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During 2000 Presidential Run, John McCain Emerged As Reform Candidate

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

John McCain has been an influential senator for decades. He was the Republican nominee for president in 2008. But for many people, his most memorable season in politics was 2000, the year he didn't win the nomination, the year he ran as an insurgent, a reformer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So he dares Washington to support his efforts to break the stranglehold that special interests and their money have on the political process.

SIEGEL: The CNBC editor at large John Harwood is with us. And John, you spent some time on the McCain 2000 campaign. What do you remember of it?

JOHN HARWOOD: The notable thing about John McCain in 2000 was that he pushed back against both of the developments in media and politics that so many people have come to loathe. When he was being held prisoner in Vietnam, when my dad was covering national campaigns for the Washington Post, reporters and politicians got to know each other intimately. Politicians of both parties got to know each other intimately and were not as polarized as they are now.

By the time I started covering campaigns in the 1990s, candidates were remote. They were suspicious of the press. And the two parties were sharply polarized, and they've grown ever more so since. But John McCain opened his campaign bus, gave full access to everyone. Candor became his watchword. Telling unpopular truths became his watchword. That was very popular with...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

HARWOOD: ...Reporters. And he also challenged his party. And the ways that he challenged his party are things that we just don't see right now, and many people wish we would.

SIEGEL: As for his dealings with reporters, he took to referring to the press corps facetiously I think as his base. He became a popular figure with the people who covered him. They liked him, yes?

HARWOOD: There's no question about it. And of all the candidates that I've seen in my lifetime in politics, he's the one who most reminds me of the situation that my dad experienced in 1968 covering the Bobby Kennedy campaign. Those reporters fell in love with Bob Kennedy. And in the same way in 2000, reporters fell in love with John McCain because he was giving us things that most candidates don't, which is access and candor.

SIEGEL: The name of that bus was the Straight Talk Express, and that's what he was - that's what he said he was doing, and that's what he was doing. Listening to what they'd said in the clip from that campaign commercial that we heard, it sounds like in the year 2000 he was running as a Theodore Roosevelt Republican, a brand of politician that had ceased to exist decades before that. Was he in the wrong party, in the wrong decade?

HARWOOD: Well, had John McCain succeeded, our parties might look different now. He challenged the conventional wisdom of his party on taxes. He challenged it on campaign finance reform. He embraced unpopular things like overhauling entitlement programs but in the context of mutual sacrifice. And he asked sacrifice of voters in the way that most candidates don't. He evolved a bit. His 2008 campaign was less in that mold in part because he learned the lessons of having lost in 2000.

SIEGEL: Assuming that John McCain does return to the Senate, do you think that at this moment, a very polarized moment, that he could play some pivotal role in terms of dealing with the Republican Party, dealing with President Trump?

HARWOOD: It's possible. The theme of John McCain's political career has been country over party. He showed that in 2000. He showed that in building a career after his experience as a prisoner of war. He has plainly been skeptical of President Trump. He's called the Russia scandal a centipede where shoes are going to continue to drop. If he chose to make challenging President Trump a signature of his return to Washington, he could have a big impact on his colleagues. No indication at the moment that that's his choice, but it's an option for him.

SIEGEL: John Harwood of CNBC, thanks.

HARWOOD: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.