In a Congress where the gulf between red and blue seems wider than it ever has, the long-serving Senator John McCain created an image of himself as a bipartisan bridge-builder. A Republican devoted to his party, he nevertheless reached across the aisle to form alliances and friendships with Democrats as he tried to advance ideals including fiscal conservatism, campaign finance reform, and American exceptionalism.
McCain, the “maverick” Republican who survived years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to become one of the most influential U.S. senators of his time, died Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018, after a lengthy battle with brain cancer, according to multiple news sources. He was 81.
Serving in the U.S. Senate for six terms — from 1987 until 2018 — McCain earned elder statesman status and the respect of both Republicans and Democrats, even as he mounted two unsuccessful bids for the presidency. Other senators might, and often do, fade into obscurity after losing a general presidential election, as McCain did in 2008, or a primary, as he did in 2000. But McCain not only stayed in the public eye; he won reelections for his senatorial seat with ease.
It helped that McCain was highly recognizable, not just in his adopted home state of Arizona but nationwide. He found his way to plenty of big moments throughout his senatorial career, from a memorable speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention to his dramatic eleventh-hour 2017 vote to sink his party’s “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act.
But perhaps McCain’s biggest moment, one that shaped his personality as well as the trajectory of his life, was one that came before he ever entered the halls of government. It was the moment when, flying a bomber over Hanoi during the Vietnam War, he was shot down.
The Hanoi Hilton
It was 1967 and McCain was 31, a career Navy man from a family of career Navy men — his father and grandfather were both admirals. McCain himself hadn’t yet distinguished himself like the men he followed; he was a friendly but lazy student at the U.S. Naval Academy who would later show a sort of pride in having graduated 894th in a class of 899. After graduation, McCain didn’t quickly rise to great heights, either: His early military years were characterized by all the planes he crashed.
As he entered his 30s, McCain took a combat assignment, first stationed on the doomed aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, where the young lieutenant commander was serving when the ship was engulfed in a disastrous 1967 fire that killed 134 sailors but spared McCain, who escaped with only minor injuries. He wouldn’t be so lucky a few months later.
When McCain’s plane was shot down by a North Vietnamese missile, he had time to eject and to engage his parachute. But he broke both arms in the process, and when he landed in Truc Bach Lake, he was pulled ashore by locals who further injured him before taking him to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, known by soldiers and civilians alike as the Hanoi Hilton.
McCain would spend five and a half years as a prisoner of war. Some of those years were horrific, and that began right at the start, when his captors refused to treat his injuries in favor of torturing and interrogating him. When they discovered his father was an admiral, they realized what a valuable asset they had, and they took him to a hospital and provided bare-minimum treatment for his injuries. But he was still a prisoner.
McCain had the opportunity to regain his freedom, a year into his captivity. He was offered early release, a gesture intended by the North Vietnamese to display how merciful they were — as well as to demoralize McCain’s fellow prisoners when they saw an officer, the son of an admiral, taking the chance to cut and run, leaving them behind. But McCain didn’t take the offer. It’s against the military Code of Conduct to accept preferential treatment from the enemy, and there are few who would break that code.
McCain’s refusal to accept early release angered his captors, and he was subject to increased torture. McCain ultimately broke under the constant barrage, agreeing to sign a confession, written by his captors, indicating that he was a “black criminal” and thanking the North Vietnamese people for saving his life. It was a demoralizing failure for McCain, though he was far from the only POW who broke under torture in a North Vietnamese prison.
When McCain was eventually released in 1973, he emerged a different man — and not just because of the psychological effects of years of torture. He was physically changed, too, having been poorly fed and received indifferent medical care for those five and a half years. Among his lasting injuries was the inability to lift his arms above shoulder height.
Back in the U.S., McCain received proper medical care and physical therapy, then returned to the military, where he would continue his career until his retirement as captain in 1981. Meanwhile, the now well-known Navy man, whose POW status and family ties had made him a bit of a celebrity back home, was appointed the Navy’s liaison to the Senate in 1977. It gave him an early taste of politics that would soon provide a clear path for him to follow upon his retirement from the Navy.
