Advice that Caswell Cooke Jr. received 18 years ago from U.S. Sen. John McCain while they were both seated on the then-presidential candidate’s Straight Talk Express struck a chord that still resonates for the Westerly resident.
“He said, ‘You should run for office in your town. That’s how you do this, that’s how you reform government,’” Cooke recalled Monday as he discussed the life and death of the man he called his “hero.”
Cooke met McCain, who died Saturday after a battle with brain cancer, in New Hampshire as the Arizona senator was starting his bus tour seeking the Republican nomination that eventually went to George W. Bush. At the time, Cooke was the host of “The Caswell Cooke Jr. Show,” a cable television show, and McCain’s campaign agreed to let Cooke cover their candidate’s appearance in 2000.
Two years after meeting McCain, Cooke was elected to the Westerly Town Council as a Republican. He served for 12 years, and after a few years off the council is seeking to return, this time running as an independent. Cooke’s involvement in politics has also included serving as an alternate delegate at the Republic National Convention in 2000 and as a delegate during other conventions.
Cooke connected with McCain again in 2006 when Cooke worked on Lincoln Chafee’s failed re-election campaign for his U.S. Senate seat. Cooke was on the convention floor in 2008 when McCain accepted the party’s nomination to run for the presidency and served as vice chair of McCain’s Rhode Island campaign that year. Cooke also introduced McCain at a speaking engagement at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Warwick that year.
Cooke heard McCain repeat one particular phrase many times. The words stuck.
“He always said that he wanted to inspire a generation of Americans to commit themselves to causes greater than their own self-interests,” Cooke said,
Over the years, Cooke said, he would receive an occasional message from McCain through Jack Reed, one of Rhode Island’s U.S. senators. Cooke also said he treasures photographs he has with himself and McCain as well as autographed copies of McCain’s books.
“He was definitely an inspiration for me running, and I was always happy to ever have a chance to be in his presence,” Cooke said.
Like so many across the country, Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons, who served in the U.S. House representing Connecticut’s 2nd District from 2001 to 2007, is mourning McCain’s passing. McCain, Simmons said, played an instrumental role in the final days of Simmons’ campaign in 2000.
In the waning days of the campaign, Simmons was accused by college students in New London and Middletown of having been a war criminal when he served in the CIA in Vietnam during the war. The national Republican Campaign Committee had organized a group of Republican senators and representatives who were flying around the country to support Republican candidates. When the plane landed at Groton-New London Airport, a lone figure emerged from the cabin.
“One person got off the plane — John McCain,” Simmons said Monday while sharing his memories of McCain.
“He addressed the media and asked, ‘When are Americans going to show veterans of the Vietnam War the respect they show to other veterans? When is this criticism going to end?’”
Three days later, Simmons beat incumbent Democrat Sam Gejdenson for the seat.
“He could have stayed on the plane, but instead he got off the plane and supported a fellow veteran,” Simmons said.
Simmons and McCain had met previously — initially in 1979 while Simmons worked as an aide to Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, Lincoln’s father, and Simmons needed McCain’s assistance to set up a trip Chafee was taking to the Middle East. The two met again while Simmons was working for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Simmons was hired by Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican from Arizona, who supported McCain’s initial run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 from Arizona’s 1st Congressional District.
Simmons and McCain worked together on veterans issues and on improving relations with Vietnam. Simmons also supported one of McCain’s signature pieces of legislation, the McCain-Feingold Act, which introduced new regulations on political campaign financing. When McCain came to Connecticut to support Linda McMahon’s run for the U.S. Senate in 2010, Simmons introduced him during an event in Danbury.
“We were not close or buddies, but I will always honor and respect him and my memories of him,” Simmons said.