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Mikheil Saakashvili On McCain's Legacy In Countering Russia


John McCain will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol tomorrow. Since his death last weekend, we have been reflecting on his life, his impact and his legacy. And one memory that often stands out to me was covering some of his presidential campaign events in the summer of 2008. Russia and its neighbor Georgia were in conflict, and McCain just couldn't stop talking about it.


JOHN MCCAIN: World history is often made in remote, obscure countries. It's being made in Georgia today. It's the responsibility of the leading nations of the world to ensure that history continues to be a record of humanity's progress toward respecting the values and security of free people.

GREENE: So why the interest in Georgia? Well, McCain always stood up against Russian aggression. He often supported small, even obscure countries fighting for their freedom. And McCain had a foreign policy adviser at the time with lobbying ties to Georgia, something his campaign had to answer for. But McCain also had a long-standing friendship with Georgia's then-president Mikheil Saakashvili. And I spoke to him yesterday.

MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI: I met him when I was not even in politics. I was a congressional fellow at Columbia Law School. I ran into him in the Congress where we went for an internship. And we established an instant bond that lasted almost 24 years, basically. And so, of course, then later I became politician. I became president. He would come many times to see me. And I would go also to see him, not only in Congress but at his ranch in Arizona. And there are lots, lots of memories. And they are not only related to politics.

GREENE: Well, you say there are a lot of memories. Can you tell me about one that maybe speaks to John McCain the man and not necessarily the politician?

SAAKASHVILI: Yes. Well, in 2006 he came to see us in Georgia, and he went to a separatist enclave. And when he was leaving from there on a helicopter, they actually shot from a grenade launcher at his helicopter. And it was a narrow miss. And people from the embassy were insisting to stop the visit instantly and go back to the capital. Instead, he persevered to fly all the way to remote mountains. We met locals there. Basically - he danced with them despite the stress he had just endured. And then we went all the way to the Black Sea. That's another one-hour helicopter ride. And he went into a very big waves of Black Sea with the jet ski. And so we ended up at, like, 3 a.m. on a Ferris wheel on the boulevard there. And then he told me a story on that Ferris wheel which I will always remember. He told me, look, I would rather be living now in the '20s and '30s being together with Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway in Paris. And he told me that they had such a great life.

GREENE: So this is all on the same day, he almost...


GREENE: ...His helicopter's getting shot at, and then he's dancing to folk music within hours and then on a Ferris wheel with you on the Black Sea coast telling you how he wishes he lived in Paris in the '20s.


GREENE: What does that say about John McCain?

SAAKASHVILI: That says that he was anything but a regular guy. He was genuine. He was real.

GREENE: I remember back in 2008 during the presidential campaign. He, you know, this was the time when your country was in the conflict with Russia. He kept talking about Georgia on the campaign trail.


GREENE: Yeah. Go ahead.

SAAKASHVILI: As soon as the news of Russia's invasion came out, he called me and he started his telephone call by saying, Mikheil, be like Churchill. Be like Churchill. And I was like, what the hell. I mean, we are being bombed now. Are you giving me lessons of history? And he says, look, say we'll never surrender because you need all the support you can get and people like to support people who are not willing to surrender. Of course, we are not going to surrender anyway. But then I took his advice and I kept quoting Churchill all the time. But even more than that, he said publicly, we are all Georgians. And a few weeks later, I went to America to get more support. And I was flying to Minneapolis. And on the way, a air hostess whispered into my ear, we are all Georgians.

GREENE: Oh, that - wow. That phrase had come from McCain.

SAAKASHVILI: So it resonated with people. He made us a household name.

GREENE: He was so tough on Russia over the years. Could that have made it harder for American presidents to keep the door open for diplomacy with Russia? Could it have actually hampered efforts to have a relationship with - between the United States and Russia?

SAAKASHVILI: Look. Remember, McCain was a Reagan-generation Republican. And he believed that you could talk to Russia through force. If you have someone like Putin who only understands sheer force, in that respect, McCain was not old-fashioned. He exactly got what Putin is all about because Putin is old-fashioned. And I'm sorry but that's old methods work with these old-fashioned guys.

GREENE: Is there one more story you would want to share about McCain?

SAAKASHVILI: I used to go see him at Congress a lot. And there was this moment when he was on the floor voting for campaign finance reform. And he came back to see me at this office. And that was the moment when his mother called him who was extremely unhappy with that piece of legislation because she was very much old-style Republican.

GREENE: His mother was against McCain-Feingold? (Laughter).

SAAKASHVILI: At that moment, that's how it appeared. And she actually chided him. And it looked like it was tough for him. But he was like, I know, Mom, what I'm doing. You know, I believe in what I'm doing. Everything's going to be just all right, Mother. I think this was the hardest audience for him to convince. And then when he hanged up he said, like, wow, that was a tough one, he told me.

GREENE: Mikheil Saakashvili, always great talking to you. We really appreciate it.

SAAKASHVILI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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