Senator John McCain Dies At 81
Senator John McCain has died at the age of 81,
John S. McCain, the proud naval aviator who climbed from depths of despair as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to pinnacles of power as a Republican congressman and senator from Arizona and a two-time contender for the presidency, died on Saturday at his home in Arizona. He was 81.
According to a statement from his office, Mr. McCain died at 4:28 p.m. local time. He had suffered from a malignant brain tumor, called a glioblastoma, for which he had been treated periodically with radiation and chemotherapy since its discovery in 2017.
Despite his grave condition, he soon made a dramatic appearance in the Senate to cast a thumbs-down vote against his party’s drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But while he was unable to be in the Senate for a vote on the Republican tax bill in December, his endorsement was crucial, though not decisive, in the Trump administration’s lone legislative triumph of the year.
A son and grandson of four-star admirals who were his larger-than-life heroes, Mr. McCain carried his renowned name into battle and into political fights for more than a half-century. It was an odyssey driven by raw ambition, the conservative instincts of a shrewd military man, a rebelliousness evident since childhood and a temper that sometimes bordered on explosiveness.
Nowhere were those traits more manifest than in Vietnam, where he was stripped of all but his character. He boiled over in foul curses at his captors. Because his father was the commander of all American forces in the Pacific during most of his five and a half years of captivity, Mr. McCain, a Navy lieutenant commander, became the most famous prisoner of the war, a victim of horrendous torture and a tool of enemy propagandists.
Shot down over Hanoi, suffering broken arms and a shattered leg, he was subjected to solitary confinement for two years and beaten frequently. Often he was suspended by ropes lashing his arms behind him. He attempted suicide twice. His weight fell to 105 pounds. He rejected early release to keep his honor and to avoid an enemy propaganda coup or risk demoralizing his fellow prisoners.
He finally cracked under torture and signed a “confession.” No one believed it, although he felt the burden of betraying his country. To millions of Americans, Mr. McCain was the embodiment of courage: a war hero who came home on crutches, psychologically scarred and broken in body, but not in spirit. He underwent long medical treatments and rehabilitation, but was left permanently disabled, unable to raise his arms over his head. Someone had to comb his hair.
His mother, Roberta McCain, Navy all the way, inspired his political career. After retiring from the Navy and settling in Arizona, he won two terms in the House of Representatives, from 1983 to 1987, and six in the Senate. He was a Reagan Republican to start with, but later moved right or left, a maverick who defied his party’s leaders and compromised with Democrats.
He lost the 2000 Republican presidential nomination to George W. Bush, who won the White House.
In 2008, against the backdrop of a growing financial crisis, Mr. McCain made the most daring move of his political career, seeking the presidency against the first major-party African-American nominee, Barack Obama. With national name recognition, a record for campaign finance reform and a reputation for candor — his campaign bus was called the Straight Talk Express — Mr. McCain won a series of primary elections and captured the Republican nomination.
But his selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate, although meant to be seen as a bold, unconventional move in keeping with his maverick’s reputation, proved a severe handicap. She was the second female major-party nominee for vice president (and the first Republican), but voters worried about her qualifications to serve as president, and about Mr. McCain’s age — he would be 72, the oldest person ever to take the White House. In a 2018 memoir, ”The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations,“ he defended Ms. Palin’s campaign performance, but expressed regret that he had not instead chosen Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent.
At some McCain rallies, vitriolic crowds disparaged black people and Muslims, and when a woman said she did not trust Mr. Obama because “he’s an Arab,” Mr. McCain, in one of the most lauded moments of his campaign, replied: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
Analysts later said that Mr. Obama had engineered a nearly perfect campaign. And Mr. McCain confronted a hostile political environment for Republicans, who were dragged down by President George W. Bush’s dismal approval ratings amid the economic crisis and an unpopular war in Iraq.
On Election Day, Mr. McCain lost most of the battleground states and some that were traditionally Republican. Mr. Obama won with 53 percent of the popular vote to Mr. McCain’s 46 percent, and 365 Electoral College votes to Mr. McCain’s 173.
With the rise of Donald J. Trump, the Republican flame thrower who steered American politics sharply to the right after his election in 2016 as the nation’s 45th president, Mr. McCain was one of the few powerful Republican voices in Congress to push back against Mr. Trump’s often harsh, provocative statements and Twitter posts and his tide of changes.
In his end-of-life memoir, Mr. McCain scorned Mr. Trump’s seeming admiration for autocrats and disdain for refugees. “He seems uninterested in the moral character of world leaders and their regimes,” he wrote of the president. “The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values. Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity.”