A Political Career Begins
McCain first ran for office in 1982, seeking a House seat in Arizona’s first congressional district. He was a newcomer to Arizona, having moved there with his second wife. Inevitably, McCain was accused of being a carpetbagger — but rather than hurt his campaign, the accusation gave McCain a chance to inject his run with heroic patriotism as he delivered a legendary reply reflecting back on his military service:
“Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”
Thanks in part to the speech, McCain prevailed in a tough primary and went on to win the election. He served in the House through 1987, during which time he served on the House Committee on Interior Affairs, backed the Contras in Nicaragua, and opposed the creation of a federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. The latter was a decision he’d publicly regret in later years, as when he admitted during his 2008 presidential campaign, “I was wrong and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona.”
In 1987, when Republican icon Barry Goldwater retired from the Senate, McCain ran for his spot and handily won, beginning a decades-long career there. As he served, he began to build his reputation as a maverick, one who didn’t hesitate to step back from the Republican Party line when it didn’t work for his own personal convictions. But his maverick status wasn’t always predictable, and at times — as when Democratic President Barack Obama was in the White House — McCain tended to stick with his party and keep his hands to himself rather than reaching across the aisle.
McCain had successes in his early years in the Senate, including appointments to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Commerce Committee, and Indian Affairs Committee. In the latter, he became a champion of Native Americans, who make up a significant minority in his state, and he helped pave the way for the Native American gambling business.
But scandal also hit McCain in his first term in the Senate as he became embroiled in the Keating Five affair. He was one of five senators — and the only Republican — who, in the late 1980s, intervened in a regulatory investigation on behalf of a major campaign donor, Charles H. Keating Jr. of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association.
Facing a potentially disastrous investigation and audit by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, Keating contributed to certain campaigns and then leaned on those senators — McCain, former NASA astronaut John Glenn, Senate Democratic Whip Alan Cranston, fellow Arizonan Dennis DeConcini, and Senate Banking Committee Chair Donald Riegle — to help him out. Keating was a friend of McCain’s, and a constituent, too, as he lived in Arizona. Indeed, McCain compared Keating’s plea to that of any other constituent, saying intervening was like “helping the little lady who didn’t get her Social Security.”
But when McCain learned that Keating was under federal investigation for a wide variety of fraud charges (he would later be convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison before the conviction was overturned on a technicality), he stepped away, refusing to talk to Keating any further about helping him. It was a move that may have helped his career, and it certainly led to him being cleared of charges in the subsequent investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee. Yet he was still criticized by the committee for the “poor judgment” he exhibited in initially listening to Keating’s request for help.
Decades later, McCain defended his interactions with Keating in a 2017 interview with Esquire. It’s normal for a senator to listen to a constituent who asks for help, he maintained. “I honestly got to tell you that if the same circumstances prevailed tomorrow, I would probably go to the meeting. If your colleague from Arizona says, ‘Look, we’re trying to help out this guy. He’s being mistreated by the bureaucracy.’ You know.”
In the end, the Keating Five scandal didn’t substantially hurt McCain’s career. Three of the five senators involved left the Senate after serving out their terms post-Keating Five, but McCain rallied, talking to the press and answering questions about the incident, building his reputation for providing straight talk. In 1992, he was reelected with little difficulty.
The Making of a Maverick
In the 1990s, McCain voted to confirm four nominees for Supreme Court justice: David Souter and Clarence Thomas, nominated by President George W. Bush, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, nominated by President Bill Clinton. He later defended the decision to vote in favor of nominees whose politics differed from his: “Why? For the simple reason that the nominees were qualified, and it would have been petty, and partisan, and disingenuous to insist otherwise. Those nominees represented the considered judgment of the president of the United States. And under our Constitution, it is the president’s call to make.” This was in contrast to 2016, when he joined his fellow Republicans in blocking Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland on the grounds that voting for him would support the president’s “liberal agenda.”
