — but only because what he really wanted was for you to ask better ones.

Alan Wirzbicki is a Globe editorial writer.