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Portrait of US Sen. John McCain in the Russell Senate Office Building on July 1996.
Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

We asked 11 senators what’s most misunderstood about John McCain

“He’s not a maverick for maverick’s sake.”

Sen. John McCain is gone. And perhaps the people who will miss him most are his colleagues in the Senate.

With a 30-year tenure in Congress, not to mention his 2008 presidential run, McCain’s legacy as a former prisoner of war turned public servant has long been revered and rehashed time and time again. And his independent streak — most recently evident in his 2017 vote to sink the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and his vocal critiques of Trump — is certainly part of that legacy.

But though we know a lot about John McCain’s public actions, we know a lot less about him as a friend and colleague. For those who have worked closely with him in the Senate, his broadly held reputation as a “maverick” is far too simplistic.

“He’s got this gruff exterior that he sort of uses to keep people off balance. He’s a genuinely decent, sensitive person,” says Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX).

We spoke with 11 senators while he was still alive to ask them about what they think is most misunderstood about the iconic Republican lawmaker. Here’s what they had to say.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), McCain’s closest friend in the Senate

Li Zhou

What do you think is most misunderstood about Sen. McCain?

Lindsey Graham

How consistent he’s been no matter who’s in power. That he’s been in a pain in the ass to Republicans and Democrats and a valuable ally to presidents based on issues, not based on personality. He will cross his party for something he believes in, and he will fight a Democrat when he thinks they’re wrong.

I think some people on the right think he hasn’t been conservative. He has. But conservatism alone is not what drives John McCain. On foreign policy, it’s the security of the nation. And when he finds a reliable ally on the Democratic side, he works with them.

Li Zhou

Do you think the maverick title he’s been given is an accurate way of describing him?

Lindsey Graham

What we call a maverick today used to be the standard for the Senate of yesterday.

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham answer questions from the media outside the White House after a meeting with President George W. Bush on July 11, 2007.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): “John and I disagree on a lot of things, but we also agree on some things too”

Li Zhou (via email)

What do you think is most misunderstood about Sen. McCain?

Elizabeth Warren

John is willing to take on his own party, whether it’s popular or not. He’ll go toe to toe with anyone, including with the president of the United States.

Li Zhou

What has surprised you most about him while working alongside him?

Elizabeth Warren

John and I disagree on a lot of things, but we also agree on some things too. John wants to break up the big banks that crashed our economy 10 years ago, and he’s held the Trump administration accountable for embracing [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin and weakening our alliances. He’s also really, really funny.

Sens. John McCain and Elizabeth Warren chat prior to Sen. John Kerry’s confirmation hearings for secretary of state on Capitol Hill on January 24, 2013.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ): “People assume he just does national or international issues, but he’s ... involved on Arizona issues”

Li Zhou

What do you think is most misunderstood about Sen. McCain?

Jeff Flake

One thing that’s misunderstood is that people assume he just does national or international issues, but he’s very much informed and involved on Arizona issues. That’s water, land use, mining, Indian issues.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA): “He doesn’t get mad for no reason”

Li Zhou

What do you think is most misunderstood about Sen. McCain?

John Kennedy

Based on the 17 months that I have been around Sen. McCain, some people think that Sen. McCain loses control of his temper. Based on what I’ve seen, he does get very, very passionate. You might call it anger; I call it giving a motivational speech. But he feels deeply about things, and I’ve heard some criticism of him like, “Well, he just flies off the handle for no reason.”

That’s not true; that’s not true. He does get very passionate about something that he believes strongly. And I’ve never met a greater patriot.

Some people don’t like his politics. I disagree with some of his votes. I disagreed with his vote on the Obamacare repeal. He’s a patriot.

Li Zhou

Why do you think there are these perceptions that he can’t handle his temper?

John Kennedy

Because he gets mad a lot. But he doesn’t get mad for no reason. We’ve all met people who if they don’t get their own way, they throw a tantrum. That’s not John McCain. When he sinks his teeth into something because he thinks it’s right, he’s going to fight for it. I mean, he survived five years in a cage. He’s tough as a boot and he loves his country.

Li Zhou

Is there anything else that surprised you about working with him?

John Kennedy

He’s very approachable. He was nice to me from the very first day. He never acted like he was one of the Founding Fathers. You can talk to him like a regular person. He treated me as an equal from day one. I didn’t feel like an equal! I mean, this is John McCain. But he treated me like an equal.

He can be very funny. I sat next to him when we’ve had a couple of speakers come to the Senate, and the running commentary from the senator under his breath is pretty interesting.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA): “He wants you to argue with him. He’ll like you better if you do. ”

Li Zhou

What do you think is most misunderstood about Sen. McCain?