Long before Mr. Trump was criticized as setting new lows for public discourse, Mr. McCain himself had used coarse language and blunt insults, although they were far less assertive, and he often used them in jest. He called Secretary of State John Kerry, a Democrat, “a human wrecking ball,” and the right-wing Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky “wacko birds.”
Personal animus between Mr. McCain and Mr. Trump arose in the Republican presidential primaries in 2016. After months of boasts by Trump about his wealth, celebrity and deal-making as qualifications for the White House, and his dismissive capsule characterizations of climate change as “a hoax” and the Iraq war as “a mistake,” Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney, with standing as the previous two Republican presidential nominees, denounced Mr. Trump as unfit for the presidency.
Saying Mr. Trump had neither the temperament nor the judgment for the White House, Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney called him ignorant on foreign policy and said he had made “dangerous” statements on national security. They warned that his election might imperil the United States and its democratic systems.
In a venomous response, Mr. Trump denigrated Mr. Romney as a “failed candidate” and “a loser” beaten by Mr. Obama. He had little to say about Mr. McCain. But months earlier, Mr. Trump, who had never served in the military (or held public office) had derided Mr. McCain as a bogus war hero and made light of his years of captivity and torture.
“He’s a war hero because he was captured,” Mr. Trump said. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Mr. McCain held his fire. But the nation was shocked. An avalanche of denunciations tumbled from editorial boards and political leaders, but the outrage faded into the tapestry of Mr. Trump’s provocations against Mexicans, Muslims, women and black and Hispanic people. Trump supporters, who were mostly white, said his biases showed a refreshing willingness to disregard political correctness.
John Sidney McCain III was born on Aug. 29, 1936, at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone, one of many posts where his father, John Sidney McCain Jr., served in a long, distinguished Navy career. He was the middle sibling of three children. His mother, born Roberta Wright, was a California oil heiress. His parents eloped to Tijuana, Mexico, to marry in 1933.
With his older sister, Jean Alexandra (who was known as Sandy), and brother, Joseph Pinckney McCain II, John grew up with frequent moves, an often-absent father, a rock-solid mother and family lore that traced ancestral lineages to combatants in every American war and to Scottish clans. There were also highly dubious family claims of having descended from Robert the Bruce, the 14th-century king of the Scots.
The patriarch of the 20th-century military family was John’s grandfather, Adm. John Sidney McCain Sr. A pioneer of aircraft carriers, he led many naval and air operations in the Western Pacific in World War II, covering Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s invasion of the Philippines and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy in the war’s final stages. He was in the front row of officers aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese signed the documents of surrender in 1945.
John’s father was a decorated submarine commander in World War II. In Washington, the elder Mr. McCain was influential in political affairs as the postwar Navy’s chief information officer and liaison with Congress. Senators, representatives and military brass were often guests at his home. Raised to full admiral, he was the commander of American naval forces in Europe and, from 1968 to 1972, of all American forces in the Pacific, including those in the Vietnam War theater.
(Two Navy destroyers were named McCain, for the senator’s father and grandfather, the first father-and-son full admirals in American naval history.)
Whipsawed by family relocations, young John attended some 20 schools before finally settling into Episcopal High School, an all-white, all-boys boarding school in Alexandria, Va., in the fall of 1951 for his last three years of secondary education. The school, with an all-male faculty and enrollments drawn mostly from upper-crust families of the Old South, required jackets and ties for classes.
But the scion of one of the Navy’s most illustrious families was defiant and unruly. He mocked the dress code by wearing dirty bluejeans. His shoes were held together with tape, and his coat looked like a reject from the Salvation Army. He was cocky and combative, easily provoked and ready to fight anyone. Classmates called him McNasty. Most gave him a wide berth.
“He cultivated the image,” Robert Timberg wrote in a biography, “John McCain: An American Odyssey” (1995). “The Episcopal yearbook pictures him in a trench coat, collar up, cigarette dangling Bogey-style from his lips. That pose, if hardly the impression Episcopal sought to project, at least had a fashionable world-weary style to it.”
John and a few friends often sneaked off campus at night to patronize bars and burlesque houses in Washington. He joined the wrestling team — a 127-pound dynamo, he once pinned an opponent in 37 seconds, a school record — and the junior varsity football team, as a linebacker and offensive guard. His grades were abysmal, except in literature and history, his favorite subjects. He graduated in 1954.
More from The Washington Post:
Sen. McCain, 81, died Aug. 25 at his ranch near Sedona, Ariz., his office announced in a statement. The senator was diagnosed last July with a brain tumor, and his family announced this week that he was discontinuing medical treatment.
