WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton share a friendship forged in the Senate and on fact-finding trips around the globe. And then there were those vodka shots in Estonia.
He's a former Republican presidential nominee. She could be the next Democratic presidential nominee. Lately, the Clintons and McCains seem to have embraced each other, offering up their families' working relationship as an example of ways that political leaders can overcome the partisan divide.
Clinton and McCain are appearing together Saturday in Sedona, Ariz., at the McCain Institute's annual gathering of political, business and philanthropic leaders. The closed-door forum — no reporters are allowed — comes as Clinton presents an above-the-fray image in speeches that often criticize the polarization of national politics and could serve as a warm-up to a presidential campaign.
Last month, McCain was a guest of the Clintons at their annual meeting of college students. Former President Bill Clinton welcomed McCain to the stage at Arizona State University, drawing laughs when he suggested their friendship might be a liability.
McCain is "a good friend of Hillary's and mine, although we permit him to deny it at election time," Clinton said. He credited McCain, who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, with helping him normalize relations with Vietnam in 1995.
Clinton recalled that McCain conferred with him during the 2008 campaign after Russia invaded neighboring Georgia. "You called me and said, 'Look, I know you're on the other side, but we need to talk about Georgia,'" Clinton said. McCain returned the favor, complimenting Clinton's post-White House work and willingness "to make tough decisions."
The former first lady has worked in recent months with Cindy McCain, the senator's wife, on an early childhood initiative through the Clinton Foundation. On Thursday, Mrs. McCain met with parents and community leaders at a Phoenix community center to promote the project.
Richard Fontaine, a former McCain foreign policy aide who leads the Center for a New American Security, said McCain "was struck by Secretary Clinton's pragmatism, willingness to reach across party and ideological lines."
"I think they both lament the extreme partisanship that has come to characterize Washington these days," he said by e-mail. The Clinton-McCain relationship flourished in the Senate while the two worked together on the Armed Services Committee; they traveled with other lawmakers to Iraq, the Arctic and the Baltics. During a 2004 visit to Estonia, the senators reportedly shared vodka shots after a day of meetings, a tale that generated chatter as the two prepared for their 2008 presidential campaigns.
"From a personal experience, there is nothing quite like traveling in Europe with John McCain and Hillary Clinton. It's like being on tour with the Beatles and the (Rolling) Stones," said former Sen. John E. Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican who attended the Baltic trip. He politely declined to discuss the vodka story.
McCain won the GOP nomination in 2008 and his campaign tried to woo disaffected Clinton voters after she suspended her campaign. In a humorous aside, McCain's team posted a blog item on its website, "Take a Chance on McCain," featuring a YouTube clip of the 1977 ABBA song, "Take a Chance on Me." McCain is a self-confessed fan of the Swedish quartet.
McCain also won admirers in Clinton's camp when he took to the Senate floor in July 2012 to defend top Clinton aide Huma Abedin after Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., suggested members of Abedin's family had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. McCain called it "an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable woman, a dedicated American and a loyal public servant."
That's not to say McCain and Clinton haven't had their differences. McCain has been among a group of GOP senators investigating the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
During a January 2013 Senate hearing, McCain was critical of Clinton's testimony, telling her "the American people deserve to know answers." Clinton told McCain: "We just have a disagreement — we have a disagreement about what did happen and when it happened."
More recently, McCain has spoken highly of Clinton, telling the New Republic in a 2013 interview that she "did a fine job" as secretary of state. In February, McCain told CNN if the election were held tomorrow Clinton would "most likely be" the next president.
But the Republican, who may seek re-election in 2016, added, "She wouldn't be my candidate."
Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AP_Ken_Thomas