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Jim Durkin on the laughter, loyalty and legacy of John McCain

Then U.S. Senate candidate Jim Durkin, left, receives an endorsement from Sen. John McCain, right, in 2002. Jim Medico, president of the Norwood Chamber of Commerece, stands between the two, at O'Connor's Deli & Market, 7280 W. Devon. File Photo. Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

Sen. John McCain was down-to-earth, “in-command” and never took himself too seriously.

He didn’t feel comfortable in stuffy crowds and once jokingly told a Chicago-area diner owner he was former Vice President Al Gore, Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin recalled of his longtime friend.

McCain, the war hero and presidential contender, died on Saturday in his Arizona home. He was 81.

Durkin first met McCain — then the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee — in 1999 at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago. The two stood out like sore thumbs in a room full of Chicago’s elite.

“The thing I noticed is the two people who didn’t belong there. Didn’t fit in, and that was myself and Sen. McCain,” Durkin said. When the two were asked by a wealthy woman to talk about a movie that gave them “great meaning in their life,” McCain took a breath, crossed his arms and replied, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

After several moments of silence, he let out a big laugh, Durkin said.

“It was from that, then and on, I knew this is an incredibly successful man on the national level, a prisoner-of-war, war hero, patriot and a man who doesn’t take himself too serious no matter where the place is,’ Durkin said. “[He was] unpretentious and I realized at this point that, you know, I’m with this guy.”

Durkin is perhaps the state’s closest political link to McCain, having served as his Illinois campaign chairman in both of McCain’s 2000 and 2008 presidential runs.

McCain referred to Durkin as “the only crazy person in Illinois that would support him,” Durkin said of his early support for McCain’s 2000 presidential run against former President George W. Bush, the GOP’s favorite.

Sen. John McCain announces his endorsement of Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin for the US Senate in 2002. Brian Jackson/Sun-Times
Sen. John McCain announces his endorsement of Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin for the US Senate in 2002. Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

“In 2000, getting him on the ballot was not easy because the whole Republican machine in Illinois was for Gov. Bush,” Durkin said. “Now it’s not just getting John McCain on the ballot, but I’ve got to find delegates for each one of the congressional districts. So that was a miracle that we were able to accomplish that. I filed for John McCain on the last day of final, on the last minute at the state Board of Elections, securing signatures up until the last minute. He was deeply thankful for that.”

McCain in turn helped Durkin in his run against Sen. Dick Durbin in 2002 — both campaigning and raising money for him: “He was very loyal to me.”

When in Chicago, McCain frequently met with Durkin and former Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady.

In 2001, Durkin picked the senator up from the airport to take him to Northwestern University for a town hall on campaign finance reform. After a two-hour delay, he met a “cranky, salty” and hungry McCain at the airport.

His only food request? No chain restaurants. So, Durkin took him to Kappy’s, a Greek diner in Morton Grove.

Sen. John McCain announces his endorsement of Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin for the US Senate in 2002. Brian Jackson/Sun-Times
Sen. John McCain announces his endorsement of Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin for the US Senate in 2002. Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

“The owner behind the cash register was squinting at him and saying, ‘I know you. I know you,'” Durkin said. “McCain said, ‘Yeah, I’m Al Gore.'”

The diner was buzzing, and McCain ordered a gyros, mispronouncing the dish as a joke.

“He barely could get his meal in because so many people came up to praise him,” Durkin said. “I will always remember those moments.

“I’ve always thought that trying to follow the model that John McCain has made in government is a noble and honorable path,” Durkin said. “We need more John McCains. We do. His legacy is clearly going to get stronger and stronger as the years pass. His mark is one that is indelible and it is one in which future leaders should look to.”

Durkin said he will attend McCain’s funeral on Saturday in Washington, D.C.

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