After answering questions from reporters, Sen. John McCain departs the U.S. Capitol for a briefing on North Korea at the White House April 26, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
By Ellen McGirt
Updated: May 14, 2018 3:52 PM ET

A nasty remark about Senator John McCain leaked from the White House last Thursday, a controversy which is sure to spill over into this week.

McCain, who is home in Arizona battling a lethal form of brain cancer, broke with the GOP and tweeted his lack of support for President Trump’s CIA director nominee Gina Haspel for “her role in overseeing the use of torture…and her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality.”

White House special assistant Kelly Sadler waved off his dissent in a private meeting with the White House communications team. “[I]t doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” she reportedly said.

While utterly callous, her remark accidentally shines a light on the reality of McCain’s situation: Yes, he’s dying. But that means everything matters even more, including the way he’s choosing to live now.

I interviewed Senator McCain for one of my first stories at Fortune, a straightforward package about how powerful people organize their time called How I Work. It was 2006, and I had just talked my way into a staff writer position from our sister publication, Money. At the time, it felt like being called up to the majors.

I wasn’t known for my political coverage nor had any currency inside the Beltway, but he took the meeting anyway. He was gracious, funny and kind. He even referenced my personal finance stories, which included such riveting fare as How To Choose a Long-Term Care Policy and America’s Best Corporate Benefits. He said it was all “important stuff,” and I believe he meant it.

Although we did talk about how he set priorities, interacted with constituents, and led his staff, we also talked about how he found purpose in the work, his version of “important stuff.”

He teared up several times recalling how much he loved working with Mark Salter, his long-time writing partner and chief of staff, and I believe he meant that too.

“I gave a speech on the floor of the Senate to wrap up the debate on the torture amendment,” he said. “It was the only time when there was total silence on the floor of the Senate. We wrote that together.”

But for a country that’s already squeamish about death and dying, with a health care system that often does a poor job providing effective care for dying people and their families, McCain’s candor is an opportunity to address some of these issues head-on.

Here’s just one example, relevant to this audience: Racial disparities in end-of-life care abound.

One recent study reviewed two decades of Medicare data and found that black and Hispanic lung cancer patients experienced “considerable racial-ethnic disparities in end-of-life care quality,” which included delayed referrals to hospice and fewer resources for families struggling to make complex medical decisions.

But on an individual level, McCain’s willingness to stay engaged, which includes publicly processing some key regrets, is a more immediate lesson.

“The nomination of Gina Haspel is actually giving McCain a chance to address publicly the most well-known story about his life aside from his presidential runs,” says Betsy Trapasso, an end-of-life guide and advocate. “Not many dying people get a chance to play out their life’s story in such a public arena.” It’s also a function beyond legacy, she says. “This is about coming to peace with the things that have happened, the decisions that you’ve made, and clearing the way to be present with the people you love.”

McCain has always been a feisty and complicated political figure, and there is much in his record to debate, admire, or revile, depending on your point of view. Regardless, I expect Sadler will continue to take well-deserved political heat for her quip, as will the White House, which has not yet disavowed it.

But looking back on our interview, I found the blueprint for a sanguine end already in place, particularly if you’re willing to carefully define “success.”

It was long after his 2000 presidential campaign had been robo-called out of existence by a harbinger of racist trolls yet to come. (And a tactic he would, ironically, soon embrace himself.)

I asked McCain about that loss, which led to a conversation about his legendary temper. “You lose battles in politics. I do get good and angry,” he laughed. He said he wallowed in self-pity for awhile then snapped out of it.

“The people you represent don’t want you this way. You’re still their Senator. And besides, America doesn’t like sore losers,” he said. “I also don’t hold grudges. It’s a waste of time. What’s the point? Frankly, the sweetest revenge is success.”

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