The late Arizona warrior cum politician no doubt has left a huge gap for the next generation to fill; surviving bouts of near death experiences, skin cancer and living his last years anticipating his demise from the world. As close associates put it, he was “a conqueror in the face of death”.
Senator John McCain; the name resonates a man carved out of resilience, patriotism, born on the eve of World War 11, he came of age with the dawn of the US as a global superpower.
For someone with a neo-super hero image in the United States and beyond, he spent his last years out of the public eye, but whenever there was a need for him to trigger his patriotic riffle; you would have spun his “true self” to life.
His lifetime spanned an arc across what Henry Luce once predicted would be the American Century – a time when US political, military and cultural power was unrivalled across the globe.
He fought in Vietnam and suffered the ravages of captivity as the US itself was wracked by doubt and anger over an inability to achieve victory in South-East Asia. He became a rising star in US politics, only to nearly succumb to the temptations and corruptions of money and influence in American democracy.
He mounted an anti-establishment presidential campaign that presaged the anger and longing for authenticity that would later sweep through US politics. He won the Republican presidential nomination as that fervour began to curdle, turning against him and the established order in his party.
In McCain’s last days, he offered a full-throated defence of the idea that an internationalist, engaged American nation could serve as a guide to friends and a bulwark against foes – and railed against the man, Donald Trump, who campaigned against this world view.
McCain exits the stage at what is, perhaps, the twilight of the American century, when the nation has focused inward, concerned about potential dangers of immigration, the entanglements of multilateralism and the challenges of a global economy.
Here are six moments of McCain’s life that reflect the American history he lived through. Released from prisoner of war camp on March 14, 1973: More than five years of captivity in a Vietnam prison had aged him.
McCain’s hair had been dark when his jet was shot down by a surface-to-air missile during a mission over Hanoi. Now it was grey and white. The image is striking.
A gaunt McCain, aged 36, dressed in rumpled civilian clothes, marching along with fellow American prisoners of war to a US military transport plane that would take them to freedom.
He walked with a limp – the product of injuries sustained from ejecting from his damaged plane, as well as torture at the hands of his Vietnamese captors.
At a White House reception a month later with President Richard Nixon, McCain relied on crutches to walk. He never fully recovered from his wounds.
The limp would mostly disappear, but for the rest of his life he was unable to raise his arms above his head.
Although, McCain would remain in the military for eight years after his return to the US, the day of his release from Vietnam marked the pivotal moment of a military career that was seemingly ordained from birth.
Both his father and his grandfather were navy admirals, the latter commanding a carrier group that fought against Japan in World War 11. McCain followed in their footsteps, attending the US Naval Academy, where friends said he sometimes struggled with the military tradition he was expected to follow.
“He felt like he didn’t have a choice,” says Frank Gamboa, one of McCain’s roommates when the two men were midshipmen at the US Naval Academy. “One of the burdens of having a family legacy is you can’t be your own self.”
Throughout his time at the academy, McCain rebelled. He earned the nickname “John Wayne” McCain for his attitude and popularity with the opposite sex.
He collected demerits the way some people collect stamps. He seemed perennially on the verge of failing out of school, and graduated near the bottom of his class. McCain did occasionally use his family background as a shield.
Gamboa describes one instance where McCain upbraided a senior classmate for being abusive to a Filipino steward during dinner – a bit of insubordination that could have landed him with a disciplinary report.
When the man asked for his name, McCain replied: “John S. McCain III. What’s yours?” Upon hearing the name, according to Gamboa, the man skulked off.
“As a prisoner of war, McCain had another opportunity to use his family name to avoid trouble – and declined. When his captors learned he was the son of an admiral, he was offered early release. McCain refused – insisting that those who were captured before him should go first”.
Elected to Congress November 2, 1982: McCain made his entry into politics by winning an open seat in a reliably Republican Phoenix-area US congressional district.
He had moved to Arizona shortly after marrying his second wife, Cindy and spent some time working for her father, a wealthy Phoenix businessman, where he made the kind of influential connections that would help support his congressional bid.
The highlight of his first campaign was a Republican primary debate, when one of his opponents questioned McCain’s ties to his newly adopted home state. McCain, his temper flashing, shot back.
“Listen, pal, I spent 22 years in the navy,” he said. “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”.
McCain would go on to win the primary by 6 per cent over his nearest competitor. He would win more than double the votes of his Democratic opponent in the November general election.
In his 2002 memoir, McCain said that he thought his debate performance won the election – although it wasn’t part of a grand campaign strategy. “I was just mad and had taken a swing,” he wrote.
McCain arrived as a freshman congressman in Washington with strong connections already in place.
Prior to leaving the armed forces, he had served as navy liaison to Congress and had forged ties with politicians and staffers in the Capitol. It was the same position McCain’s father held when McCain was a teenager.
But McCain “was always different,” says biographer Elizabeth Drew. “He was different in the prison camp and different in Congress.”
While his record in the House was fairly conventional, “he was never just one of the boys,” Drew says. “There were pictures all over the place of this man, bedridden in a prison camp, so he always stood out from your run-of-the-mill politicians.”
McCain was elected president of his congressional class. On one of his first high-profile votes, he broke with his party and President Ronald
Reagan, in opposing a US military deployment to Lebanon – a position that would be vindicated just a month later, when 241 US Marines and 58 French soldiers were killed in a suicide attack on their military compound.
A US political magazine labelled him a “Republican on the rise”: A year later, he would run for, and win, a seat in the US Senate from Arizona.
He replaced Barry Goldwater, the godfather of the US conservative movement and the Republican presidential nominee in 1964.
It was an office he held for the remaining 31 years of his life. Cleared in corruption scandal, November 20, 1991:
The scandal that engulfed him grew out of the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s, when a combination of lax financial regulationS and business corruption led to the collapse of more than a thousand financial institutions.
Keating feared his firm, Lincoln Savings and Loan, was being targeted for increased scrutiny from government regulators and in danger of failing.
He urged his friends in the US Senate – men whose campaigns he had supported – to convince federal officials to go easy on Lincoln.
One of those men was McCain, who in addition to taking campaign contributions from Keating, had gone on several vacations to the Bahamas courtesy of the businessman.
McCain sat in on two meetings between senators and regulators to review the matter.
The five senators, simply by their presence, showed regulators that Keating had powerful friends. McCain said he only wanted to make sure Lincoln was being treated fairly.
In the second gathering, McCain learned that Lincoln was being referred to the justice department for criminal prosecution.
At that point, the Arizona senator dropped the matter – but he had held his hand close to the flame. It wasn’t long before the whole matter went public and McCain felt the heat.
Lincoln collapsed, US taxpayers were out more than $2billion in deposit insurance payments, and Keating was indicted and convicted of fraud.
McCain and the other four senators in the meetings became the face of corrupt political influence and the corrosive effects of campaign contributions.
They were given a nickname, the Keating Five, and the Senate Ethics Committee opened an investigation into the matter.
In the end, the Senate investigation largely exonerated McCain, finding only that he had shown “poor judgement” in the matter. South Carolina defeat, February 19, 2000:
Those heady days after New Hampshire in 2000 were probably as close to the presidency as McCain came in his life. Bush, with a strong conservative tailwind, went on to defeat Al Gore later that year.
“If the campaign had ended in South Carolina a day or two earlier, McCain would have won,” McKinnon says. “And he would have won the presidency.”
McCain went back to the Senate and focused on passing campaign finance reform, biding his time until 2008, and making the kind of establishment connections to ensure his next bid for the presidency would begin from a position of strength.
No, on Obamacare repeal, July 28, 2017:
It was the middle of the night when Brooke Buchanan’s phone rang. It was McCain. She no longer worked for the senator, but the two still talked almost daily.
“Get up,” he said. “Turn on your TV. We’re going to be making some news.”
The US Senate was considering whether to repeal portions of the Affordable Care Act, a comprehensive health-insurance regulation law that was Obama’s signature legislative achievement.
The fate of the bill hung in the balance, as only one more “no” vote would kill the legislation and McCain was one of the few remaining undecided. It was almost 1.30 am in the morning.
As Buchanan watched on her television, McCain walked out on to the Senate floor and turned to the clerk tabulating votes.
He held out his right arm – the one that hadn’t been repeatedly broken in Vietnam – and gave a quick thumbs-down.
“No,” McCain said quietly, then sat down at his desk in the Senate chamber, as Republicans gasped and Democrats erupted in cheers.
McCain – who had flown back from Arizona for the vote after undergoing emergency surgery for his recently diagnosed brain tumour – had bucked his party’s leadership one last time.
He had defied President Trump, the man who had stunned Washington when he questioned McCain’s heroism as a prisoner of war.
“I just had a huge grin on my face,” Buchanan says. “I was proud of him for it. It was a tough decision to take, but again it was one of those times when the true McCain shined.”
Buchanan says McCain voted no, in part, to allow other Republican senators who had misgivings about the repeal legislation, including his friend Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, to vote in favour and avoid angering the pro-repeal Republican base. He figured he had nothing to lose,” she says.
It was McCain’s most direct break with Trump, but since then he stepped up his criticism.
He denounced the president for striking a deferential tone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and the senator has condemned Trump’s attacks on the FBI and US intelligence services.
He also took swipes at him in a memoir released shortly before his death.
“The appearance of toughness, or a reality show facsimile of toughness, seems to matter more than any of our values,” he wrote. “Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity.”
He also, according to the New York Times, told friends he did not want the president at his funeral – a final rebuke of the man who won the office McCain sought twice, but never achieved.
“I don’t know if they’ve ever made them like McCain or they ever will,” McKinnon says.
“He was great, but also vulnerable. He was not perfect, but he was the first one to admit that.
He had low moments when he was a prisoner of war and low moments when he was in the Senate, but he never shied away from saying he was an imperfect human being, but at the end of the day it’s my job to serve this country, and that’s what he did.”
His achievements remain unmatched for decades, Senator McCain remains a household name for bravery.