John McCain, war hero and giant of the Senate, dies at 81

John McCain, a giant of the Senate who survived years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to become a leading actor on the political stage for decades, died Saturday at the age of 81.

In a statement, McCain’s office wrote that the Arizona senator died at 4:28 p.m., where he was accompanied by his wife, Cindy, and their family.

“At his death, he had served the United States of America faithfully for sixty years,” McCain’s office wrote.

McCain’s death from brain cancer came more than a year after he announced he had the condition in July of 2017.

His family announced Friday that he had chosen to discontinue medical treatment for an aggressive gioblastoma because the “progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age” had rendered “their verdict.”

The news prompted an outpouring of tribute and sympathy from Republicans and Democrats alike, a testament to the respect McCain built among colleagues in both parties despite his habit of calling them out during clashes over politics and policy.

McCain has been absent from the Senate this year, and cast his last vote on Dec. 7. Before he left, treatment has forced him to use a wheelchair in his final days in Washington. But that did nothing to move the political spotlight from the Arizona Republican, whose maverick reputation was underlined in his final months in office.

{mosads}Even while battling for his health at home in Arizona, McCain influenced the debate in Washington. 

In July, he criticized President Trump for not taking a tougher stance with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit, blasting the president’s performance as “disgraceful” and the summit itself as a “tragic mistake”

The month before, McCain slammed Trump’s trade policies, telling allies after the G7 summit that “Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.”

He also urged the Trump this year to stop attacking the media, warning in a Washington Post op-ed that some foreign leaders were using his words as cover to silence critics in their own countries. 

The criticisms did not sit well with the president, who declined to mention McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, when he signed the defense authorization bill into law, even though it was named after him.

Whether in Washington or Arizona, McCain put his stamp on Trump’s first two years in Washington.

Just more than a week after his diagnosis, McCain walked to the Senate well to give a thumbs-down on an ObamaCare repeal bill, killing the measure and essentially saving the signature law of Barack Obama, the man who defeated him for the presidency in 2008.

It was the kind of vote that only a senator with McCain’s stature could have made, and it underlined his place as one of the chamber’s all-time members.

Afterward, he simply told reporters, “I thought it was the right thing to do.”

For six terms in the Senate, McCain was full of surprises.

The senator challenged George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, burnishing his reputation as a friend of reporters on a campaign bus nicknamed the “Straight Talk Express.”

McCain lost the nomination, but discovered his political brand: party maverick.

He voted against the Bush tax cuts and backed campaign finance legislation opposed by many in his party.

He backed Bush on the Iraq War, and supported the “surge” of 20,000 U.S. troops in 2007 that brought some stability to the country.

As 2007 opened, McCain was the frontrunner for the GOP nomination to succeed Bush, but his campaign faltered and was all but finished by the summer. Remarkably, he made a comeback by the end of the year and won primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, eventually riding a strong showing on Super Tuesday to the GOP nomination.

In the campaign against Obama, McCain made the surprise choice of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) as his running mate, a move that initially energized Republicans but eventually appeared to hurt the ticket. Years later, some would point to that moment as an opening for the later Trump era.

With or without Palin, McCain faced a daunting task in defeating Obama — given the Iraq War and Bush’s unpopularity — and he lost the election in a landslide.

That returned McCain to the Senate, where for the next nine years he continued a career that would leave him as a legend of the chamber.

If he lost some of his maverick image in the partisan battles with Obama, he won back that identity again this year as he became one of Trump’s most forceful critics among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

McCain gave voice to concerns that many of his GOP colleagues held privately but often kept to themselves to avoid open battle with the president and his passionate base of supporters. Usually a loyal Republican, he was not afraid to go his own way when he thought principle demanded it.

When he did stray from the reservation, colleagues didn’t dare to criticize him publicly.

McCain saw his life’s purpose as duty to country.

He said that idea was imbued in him at an early age as the son and grandson of four-star Navy admirals, which he saw as a distinct difference between himself and the president.

“I was raised in a military family. I was raised in the concept and belief that duty, honor, country is the lodestar for the behavior that we have to exhibit every single day,” he told Lesley Stahl of CBS’s “60 Minutes” earlier this year.

McCain was born at a U.S. naval air station in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936, the son of John S. McCain Jr., who would go on to become the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, and Roberta McCain.

He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958, 790th out of a class of 795 and was later deployed as a naval aviator flying attack missions over enemy territory during the Vietnam War.

The trajectory of his life changed abruptly on Oct. 26, 1967, when his Skyhawk jet was shot down over North Vietnam by a barrage of surface-to-air missiles.

McCain ejected from the plane but suffered serious injuries, breaking both arms and his right leg. He spent the next five and a half years in captivity as a prisoner of war.

His legacy as a hero became defined by his confinement.

He refused his captors’ offer to release him early from the “Hanoi Hilton,” an infamous prison camp, shortly after his father was appointed commander of U.S. Pacific forces, depriving the North Vietnamese of a propaganda victory.

His guards retaliated with beatings, re-breaking his arm and cracking his ribs.

The act of resistance earned him the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry and became the central theme of his political career — the idea of service to country over self.

McCain was appointed as the Navy’s liaison to the Senate in 1977 and formed a close relationship with former Armed Services Committee Chairman John Tower (R-Texas). He was elected to the House in 1982 and the Senate in 1986.

In his 2000 presidential bid against Bush, the heavy favorite, he framed himself as an independent-minded maverick. His rollicking style of campaigning was epitomized by the Straight Talk Express, aboard which he would make himself available for extended bull sessions with reporters.

At a time when campaigns were becoming increasingly scripted and access to top-tier candidates was limited, journalists were charmed by the approach. It earned him generally positive coverage.