In 1994, McCain took on an issue that would be a defining force in his career even as it caused near-endless frustration for him. The issue was campaign finance reform: McCain and Democratic Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold shared a desire to get corporate money out of politics. The aspect of this issue they took on was “soft money” — large corporate donations to political parties that, legally, couldn’t be used to back specific campaigns, but only to fund party activities like voter drives and general advertising for the party. Yet parties were finding ways to circumvent the regulation, and large donations ended up influencing elections despite laws intended to prevent that influence.
The McCain-Feingold Act was an attempt to prevent parties from using that soft money, thereby putting greater influence back in the hands of smaller donors. It took several failed iterations of the bill before it was finally passed and signed into law by President Bush in 2002. But in the wake of its passage, big-stakes donors found new ways to skirt the law, leaving it with less impact than McCain and Feingold intended.
Eight years later, the passage of Citizens United — the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to donate to political campaigns — took away much of the positive impact of McCain-Feingold. McCain spoke out against the decision, calling it “Uninformed, arrogant, naive” in an interview on “Meet the Press.” “The fact is that the system is broken,” he continued. “I predict to you there will be scandals, and I predict to you that there will be reform again.”
As he progressed through his successful career in the Senate, McCain’s ambitions were higher: He wanted to see himself in the White House. In 1988 and 1996, he was considered a viable choice for Vice President on the George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole tickets, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he’d make his first bid for the White House. And then, it was not as running mate to a presidential candidate but as a presidential candidate himself.
McCain’s 2000 campaign put him up against the party favorite, George W. Bush. But he started strong, skipping Iowa pre-caucus events but campaigning hard in New Hampshire. His was an angle that appealed to the state’s Republicans and Independents: “straight talk” was a major theme of the campaign, with McCain capitalizing on his long-held reputation for speaking frankly with the press and his constituents, even calling his campaign bus the Straight Talk Express. The angle worked, and he won the New Hampshire primary and all the attention that came with the win.
A long shot now seemed not so long, and McCain’s hopes were pinned on the upcoming South Carolina primary. With a second win there, he would be well-placed to upset Bush and take the party’s nomination. But the campaign turned ugly in South Carolina. McCain was battered with negative ads that attempted to convince voters that he was gay, that his wife was an addict, that he had fathered an illegitimate child.
McCain briefly agreed to fight back with negative ads against Bush, but he quickly changed his mind, pulling the attack ads and trying to find his way back to the high road. But much damage had already been done with or without his negative ads, and Bush won the South Carolina primarily easily, regaining his momentum. It took him all the way to the nomination — and the presidency — and McCain was back to being a senator for the eight years of Bush’s term.
During those years, McCain again made overtures across the aisle, forming friendships and alliances with Democrats including Joe Lieberman of New York and John Kerry of Massachusetts. Indeed, so centrist were his leanings in those years that some thought he might be Kerry’s vice-presidential pick in the 2004 election. McCain never seriously considered running alongside his friend, but moderates dreamed of a bipartisan ticket that might unite an increasingly divided country. Instead, McCain ran again for Senate in 2004, winning with 77 percent of the vote. And in 2007, he threw his hat into the presidential ring again.
The 2007-08 Republican primary season pitted McCain against challengers including Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, but as McCain again rode the Straight Talk Express around the country, this time he was successful. He won his party’s nomination and named Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Some say it was this move that doomed his campaign, though there were many core voters who loved the combination of the experienced maverick and the Tea Party’s darling.
A high note of McCain’s campaign was sounded as he spoke at a rally in Minnesota. When a supporter told McCain she was concerned about his opponent, Obama, because “he’s an Arab,” McCain responded, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” While some criticized McCain for not correcting his supporter’s erroneous belief that the future president was Middle Eastern, many praised his response as a noteworthy example of the bipartisan friendliness that McCain often displayed.
A Late Career in the Public Eye
Despite the positivity, McCain was greatly outspent by Obama and ultimately lost in a decisive election. But rather than fading into the background after two defeats on the national stage, McCain swung to the right and became a leader of the Republican opposition to Obama’s policies. He voted against Obama’s Supreme Court pick, Sonia Sotomayor, and he opposed his Affordable Care Act. In the wake of the health care bill’s passage, McCain said in a radio interview, “There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year. They have poisoned the well in what they’ve done and how they’ve done it.” After receiving criticism for the hardline stance, he did walk it back somewhat, though he remained largely opposed to the policies and actions of Obama and the Democratic Congress.
