Today I intend to reveal and reflect upon the real story behind John McCain’s greatest moment as a United States senator.


And no, I’m not talking here about the Arizona Republican’s historically vital and emotionally compelling speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, just 11 days after being operated on for a very aggressive form of brain cancer. McCain summoned the strength and patriotism to excoriate his fellow senators for their partisan failures of leadership and citizenship, as the Senate still flounders over what (if anything) it will do to resolve America’s health care crisis.


From my perspective, that overwhelming day was the second-most memorable moment of McCain’s impressive 30-year Senate career. But I want to tell you about another McCain happening that remains, to me, the iconic symbol of what American politics could always be at its very best. It occurred two decades ago, early in the presidency of Bill Clinton. It was NOT witnessed by a full chamber of standing, applauding, well-wishing senators; and not seen by a national television audience. It was witnessed, in its entirety, by an audience of just one. Yes, me.


President Clinton had just announced a federal judicial nomination, and before we go on, you need to recall this was an era when Washington’s partisan nerve-endings were still raw after Senate Democrats had waged a philosophic battle to reject President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. Finally, there was a Democratic president; many Republicans were in a retribution state of mind.


Late one afternoon, McCain hurried onto the floor of the near-empty Senate chamber and sought to shoot down Clinton’s federal judgeship nominee in a manner we’d never seen: He read into the Congressional Record the Clinton nominee’s highly confidential U.S. military psychiatric profile. Importantly: It is illegal to disseminate such personal psychiatric or medical information; but senators enjoy immunity that permits them to say anything on the Senate floor without fear of prosecution.


So McCain publicized the fact that, while serving his country’s military decades earlier, the nominee had sought psychiatric counseling. Never mind that the nominee went on to have a highly praised judicial career.


In those years, I was writing my newspaper column and also doing CNN commentaries. I telephoned his press secretary and said I was about to deliver a sharply critical CNN commentary of what McCain had done and that night would file an equally critical column. I asked if McCain (whom I barely knew then) wanted to explain why he had committed this outrageous violation of privacy — but added nothing he could say would cause me to cancel the commentary. McCain’s office never called back. My sharply critical commentary aired, my column was dispatched nationwide.


I expected I’d get the usual angry call — and maybe a letter to newspaper editors from the senator’s office the next morning. Indeed, early the next morning, my phone rang.


“Hi, Marty. John McCain.” The senator’s voice was surprisingly low-keyed. He said he’d seen my commentary — then he shocked me by saying he agreed with my harsh criticism. He actually thanked me for having said it — adding he was ashamed of what he had done!


That was the moment I really met this rarest of politicians. McCain went on to explain why he had done what he did — he had only been thinking of how the Democrats had torpedoed Reagan’s Bork nomination — now he finally had something to even the score. All he could think of, he said, was racing to the Senate floor in time to get coverage on the ABC, CBS and NBC nightly news.


Again, McCain (who endured torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam) said he was so ashamed of how he violated the nominee’s privacy. He promised he’d never make that mistake again. Then McCain asked me if I was free to join him for lunch at noon in the Senate dining room.


We lunched. In the end, we check-wrestled (I insisted, claiming journalistic ethics, and bought). In between, we briefly rehashed the incident. But we quickly rolled on to other issues. Especially how crazy Washington had become.


In decades of covering politicians, I’d become used to being counter-attacked, frozen-out and more. But I’d never encountered a politician who responded to hard-hitting straight reporting or criticism in the way McCain did. Not before, not since.


McCain and I don’t pal around Washington. Never did. Sometimes I still criticize things he’s said or done. But he’s all that’s left of Washington’s old school best. Now more than ever, we need my friend McCain to stay right where he is.


Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at martin.schram@gmail.com.