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'He Was A Fighter': Former Sen. Ayotte Says McCain Stood Up For The Oppressed


We're joined now by former Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who has described Senator McCain as a friend and a mentor. Senator, welcome. Thanks so much for talking with us.

KELLY AYOTTE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you know, a lot of people work together - you served with Senator McCain on the Armed Services Committee - but not everybody becomes a friend. How did you two become not just colleagues but friends?

AYOTTE: I think our bond first started because - when I was running for the U.S. Senate and I was in a contested primary and John actually came to New Hampshire and endorsed me. And I did my first town hall with John McCain in New Hampshire. In fact, in my office still is the stool he sat on, and he signed it for me personally saying, you know, in John way, it was the best town hall he ever had. So that started our bond, and then when I got to the Senate, I was assigned to the Armed Services Committee, and he obviously is a leader on that committee and became chairman of the committee. And we - really, I learned so much from him - he took me under his wing - and so much about national security issues.

MARTIN: What did you learn from him as a mentor?

AYOTTE: What I learned, I think most of all, is to have the courage of your convictions. And I was out and had the privilege of seeing him at his ranch as he was fighting the cancer. And he said to me, you know, just do the right thing. John was a fighter. He would fight for what he believed in and stand up for people around the world, to stand up for people who were being oppressed. Like, stand up for people when they're being bullied, when their rights are being violated. That was John, and he was so passionate about that.

MARTIN: You traveled with Senator McCain to Vietnam where he was held prisoner under brutal conditions for more than five years. That must have been an incredible experience.

AYOTTE: I did. I mean, honestly, one of the experiences of my life was to travel to Vietnam with John and to go to Hanoi where he was imprisoned. But to see the respect that the Vietnamese people had for John, it was like - going to Vietnam with John, it was like going to Vietnam with the president because he was so hailed in Vietnam. As you know, he was one of the first people to ask for normalization of relationships between our countries, even though he had been tortured there and sacrificed so much there but also to be with him and have him talk about his fellow prisoners of war and how they nursed him back to life and his feelings for them and how much respect and honor he had for the people that he served with.

MARTIN: What message do you think Senator McCain wanted to leave for Americans in this moment?

AYOTTE: Well, I think that John would want to make sure that we stood for who we are as a country and that around the world and in our own country when people's rights are being violated, that we would stand up for them. He believed in basic human dignity and the dignity of every single person. And that was something he fought for and felt so strongly about. He loved this nation, and he had a sense of optimism until the end about the greatness of our country. And I think he would want us to be optimistic also. But I know he would also want to say about our politics we have to come together. We have to work together across the aisle and solve our nation's problems with civility.

MARTIN: And when you remember him in your private moments or when maybe your kids see him on TV, like, what are you going to remember about him? What are you going to tell them about him?

AYOTTE: I was just talking to my son about what a wonderful guy he was, his sense of humor, that he is really an authentic hero. I also share the personal stories of John and I and the last I had with him and traveling with him and really traveling to some war-torn places. I mean, there wasn't a place where our military was deployed where John wouldn't be there and be there for them and for the people who were serving.

MARTIN: That's Kelly Ayotte. She served in the Senate with John McCain. She's a Republican from New Hampshire. Senator Ayotte, thanks so much for talking with us.

AYOTTE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.