My brief career as a spy with John McCain in China

The senator and presidential candidate comes to Seattle for a fundraiser, prompting barstool memories of the time when an Everett, Wash., kid met up with McCain in 1979 in the Gobi Desert.
Crosscut archive image.

The author (left) and then-Capt. John McCain (far right) in China in 1979.

The senator and presidential candidate comes to Seattle for a fundraiser, prompting barstool memories of the time when an Everett, Wash., kid met up with McCain in 1979 in the Gobi Desert.

Did my invitation to Thursday's John McCain shindig, Aug. 2 at the Washington Athletic Club, get lost in the mail? No, I'm a destitute, C-list Democrat shouldering a political love that dares not speak its name. (Update: This event has been canceled.) I know, cry "McCain" and let loose the dogs of the blogosphere. The pain of the Iraq quagmire has, for many, stained a virtuous record. It's a blinkered take, but no matter: The one obscures the other, just as Vietnam consumed LBJ. Moreover, there's the McCain campaign's tactical misfire of sucking up to the far right. Sen. McCain had a zinger-ish reply to this criticism the last time he spoke in Seattle: "What's wrong with sucking up to everybody?" For any politician (and certainly for a Republican), McCain's vision and leadership style seem consonant with Northwest values: He's a champion of national service, of tackling global warming, of environmental protection and wilderness, of services and civil rights for Native Americans, and of meaningful campaign-finance reform. For all of his personal mettle, gravitas, and integrity, though, McCain must shudder when he ventures to the Pacific Northwest. In the dark corners of his subconscious, he knows that I lurk nearby, slumped on a rickety barstool. I gesture up at the TV and extend my index finger like Marley's ghost. "There's 'ol John McCain," I say. "You know, John and I shot a couple rolls of film for the CIA in '79. My first work for the Company, and ..." So let me take you back to the halcyon days of 1979. John McCain was Capt. John S. McCain III, the Navy's U.S. Senate liaison and the escort officer for overseas congressional trips. During that time, intelligence bigwigs knew what few dared acknowledge – that having dependent children along as part of a congressional entourage advanced the national security interests of the United States. That's where I came in, at age 12 and the son of a senator. (Hey, at least no one had the temerity to call them "trade missions.") For three humid weeks in August, a dozen of us rambled across prelapsarian China, from Beijing to Inner Mongolia to an unscheduled pit stop at an air base somewhere in the Gobi Desert. The base was a relic of the Cold War, and it felt as if we'd wandered into a color-smudged documentary featuring 1950s-era jets. It was there, during an emergency stop to repair an engine on our Russian turboprop, that I finally bonded with the once and future presidential candidate. I had spied the captain from a distance, impressed by his humility, his humor, and his willingness to help his sometimes high-maintenance cohorts. He was a kind of silver-haired wunderkind with a copy of Teddy White's In Search of History in one hand and a pack of Winstons in the other. I arrogantly figured myself McCain's doppelganger, both of us slightly detached and amused by how we had ended up schlepping around the Chinese hinterland with a dozen VIPs. I was a gawky 12 with Beefeater hair lomped beneath a "Sonics #1" baseball cap. I didn't have the look of an intelligence asset, although that would change – at least the "asset" part. "Why don't you come take my picture?" McCain asked. I was armed with my father's Leica, and as McCain posed in front of a jet fighter, I obliged. "OK now, just take a picture of the plane." It seemed a wee odd, but fine. We walked behind a hangar and were blasted by the midday heat. "There," McCain said, pointing to some kind of microwave dish. Click. "And there." Curiously, it wasn't critical to have McCain in the picture anymore. It took a few minutes, but I'd finally clued in. I began to take shots of anything and everything that looked exotic or technical: a toolbox, a phone line, a revolving radar do-hicky. Click. For God, for country, and for the respect of Capt. McCain. Click. As we re-boarded our plane to Beijing, I surrendered my rolls of film to the captain and, characteristically thoughtful and good-natured, he thanked me. The bond was complete. At a 2006 event in McCain's honor, I mentioned my foray into 007 territory. "You were a minor at the time," the senator joked, "you were expendable." I love that man. For the sake of independents and other McCain boosters in the West (and I'm one of them), I hope Republicans don't think of John McCain as expendable, as well.

  

About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson