Senator, war hero and former GOP presidential candidate John McCain died on Saturday at age 81.
McCain, the six-term Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee, discontinued medical treatment for his brain cancer Friday, family said. The decision was made after McCain had surpassed expectations for survival, but “the progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict,” his family said.
The son and grandson of Navy admirals, McCain is a former Navy pilot who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years. He was elected to Congress in the early 1980s and elected to the Senate in 1986. McCain gained a reputation as a lawmaker who was willing to stick to his convictions rather than go along with party leaders. It was a streak that drew a mix of respect and ire, including criticism from President Donald Trump.
The senator would have been 82 next week.
Former President Barack Obama praised McCain in a statement Saturday night.
“Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own,” he said. “At John’s best, he showed us what that means. And for that, we are all in his debt.”
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Often called a maverick, McCain was a complicated personality and will be remembered as the most important political figure to emerge from Arizona in the past 50 years.
He was ensnared by the “Keating Five” scandal of the late 1980s and was deemed by the Senate Ethics Committee to have demonstrated poor judgment by joining four Senate colleagues in meeting with federal thrift regulators on behalf of political benefactor Charles H. Keating Jr., a savings-and-loan tycoon and developer.
It was in the wake of that scandal, in the 1990s and early- to mid-2000s, McCain’s “maverick” reputation began to take shape, as he led fights for campaign finance reform and comprehensive immigration reform and against Big Tobacco. During his 2000 presidential run, McCain famously decried leaders of the Religious Right as “agents of intolerance,” a gutsy fight to pick for a Republican.
In 2015, his own presidential ambitions in the past, McCain clashed with Republican Donald Trump in a public feud that extended into Trump’s time in the White House.
On July 28, 2017, McCain sided with two other GOP senators and all Democrats and cast a crucial vote — a literal thumbs-down on the Senate floor — that stalled Republican efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act, a top Trump priority.
Unlike many of Trump’s GOP punching bags, McCain had the stature to go nose-to-nose with the president.
At one point in the early 2000s, Democrats encouraged McCain to consider switching parties, and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry approached him about serving as his running mate. But later, McCain veered to the right, a source of frequent frustrating to his previous admirers on the other side of the aisle.
Although some on the right sneered at what they viewed as McCain’s coziness with the national media — for years after his presidential run, he was a mainstay on the Sunday television public-affairs shows — McCain often kept local media at arm’s length and once wrote in a book that his long relationship with The Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, could fairly be described as “antagonistic.” However, the relationship with The Republic and other local media improved in later years.
McCain also had a love-hate relationship with his media-promoted reputation as a maverick, relying on it or distancing himself from it as the political circumstances warranted.
“That was a label that was given to me a long time ago,” McCain told The Republic in 2010. “I don’t decide on the labels that I am given. I said I have always acted in what I think is in the best interests of the state and the country, and that’s the way that I will always behave.”
Two presidential runs
McCain proved himself to be a thorn in the side of his GOP rival, Bush, at least early in the first term of Bush’s presidency. The McCain vs. Bush fight in 2000 had taken a bitter turn in the South Carolina primary, where McCain and his allies accused their conservative opponents of trying to smear him and his family.
However, he and Bush reconciled as McCain geared up for his second presidential run. A classic Senate hawk, McCain was a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and strongly supported Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. McCain also was a champion of the surge strategy that Bush employed in Iraq in 2007.
During the 2008 presidential race, McCain had to overcome the lingering distrust of many conservatives who resented his maverick record, which included votes against key Bush tax cuts as well as McCain’s successful push for bipartisan campaign-finance-reform legislation.
His decision to gamble on the untested and little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate was cheered by the conservative wing of the Republican Party but may have hurt the GOP ticket among independent voters.
Eight years after an unsuccessful long-shot presidential bid, John McCain took another run at the nation’s highest office. He would run against a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. In the end, McCain again would not be president.
However, McCain never had much of a chance of defeating Obama, given the political atmosphere of the time.
Voters were widely dissatisfied with Bush, whose approval numbers were bad, and war fatigue had set in. If that wasn’t bad enough, the U.S. economy melted down in September 2008, making it unlikely that another Republican would succeed Bush. The political-science models pointed to a Democratic victory.
“You can’t win with conditions this bad for the incumbent party,” Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said after the election. “And that’s McCain’s consolation: He did reasonably well under extremely difficult conditions. It was never meant to be.”
Looking back at the race in an August 2017 interview with The Republic, McCain largely concurred, though he stressed that Obama deserves the credit for his victory.
“One, Barack Obama was a very, very strong candidate and that’s the most important thing,” McCain said. “Second, when the stock market collapsed, it really sent us into a real drop. Third of all, I guess, Americans were ready for a change, too.
“But I’d like to emphasize the first thing I said: Barack Obama was an incredibly impressive candidate and he did a great job campaigning,” he added.
Taking on new foes
Two years after his White House defeat, the perception of McCain as an establishment moderate was still strong enough to attract a Senate primary challenger from the right: former six-term U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a professional broadcaster who was known as a fierce foe of illegal immigration.
In the year of the conservative “tea party” uprising, McCain took no chances and greatly outspent Hayworth, destroying him in the process with an unrelenting barrage of hard-hitting TV campaign commercials. In one memorable ad aimed at Hayworth’s conservative base, McCain rebranded himself as a border hard-liner by calling for the completion of “the danged fence” between the United States and Mexico. After dispatching Hayworth in the primary, McCain effortlessly clinched a fifth Senate term in the 2010 general election.
Near the end of that term, McCain found himself feuding with celebrity-billionaire-turned-presidential-candidate Trump.
In a notorious July 18, 2015, jab at McCain, Trump said McCain was “a war hero because he was captured” and that he liked “people that weren’t captured.”
Trump also derided McCain as weak on immigration and border security. McCain returned the criticism on a number of issues, including Trump’s approach to foreign policy. In October 2016, McCain finally withdrew his endorsement of Trump after a 2005 recording surfaced of Trump talking about women in crude and vulgar ways.
Their duels may have helped McCain in that they made Democrats’ election-year efforts to tether McCain to Trump, who had made a series of inflammatory comments, all but impossible. McCain effortlessly defeated U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, and dramatically outperformed Trump, who also carried Arizona on Election Day but by a much slimmer margin.
A POW in North Vietnam
John Sidney McCain III was born Aug. 29, 1936, at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone. His father, John S. McCain Jr., and grandfather, John S. “Slew” McCain Sr., would become the only father-son team of four-star Navy admirals in U.S. history. During World War II, Slew McCain was in charge of aircraft carriers fighting the Japanese in the Pacific and had a destroyer named in his honor in 1953. The youngest McCain followed in the footsteps of his namesakes, attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and becoming a naval aviator.
In July 1967, during the Vietnam War, McCain survived a fiery maritime disaster on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal that killed 134 people and nearly sank the ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. McCain was getting ready to take off from the deck when another plane accidentally fired a Zuni missile and hit his plane or one next to it, spilling fuel. McCain was wounded by shrapnel and narrowly escaped death himself in the blaze that followed as bombs and planes began exploding.
“The crew’s heroics kept her afloat,” McCain recalled in his 1999 memoir “Faith of My Fathers.” “They fought the inferno with a tenacity usually reserved for hand-to-hand combat. They fought it all day and well into the next, and they saved the Forrestal.”
On the 40th anniversary of his getting shot down over Hanoi, North Vietnam, McCain told The Republic that the Forrestal disaster may have affected him more deeply in the long run.
“To be honest with you, the Forrestal fire seems to be a more impactful date I remember more than that of when I was shot down,” McCain said at the time.
Surviving the Forrestal crisis — the “Inferno at Sea” as the Aug. 11, 1967, cover of Life magazine dubbed it and the worst naval disaster since World War II — was just the beginning for McCain.
On Oct. 26, 1967, McCain was piloting an A-4 Skyhawk attack bomber that had taken off from the USS Oriskany when a missile blew off one of its wings. Seriously wounded, he was captured and would spend more than five brutal years as a POW.
He refused early release, which was offered to him because he was the son of a Navy admiral and would have served North Vietnamese propaganda purposes. While in custody, McCain was routinely beaten and at one point confessed that he was a “black criminal” and an “air pirate,” which he would remember as a low point of his life.
McCain finally was released, along with other POWs, in 1973.
After returning to the United States, McCain’s first marriage to the former Carol Shepp fell apart, and the couple eventually divorced in 1980. He later married Cindy Hensley, daughter of a wealthy Arizona beer distributor. The two met in Hawaii. She was 17 years younger than he was. McCain retired from the Navy in 1981, and his new marriage brought him to the Phoenix area.
The POW backstory was ready-made for a politician.
Political success – and scandal
In 1982, McCain ran for and won the seat being vacated by the retiring former U.S. House Minority Leader John Rhodes, R-Ariz. Though McCain was called a carpetbagger, he prevailed in a tough four-way GOP primary. He faced no serious competition in the general election.
McCain pushed back on the charge that he was a political opportunist with no roots in Arizona. He said his Navy family was forced to move often.
“As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi,” McCain said.