McCain again won easily for his fifth and sixth terms, beginning his sixth at 80 years old and under new President Donald Trump, whom McCain initially said he’d support if he were the presidential nominee. But McCain later withdrew his support following the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump made, in McCain’s words, “demeaning comments about women and … boasts about sexual assaults.” There was no love lost between the two leaders — well before McCain withdrew his support for Trump, the presidential candidate famously said of him, “He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
McCain became one of the Republican leaders who spoke out against Trump, criticizing him on his foreign policy among other issues. In a 2017 interview with Esquire, McCain said of Trump, “I don’t agree with the way he’s conducting his presidency, obviously. He’s an individual that unfortunately is not anchored by a set of principles. I think he’s a person who takes advantage of situations.”
But McCain’s maverick status in his sixth term wasn’t all in response to the president. He also opposed his Republican colleagues in the Senate at times, as when he swooped in to vote against the “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act, a rushed-through plan to remove some aspects of the health care law while maintaining others. McCain kept quiet about his position in advance of the vote, though as he approached the Senate chamber, he told reporters to “wait for the show.” Then he voted no, expressing his concern that the bill was too hastily cobbled together and offered no provisions to “actually reform our health care system.”
McCain’s big gesture was made all the more notable by his personal circumstances in the days leading up to it. When McCain flew from Arizona to Washington to cast his vote, it was with stitches in his forehead and a sobering diagnosis in mind. McCain had just been diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, and had undergone surgery to remove a tumor less than two weeks prior. Though the prognosis was poor, McCain was determined to carry on in the Senate as long as possible.
McCain’s family life was often as much in the news as his political career. He married Carol Shepp in 1965, adopting her two children, Douglas and Andrew. The two had a daughter together, Sidney. But while McCain was in a North Vietnamese prison, his wife was undergoing her own trials — she was in a major car accident in 1969, her legs and pelvis crushed. Only after months of physical therapy could she begin to walk again, and then it was as a woman who was five inches shorter than she had been and in severe pain. The former runway model was forever changed.
But so was her husband, and when he returned to the U.S. after five and a half years as a POW, the marriage was different — maybe doomed. It was while McCain was still married to Carol that he began dating Cindy Hensley, daughter of a successful Anheuser-Busch beer distributor. As his first marriage broke apart, his relationship with Hensley grew, and they were married just six weeks after his divorce from Shepp was finalized in 1981.
In his second marriage, McCain had three children, Meghan, John IV, and James, and he and Hensley adopted Bridget, an orphaned baby girl from Bangladesh. It was Bridget to whom anti-McCain attack ads in the 2000 primary season referred when they accused him of having a child out of wedlock — her dark skin made her stand out from the rest of her family, and assumptions were made. McCain later spoke out against the campaign tactics in an interview with Dadmag, calling them “vile and hurtful” and noting, “We tried to ignore it and I think we shielded [Bridget] from it.”
McCain is survived by his wife and his seven children.
McCain’s friendships were of great importance to him as well as his family life, and he found close friends on both sides of the Senate’s aisle. South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was so close to McCain that the senior senator often said Graham was like a son to him. Other close friends in the Senate included Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and John Kerry (D-MA), as well as Democratic Vice President Joe Biden.
McCain was widely honored during his military and political careers. His many military decorations include a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and a Distinguished Flying Cross. He and Feingold shared the 1999 Profile in Courage Award, presented by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. He was awarded the Eisenhower Leadership Prize and the Henry M. Jackson Distinguished Service Award in 2005 and the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in 2017. Foreign countries including Georgia and Kosovo honored him with their Order of National Hero and Order of Freedom, respectively. He holds honorary degrees from The Citadel, Northwestern University, and The Royal Military College of Canada, among others.
When CNN’s Jape Tapper asked McCain in a 2017 interview how he would like to be remembered, he responded, “He served his country, and not always right — made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of errors — but served his country, and I hope we could add, honorably.”
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