Mark Salter: The voice of Sen. John McCain

The war hero's chief of staff knows how to get inside his head.

Topics: Republican Party, John McCain, R-Ariz., Memoirs,

For Mark Salter, getting into Sen. John McCain’s head is not all that daunting a task. Not only has the “co-” writer of the senator’s bestselling autobiography “Faith of My Fathers” been writing the Arizona Republican’s speeches for 10 years, but he is more than a tad familiar with the gruff-yet-modest soldier’s persona of his boss. Salter’s dad, Pete Salter, fought in the Navy during World War II and in the Army during the Korean War.

But that’s not the only reason working for McCain has always seemed to Salter like the best job he could have. In the mid-1980s he worked for Jeanne Kirkpatrick when she was United Nations ambassador and later when she moved to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He was friendly with McCain’s former press secretary at the time, and later was brought in to do some freelance speechwriting for the senator. Salter liked McCain; he found him funny and full of piss and vinegar, and a little more entertaining than Kirkpatrick. Then in 1989, Salter was called to McCain’s office again to write what he assumed was just another speech.

“But it was a typical McCain thing,” Salter says. “I walked in, and there were a bunch of people sitting in his office, like there always are. I said, ‘How are you doing, sir?’ He said, ‘Good, good, listen, I want you to come on board and look after Vietnam and Latin America for me and write some speeches, OK? Talk to Chris [Koch, his former chief of staff] about the money.’” Four years later, Salter had worked his way up to become McCain’s chief of staff.

Salter insists that he and McCain are too close in age for him to regard the conservative maverick as a father figure, but he does acknowledge that being his father’s son helped him sound like McCain — whether working on his speeches or the memoir.

As a member of the 8th Army deployed toward the Yalu River during the Korean War, Cpl. Pete Salter fought alongside another legend — a Native American corporal named Mitchell Red Cloud, in whose honor both a U.S. Navy cargo ship and a U.S. Army camp in Korea are currently named.

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Cpl. Red Cloud was 26 and Cpl. Salter 23 when, on Nov. 5, 1950, the first wave of Chinese soldiers charged from a brush-covered area, hurling themselves onto concertina wire while those who followed them used their bodies as bridges.

“My dad would always say, ‘We did what anyone in their right mind would do when you saw that,’” Salter says. “‘We retreated.’”

Cpl. Red Cloud was shot up badly. He implored two fellow soldiers to tie him to a tree so he could maintain position while his men retreated and organized a defense. Cpl. Salter was one of the guys who tied him to a tree, where he was soon killed. Red Cloud was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

In that same battle, Pete Salter killed two Chinese soldiers in hand-to-hand combat — one with a knife, the other with his bare hands. He was awarded the Silver Star. When he spoke of the battle, Pete Salter always talked about Red Cloud’s bravery, and never about his own. Salter found out that his father had killed two men when he read the citation. His father’s silence is typical of the military code of humility and reticence that his boss maintains when discussing wartime experiences.

“People write about how McCain is unnecessarily modest,” Salter says. His boss is humble about discussing his experience as a Vietnam War POW for five and a half years. “But it’s perfectly consistent with the way my father talked about his war experience. That voice is perfectly consistent. The way [my dad] would talk real honestly about everything about the war except about what he did. Like at one point he was subsisting on rice mixed with coffee grounds, so after that he didn’t eat rice for the rest of his life — but he never really talked about why. McCain’s like that, too.”

Almost 10 years after Salter joined McCain’s staff, they started
collaborating on “Faith of My Fathers.” The process was incremental. Salter
insists that McCain was dragged kicking and screaming into the book project
after numerous requests from publishers. McCain initially agreed to work
on a book about people he admired — a list that included his grandfather,
Adm. John “Slew” McCain, as well as his admiral father John McCain Jr.

After much protest, he finally agreed to include himself in the book, but
only if it would be done in his typical self-deprecating style. The
sections of the book that are the most harrowing — the details about
McCain’s five and a half years as a P.O.W. at the infamous Hanoi Hilton –
were written matter-of-factly because they were taken from
McCain’s debriefing report in sealed Navy records.

Salter understands the senator’s skepticism about the book project, which
began when McCain was still undecided about whether he’d run for
president. At the time, Salter thought the odds were against such a
venture.

It took 13 months to go from finishing the proposal to handing in the last
copy-edited draft. The two men are splitting the fee 50-50. McCain’s share
is going to charity, while Salter and his wife have finally bought a house.

“My relatives all think I won the lottery,” Salter jokes. “But in reality, all it really means is I can now afford a house with a kitchen and a closet.”

Well, maybe a little bit more than that. McCain and Salter’s agent just sold the movie rights of “Faith of My Fathers” to Barry Diller’s USA Network. So even if Salter isn’t able to write his boss’s way into the White House, he stands a good shot of writing him onto your living-room TV.

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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