McCain at the time even famously referred to the media as “my base.”

He exceeded expectations by crushing Bush in New Hampshire and Michigan, thanks in part to strong support from independents. But he suffered a critical loss in South Carolina, which at the time was seen as critical to winning the GOP nomination.

McCain allies suspected Bush’s top political strategist Karl Rove of orchestrating a smear campaign by spreading rumors related to the race of McCain’s adopted daughter, who is from Bangladesh.

The episode appeared to create lingering tension in their relationship, and McCain was later one of only two Senate Republicans to vote against Bush’s 2001 massive tax-cut package and one of only three to vote against Bush’s second tax bill.

His relationship with Bush was frosty enough that Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and a fellow Vietnam War veteran, asked him to serve as his running mate.

McCain said years later that he “never even considered such a thing” because he identified as a “conservative Republican.”

McCain’s political career was almost derailed in the early 1990s after being named one of the “Keating Five,” five senators who were accused of intervening with federal regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a wealthy political donor, who was sentenced to prison for his role in the savings and loan crisis.

McCain was admonished by the Ethics Committee for “poor judgment,” a rebuke that hung heavily over a man who considered his honor the most important thing in his life.

The experience motivated McCain to rebrand himself as a government reformer and champion of campaign finance regulation. It culminated in his driving role behind passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the biggest change to campaign laws since Congress rewrote them in the mid 1970s.

It was a remarkable feat considering that most Republicans opposed the bill and at the time controlled the White House and House. McCain helped whip up enough public sentiment for the bill that his party felt it had no choice but to accept.

The clashes with Bush and crusade for campaign reform endeared him with many Democrats but created lasting damage with the GOP’s conservative base.

McCain later faced serious primary challenges from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) in 2010 and former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward in 2016 but ended up beating both easily.

Throughout his career, McCain was known for his fiery personality, writing in a 2002 memoir, “I have a temper, to state the obvious, which I have tried to control with varying degrees of success because it does not always serve my interest or the public’s.”

Amid a rift with Bush and conservative Republicans in the early 2000s, Democrats said McCain mulled leaving the GOP and becoming an independent. McCain denied the reports, telling The Hill in 2008, “As I said in 2001, I never considered leaving the Republican Party, period.”

As the end of Bush’s second term approached, McCain put less emphasis on good-government issues and picked fewer fights with the GOP leadership, stressing instead his national security credentials at a time of war while he eyed another bid for the White House.

He scored another major legislative victory in 2006 when working with then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to enact legislation setting up military commissions to prosecute suspected terrorists and stripping terrorist detainees of habeas corpus rights in court.

Yet McCain also battled the Bush administration over harsh interrogation tactics and helped pass an amendment in 2005 that required the military to follow the Army Field Manual on Interrogation, which prohibits waterboarding.

McCain started off the 2008 presidential campaign as the favorite, with impressive fundraising totals and grade-A staff such as Terry Nelson, who served as national political director of Bush’s 2004 reelection effort.

The top-heavy campaign, however, spent money at a furious rate and soon teetered on the brink of insolvency, forcing McCain to downsize his political operation dramatically and run a bare-bones campaign.

Through the ups and downs, McCain kept his mordant humor.

“In the words of Chairman Mao, it’s always darkest before it gets pitch black,” was his favorite apocryphal quote.

His chances of winning the 2008 GOP primary seemed slim, but he staged an impressive comeback in New Hampshire by holding town hall meetings in just about every nook and cranny of the state.

McCain’s resounding victory over Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney propelled him to the nomination at a time when many Republican strategists thought McCain had the best chance of the field in a general election because of voters’ fatigue of the Bush administration.

In the general election, McCain’s friendly relationship with the press, which he thought was biased in favor of Obama, soured.

McCain held a grudge against The Washington Post and The New York Times for months after the election, making it clear to reporters on Capitol Hill from those publications that he had not forgotten what he thought was unduly negative coverage.

Beyond voter fatigue with Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain was also hurt by the financial meltdown in October of 2008. McCain didn’t help himself by declaring “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” as it was becoming clear the nation was headed into a major recession.

McCain’s landslide loss was a major, if inevitable, disappointment for the senator.

For years afterward he would joke about his failed presidential ambitions.

One favorite quip was to claim he “slept like a baby” after falling short of the presidency: “I would wake up every two hours and cry.”

The loss left him raw and he became one of Obama’s harshest critics, regularly excoriating him on issues ranging from health care to national security.

One memorable exchange came during a televised health-care summit at the White House in 2010 when Obama cut McCain off in mid-rant about the pending health-care bill, declaring, “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over.”

McCain became more immersed in defense issues when he took over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee at the beginning of 2015.

He consistently pushed to raise caps on defense spending, and played a role in persuading GOP leaders to undo the automatic cuts known as sequestration implemented by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

He became one of Congress’s biggest celebrities and in his final years tourists regularly stopped him on Capitol Hill to ask for selfies and autographs.

During one of his final appearances in the Senate chamber, a late-night December vote on the Senate tax bill, colleagues came over to him one by one while he sat in his wheelchair on the edge of the floor to express thanks for his service and personal feelings of affection and admiration.

McCain was a favorite among colleagues and reporters on Capitol Hill because of his humor, his practical sense, his willingness to work with adversaries and his obvious love for the nation.

Even when it became clear he had only a few months to live, he kept a positive, resolute attitude.

When CBS’s Stahl asked him in September whether the diagnosis had changed him, McCain replied, “No.”

“You just have to understand that it’s not that you’re leaving. It’s that you — that you stayed. I celebrate what a guy who stood fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy has been able to do. I am so grateful,” he said.

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump John Kerry John McCain Lindsey Graham Mitt Romney
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