Tim Kaine

Well, I think what you can initially misunderstand is that he’s pretty gruff and he’s tough.

He’ll want to get into an argument with you, and I think most of us who are on the committee have had that experience, where you’ve been in the middle of a big argument with him. But, what you’ll realize after is that he wants you to argue with him. He’ll like you better if you do.

I accidentally got into an argument with him at a hearing once over the carrier programs. ... He was going after the programs, and I was doing my bit trying to, you know, make my case. He started interrupting me, and we ended up in this significant argument, but I held my ground. And I always felt like once I did, then he was like, “That’s a good guy. I’ll be his friend.”

He’s very tough. He’s tough on witnesses. He is a colleague — if he thinks you’re wrong, he’s going to tell you bluntly right to your face, in no uncertain terms, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good colleague. So I would say sometimes that the gruff exterior can fool people.

He’s just really a great colleague.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) with Sen. John McCain, left, on the Senate subway on Capitol Hill on January 8, 2015.
Andrew Harnik for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH): his debate pep partner in 2008

Li Zhou

What do you think is most misunderstood about Sen. McCain?

Rob Portman

I think being in public life as long as he has, and been written about as extensively as he has, he’s pretty well-understood.

I’m a friend of his, and I’ve worked very closely with him. I played the role of Barack Obama in the debate prep with him. In 2008, when he was our candidate, I traveled the country with him. I wasn’t in office at the time, so I took six weeks off from my law firm and just, you know, helped him.

I had known him for many years, but we got to be friends in a different way. Cindy [McCain’s wife] will never forgive me because my job was to get under his skin.

Li Zhou

What surprised you about that?

Rob Portman

He’s just a very principled, patriotic person. I don’t think that’s misunderstood, though. His heart is in the right place. He is a passionate person who sometimes expresses it in passionate ways, but it’s always with the right intent.

Li Zhou

Do you think the maverick title he’s been given is an accurate way of describing him?

Rob Portman

I’m not sure maverick is right. He does what he thinks is right, and sometimes that’s not conventional. Sometimes it’s conventional and he thinks that’s the right way to go. He’s not a maverick for maverick’s sake.

Then-Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain and adviser Rob Portman board a flight in Columbus, Ohio, on September 29, 2008,
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX): “Gruff exterior” but a “big heart”

Li Zhou

What do you think is most misunderstood about Sen. McCain?

John Cornyn

I think his big heart. He’s got this gruff exterior that he sort of uses to keep people off balance. He’s a genuinely decent, sensitive person.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA): Remembers his “ability to be a leader in a tough time”

Li Zhou

What do you think is most misunderstood about Sen. McCain?

Patty Murray

Oh, gosh. I think people know his passion, his ability to fight for what he believes him, his ability to be a leader in a tough time. Things that we all really respect.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL): “I am a great fan of John McCain”

Li Zhou

What do you think is most misunderstood about Sen. McCain?

Bill Nelson

I am a great fan of John McCain, so I don’t think it’s misunderstood that he speaks his mind and I admire that quality. And that’s why I’m a big fan of his.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO): “Emotions matter greatly in John McCain’s decision-making”

Li Zhou

What do you think is most misunderstood about Sen. McCain?

Cory Gardner

I don’t think this is misunderstood. Emotions matter greatly in John McCain’s decision-making. ... That’s a great statement of passion for our country.

Li Zhou

What are some of the key lessons you’ve taken away from serving alongside him?

Cory Gardner

Just being serious about every issue. There’s no one single issue that can trump the seriousness with which every issue presents itself. You can’t let some issue slide just because you’re interested in this issue over here. Every matter is important, whether it’s a tax issue, a defense issue — every issue deserves the incredible attention to detail that McCain gave it.

From left: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and John McCain (R-AZ) pose for a photo around Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) as they arrive for President Trump’s inauguration ceremony on January 20, 2017.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI): “He’s been a true American beacon to the world”

Li Zhou

What do you think is most misunderstood about Sen. McCain?

Sheldon Whitehouse

That he’s actually a real jerk. [smiles]

Li Zhou

Do you think he deserves the title of maverick that he’s been anointed with over the years?

Sheldon Whitehouse

I think he probably does, but I think his real contribution has not been as a maverick; it has been as an international standard-bearer of American values. Traveling the world to all its corners, to countries that most Americans have never heard of, meeting with the opposition, standing up for free press.

He’s been a true American beacon to the world, and I think that’s the best way to remember him, not just as a maverick.

Sen. John McCain speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill on November 14, 2017.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
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