Here’s a little-known fact: Sen. John McCain (1936-2018) loved Key West and the people in it. He was known to visit at least once a year, but the only place to spot him in public was at the Rusty Anchor.
“He would sit at the family table,” said Trish Davila, who along with parents Patty and Ramon Rodriguez were the former owners of the popular, rustic restaurant on Stock Island. “We would bring him in through the back door and the kitchen.” Davila said he was shielded by his friends, and the decency of Conchs, until dinner was over.
“Then he would stand up and shake hands, give autographs, take pictures,” Davila said. “It didn’t matter how long the line was. He would stay until he had met everyone.”
In fact, Davila and her husband Marcus flew to Arizona in 2013 to make the rehearsal wedding dinner for McCain’s son — John Sidney “Jack” McCain IV.
“The Rusty Anchor was John’s favorite restaurant in the whole world,” said Key West attorney David Paul Horan, a longtime friend. Horan and his wife, Karen, hosted the dinner. “It was a Key West extravaganza — Key lime pie to stone crabs to fried lobster to conch fritters and conch salad. We set a high bar out in Phoenix that I don’t think anybody’s touched since.”
Horan and McCain enjoyed a three-decade-plus friendship. They were introduced by Jerry Dorminy, owner of the Hog’s Breath Saloons in Fort Walton and Key West. Horan said McCain wanted to go diving and Dorminy provided the connection, having known McCain since the days he needed a break from Pensacola flight training and party somewhere he “wouldn’t get in trouble.”
“He came to Key West to go diving with me,” said Horan, estimating it had to be the mid-1980s when McCain was still a U.S. Representative, and it became a regular thing. “I think I ran out of fuel twice with him on the boat. Finally, he decided he wouldn’t get on the boat unless we went directly to the fuel dock.”
Horan and McCain shared a love for the finer things in life — great friends, good adventures. Through McCain, Horan would go on to meet the likes of Sen. Fred Thompson, Warren Beatty and Admiral Thomas Lynch. They played Wiffle ball, fished for catfish with $5 reels, snorkeled with tarpon and had paintball wars.
“John was hard to keep up with,” said Horan. “This one time he wanted to go on a hike, it was 110 degrees, to someplace called ‘Zebra Falls.’ We walk and walk and walk. We came to a place with a big rock and the water comes off it … about 10 inches. I said, ‘Is this it?’”
Horan said he was always impressed with McCain’s faith, especially during his years of incarceration in the “Hanoi Hilton” as a prisoner of war. He also appreciated his ethics. After McCain passed the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 to reform campaign finance, he was forced to fly commercial to Key West while his wife piloted her own jet with the rest of the family to the islands. Horan said he told McCain, “Boy, you figured that one out, didn’t you?”
“We lost a good man in Sen. John McCain,” Horan said.