Remembering John McCain’s First Overseas Trip with Hillary Clinton
The passing of John McCain leaves a gaping hole in our public life. The obituaries and remembrances of the past few days have honored his memory and his admirable life of service to our nation. I was fortunate to have served as a Senate staffer during his tenure and had the opportunity to travel along on the first overseas trip he took with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in the summer of 2004. That trip was quintessential McCain: a packed itinerary focused on a diverse set of serious policy issues combined with humor and revelry. It was also the beginning of a unique relationship between two superstar senators that continued throughout their Senate careers.
McCain and Clinton did not have much of a prior relationship when she was first elected to the Senate. And during her first couple of years in the Senate, they did not have much opportunity to work directly together. But in 2003, Clinton became the first New York senator to be appointed to the Senate Armed Services Committee. At the time, I was working as Sen. Clinton’s defense and foreign policy advisor.
Over the next year, McCain would approach Clinton before nearly every recess to ask if she would join him for an overseas trip. But as a freshman senator, she often spent her recesses in New York. She also had longstanding speech commitments given her prominent national profile. Finally, it happened. McCain invited her to visit the Baltics and the Arctic Circle with him in the summer of 2004. His staff made clear that if she declined again, this would be the last time he would extend an invitation. Recognizing the importance of building a relationship with McCain, she accepted. While McCain usually limited traveling staff, he agreed to let me and Huma Abedin travel along.
McCain invited his frequent travel partners, Sens. Lindsay Graham, Susan Collins, and John Sununu to join the delegation, leaving Clinton as the only senator from her party on the trip. The trip included stops in Latvia, Estonia, Norway, and Iceland. The Baltic visits were mostly to hear their concerns about Russia while Norway and Iceland would focus on the impact of climate change.
Because of a prior obligation, Clinton missed the Latvia stop and we joined the trip in Estonia. We joined the group for a number of meetings with Estonian government officials before heading to the hotel. As we headed up to our rooms, McCain pulled me aside and asked me to come to his room. Not knowing what to expect and a bit nervous given McCain’s usual preference for excluding other senators’ staff on foreign travel, I followed into his room. Suddenly, he turned to me and asked if I could get his TV to work since the remote control did not seem to be working. I tried myself and had no success. Finally, I figured out the problem. “Sir,” I gently suggested, “I think this is the remote for the clock radio. The remote for the TV is on the dresser.” He laughed and for the rest of the trip, he would often tease me in front of the other senators. That night, Clinton and McCain had their famous vodka drinking contest that was later featured on the front page of the New York Times. As the vodka flowed, McCain ordered me to help finish the last bottle. As a staffer having dinner with several senators, I had been avoiding alcohol, but McCain made clear that “no” was not an acceptable answer and I did my duty.
During our visit to Estonia, the delegation heard an earful from government officials about the threat posed by Russia. One Estonian government official even joked he would be rooting for China over Russia in the upcoming 2004 summer Olympics. The U.S. Embassy noted that Estonia didn’t get many Congressional visits so was especially appreciative of the show of support from a high-profile delegation. Clinton introduced McCain and the rest of the delegation to Lennart Meri, the former president of Estonia who highlighted the Russian threat.
The second half of the trip was devoted to observing the impact of climate change. Unlike most in his party, McCain was genuinely concerned about climate change’s impact on the environment. In Norway, the delegation took a ship north of the Arctic Circle to observe shrinking glaciers. The Norwegian government had invited journalists aboard the ship and both Clinton and McCain were subjected to hours of being stalked by photographers. They took pictures from every conceivable angle and captured the delegation, unflatteringly, in life jackets as we left the ship to walk the glacier.
Finally, we stopped in Iceland on the way home for lunch with government officials followed by a visit to the Blue Lagoon geothermal springs. McCain and Graham decided to experience the springs themselves along with McCain’s foreign policy aide, Richard Fontaine. Clinton and the remaining senators decided they would observe from above. Clinton turned to me: “You should go,” I weakly protested that I had not brought a swim suit, but our Navy liaison helpfully chimed in that the that the facility had them available. So, I found myself about a half hour later having the surreal experience of standing with McCain, Graham, and Fontaine in an Icelandic geothermal spring while American tourists rushed to get pictures with them and journalists lobbed questions.
In the background of our trip, the 2004 presidential campaign was raging. Traveling in the Arctic Circle gave both McCain and Clinton a respite from the bitter campaign back in the United States. However, the Swift Boat ads against John Kerry had started to run and reporters in the United States tracked down McCain in Norway to get his comment. As he saw the articles about the ads online, he expressed outrage at both the ads and the way they were financed.
After the trip was over, Clinton became a regular traveling partner of McCain, going with him on several other overseas trips including to Iraq and Afghanistan. But that first trip cemented their relationship. And the issues that McCain cared about on that trip — Russia, climate change, and campaign finance — are still issues that require leadership and attention. Throughout his political career, McCain asked tough questions about difficult issues and those qualities will be deeply missed.
Andrew J. Shapiro served as Sen. Clinton’s senior defense and foreign policy advisor from 2001 to 2009 and as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs from 2009 to 2013. He is currently a managing director at Beacon Global Strategies LLC.