McCain was somewhat lucky in his first U.S. Senate race in 1986. Veteran U.S. Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz., declined to run on the Republican side. Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a popular Democrat with presidential ambitions, also decided not to try for the retiring Goldwater’s seat. A self-inflicted political wound briefly made things interesting — McCain had made an ill-advised reference to Phoenix-area retirement community Leisure World as “Seizure World,” a place where 97 percent of the people voted and “the other 3 percent were in intensive care” — but he still wound up easily defeating Democratic opponent Richard Kimball.
“Occasionally, my sense of humor is ill-considered or ill-timed, and that can be a problem,” McCain later conceded in his 2002 book, “Worth the Fighting For.”
Early in his first Senate term, McCain and fellow U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., and three other senators participated in two April 1987 meetings with federal thrift regulators who were investigating California-based Lincoln Savings & Loan. The troubled business was part of Charles H. Keating Jr.’s financial empire.
Keating had donated and helped raise money for both Arizona senators. The McCain family even vacationed with Keating in the Bahamas. Once the meetings were made public, McCain and DeConcini found themselves at the heart of a major national scandal that resulted in 23 days of Senate ethics hearings.
“I was judged eventually, after three years, of using, quote, poor judgment, and I agree with that assessment,” McCain would later say.
Early in his Senate career, John McCain became ensnared in the Keating Five scandal, which threatened to derail his political career. But after emerging from that scandal, another arose at home involving his wife, Cindy McCain.
The federal government seized Lincoln Savings & Loan in April 1989 and prosecuted Keating for fraud.
Though DeConcini, who was determined to have acted inappropriately, would not run for a fourth term in 1994, McCain sought a second Senate term in 1992 and was able to overcome the Keating Five stigma. The controversy also didn’t do much to hinder his presidential runs in 2000 and 2008 and was largely forgotten during his later years in the Senate.
“It’s ancient history,” Bruce Merrill, the late Arizona State University professor emeritus and longtime political pollster, said of the scandal upon Keating’s death in 2014. “It’s amazing he (McCain) survived that, and I guess one could argue that his political skills brought him through that.”
McCain had seven children, including television commentator and author Meghan McCain. His family lived in the central Phoenix area for years.
- McCain greets the audience as he arrives to deliver a speech in Singapore.
- Sen. John Kerry listens to Sen. John McCain, during a hearing on Capitol Hill.
- Confetti falls on Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, and wife, Cindy.
- Cindy McCain uses a cheetah hand puppet to make her husband laugh.
- U.S. Navy Lt. Commander John S. McCain lies injured in North Vietnam.
- John McCain introduces his daughter Meghan at a campaign stop.
- Sen. John McCain laughs as he and Sen. Chuck Schumer cross paths on Capitol Hill. Leaders of both parties have been quick to praise Sen. John McCain as a rare statesman who made friends on both sides of the aisle.
- John McCain arrives on stage to address the Republican National Convention 2008.
- John McCain acknowledges the audience at the Republican National Convention in 2008.
- John McCain pauses while addressing a campaign event in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
- Sarah Palin listens as McCain speaks for an update on the situation regarding Hurricane Gustav.
- John McCain holds a media availability in Arlington, Virginia.
- McCain holds up photos of himself, as a 30-year-old wounded and captured in 1967 in North Vietnam, outside the Army Museum in Hanoi, 1992.
- John McCain speaks at a campaign rally at the airport in Moon Township, Pennsylvania.
- Sen. John McCain | File photo
- McCain finishes his speech at the Manchester Boys and Girls Club as he campaigns for president.
- John McCain poses with an A-4 jet — similar to the one which he was piloting when he was shot down during the Vietnam War — on the deck of the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier in New York.
- McCain with President George W. Bush after recieving his endorsement .
- President George W. Bush with McCain in the Rose Garden.
- Barack Obama and John McCain at the end of their third debate.
- Barack Obama with Senator John McCain during bipartisan dinner.
- John McCain (R-AZ) listens to a question from a person in the audience during a health care a town hall meeting at Grace Bible Church August 25, 2009 in Sun City, Arizona.
- McCain with wife Cindy after conceding the election to Barack Obama.
- Cindy McCain arrives with sons Jimmy (L) and Jack during the RNC in 2008.
- McCain jokes with his son Jimmy in Minneapolis, Minnesota
- John McCain and his vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin attend a campaign rally at Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
- John McCain and Sarah Palin attend a campaign event in Cedarburg, Wisconsin.
- John McCain embraces his mother, Roberta at the Republican National Convention.
- McCain waves to the crowd at a campaign rally in Woodbridge, Va.
- McCain is greeted by President Richard Nixon after his release from North Vietnam in 1973.
- McCain and his parents, John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta Wright McCain.
- U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John McCain was released from captivity from North Vietnam in 1973.