A new book also shares details from McCain's poignant final hours at home, surrounded by everyone and everything he loved

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Mark Salter, John McCain
Mark Salter (left) and Sen. John McCain
| Credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty

In his new book, The Luckiest Man: Life with John McCain, Mark Salter details his relationship with the late Arizona senator. As a speechwriter, trusted adviser and friend of the former presidential contender, Salter bore witness to many history-making events and remained at McCain's side in his final days.

McCain died in 2018 at the age of 81, about a year after his brain cancer diagnosis.

While he was publicly "relaxed and engaging," the Republican senator was more introspective in his final days, Salter writes in the 554-page tome, published on Tuesday.

Salter goes into specific detail about the planning that went into McCain's funeral — planning in which the senator himself was involved. And while much of the plans revolved around the pomp and circumstance befitting the remembrance of a war hero, there was also controversy to be addressed: namely, whether President Donald Trump should be invited to the funeral.

The group planning the funeral reached out to former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, asking them to give eulogies at the service. Both readily accepted, with McCain reaching out personally to offer his thanks. But then the discussion turned to Trump.

"In several meetings on the subject, we raised the delicate issue of whether or not to invite the incumbent president," Salter writes. "Neither man liked or respected the other. Yet neither would have been the first person in Washington to pay insincere tribute to someone he disliked."

As Salter acknowledges, much of McCain's legacy was antithetical to Trumpism — a contrast that was sure to be illustrated at the senator's funeral services. To have Trump physically in attendance would run counter to all that McCain stood for.

"The last time we raised the question, McCain remarked, 'I’m sure he would rather play golf,' " Salter continues. "We took that as a no."

Salter references Trump and McCain's fractured relationship throughout the book, describing how incensed he became when the president dismissed McCain's heroism as a prisoner of war, saying, "I like people who weren’t captured.”

"I called him and cussed prolifically as I condemned Trump’s character, intelligence, and appearance," Salter recalls. "McCain advised me to take it easy. 'All he did was get people to talk about what a hero I am all weekend. That’s not my problem, it’s his.' "

Salter, who joined McCain's staff in 1989, helped organize a group of more than 100 McCain ex-staffers who publicly supported Trump's Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in August. Recently, McCain’s name has been invoked in connection with the stunning Atlantic report alleging that Trump called those who died fighting on behalf of the U.S. “losers” and “suckers.” (Trump adamantly denied this.)


Salter also recounts McCain's final days, which were spent at his desert cabin in Arizona.

"He liked to sit in a chair on the deck outside their bedroom for as many hours a day as he could, gazing at the creek and watching the birds," Salter writes. "He was still in thrall to the pair of black hawks that returned every spring to their nest in a sycamore on the property. As the summer progressed, he spent more time in the hospital bed Cindy had purchased. We would wheel it out on the deck for him so he could keep taking in the beauty of the place he loved so much."

While guests filtered in and out of the home to say their final goodbyes, his wife, Cindy, remained a constant presence.

"All those weeks and months, she sat next to his chair or his bed and saw to his every need, kept his spirits up, made sure his meals were to his liking and he ate them," Salter writes. "She managed the team of nurses and physician’s assistants who cared for him, and monitored his meds ... she consoled him when he was down and soothed him when he was anxious. I’ve never seen a more devoted spouse."

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching passage from the book is its description of the late senator's final moments, surrounded by loved ones while facing his favorite Arizona vista.

"We had wheeled his bed onto the deck outside his bedroom and pointed him toward the creek he loved," Salter recounts. "He was surrounded by loved ones as the intervals between his breaths grew longer. Just before 4:30 p.m., one of the black hawks flew over his bed to the other side of the creek, settled on a sycamore limb, and looked down on the scene. He never drew another breath."

In those final moments, Salter writes, a playlist created by Cindy could be heard in the background, providing a musical background for a life well-lived. And most fittingly, just moments after he passed, Frank Sinatra’s voice could be heard singing "My Way."