During three decades of representing Arizona in the Senate, he ran twice unsuccessfully for president. He lost a bitter primary campaign to George W. Bush and the Republican establishment in 2000. He then came back to win the nomination in 2008, only to be defeated in the general election by Barack Obama, a charismatic Illinois Democrat who had served less than one term as a senator.
A man who seemed his truest self when outraged, Sen. McCain reveled in going up against orthodoxy. The word “maverick” practically became a part of his name.
Sen. McCain regularly struck at the canons of his party. He ran against the GOP grain by advocating campaign finance reform, liberalized immigration laws and a ban on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” — widely condemned as torture — against terrorism suspects.
To win his most recent reelection battle in 2016, for a sixth term, he positioned himself as a more conventional Republican, unsettling many in his political fan base. But in the era of President Trump, he again became an outlier.
The terms of engagement between the two had been defined shortly after Trump became a presidential candidate and Sen. McCain commented that the celebrity real estate magnate had “fired up the crazies.” At a rally in July 2015, Trump — who avoided the Vietnam draft with five deferments — spoke scornfully of Sen. McCain’s military bona fides: “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Once Trump was in office, Sen. McCain was among his most vocal Republican critics, saying that the president had weakened the United States’ standing in the world. He also warned that the spreading investigation over Trump’s ties to Russia was “reaching the point where it’s of Watergate-size and scale.”
In both of his own presidential races, Sen. McCain had dubbed his campaign bus the ”Straight Talk Express.” To the delight of reporters who traveled with him in 2000, he was accessible and unfiltered, a scrappy underdog who delighted in upsetting the Republican order.
“He was always ready for the next experience, the next fight. Not just ready, but impatient for it,” said his longtime aide Mark Salter, who co-authored more than a half-dozen books with the senator, including three memoirs, the final of which included a stinging critique of Trump. “He took enjoyment from fighting, not winning or losing, as long as he believed he was fighting for a cause worth the trouble.”
So broad and party-bending was his appeal that Senate Democrats in 2001 quietly tried to persuade him to become one of them. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, a Senate colleague who later became Obama’s secretary of state, considered offering Sen. McCain the second spot on his ticket.
Sen. McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign turned out to be a far more conventional operation than his first bid for the White House. He stuck to his talking points and came to represent the status quo that he had once promised to topple.
Her well-received convention speech initially gave the sagging Republican nominee a lift, and her independent streak reinforced Sen. McCain’s message and reputation. Looking back on the decision in 2012, Sen. McCain said he had been looking for “a way to galvanize and energize our campaign.”
But Palin’s performance in interviews and on the stump sowed doubts about whether she was prepared to be next in line for the presidency and, by Election Day, polls indicated that she had become a drag on his candidacy.
When he acted like an ordinary politician, trimming principles in the cause of ambition and expedience, it was all the more jarring because of the standard he had set. In the years that followed, a question often asked was: Which is the real John McCain?
He represented the end of an era during which the nation looked at wartime military experience as practically mandatory for those who aspire to high office. “McCain was part of the tradition of being able to say, ‘I did public service when I was young,’ ” historian Douglas Brinkley said.
Sen. McCain, who rose to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was among the Republicans’ most hawkish leaders on military matters and foreign affairs.
It was a mind-set that came, in part, from his conviction that the Vietnam War, in which he had suffered grievously, was a noble and winnable endeavor. The real failure, he believed, was that of a spineless political class.
During the Iraq War, often compared to Vietnam, Sen. McCain was an early and ardent proponent of a 2007 “surge” of troops. President Bush ultimately adopted that strategy, and it was widely credited with stabilizing Iraq, albeit temporarily.
Sen. McCain was also a persistent critic of Obama’s foreign policy.
“The demand for our leadership in the world has never been greater. People don’t want less of America — they want more,” Sen. McCain said in 2012. “Everywhere I go in the world, people tell me that they still have faith in America. What they want to know is whether we still have faith in ourselves.”
Yesterday’s announcement that McCain had ceased medical treatment made it apparent that it would not be long before he would pass away, but it wasn’t apparent from the statement that was released at that point just how close the end actually was, although one sensed from much of the news coverage of the announcement that the media had at least some sense of a “heads up” that the final days, if not the final hours, of Senator McCain’s life were at hand. There’s very little that one can add to what is not already included in the obituaries already posted at the Times and the Post, both of which cover all of the details of the sixty years that John McCain III gave to his country. Additionally, thanks to his long years in the public eye, much of his story, and most especially the details of his treatment while he was a prisoner of war in Hanoi, are well known and will no doubt receive much coverage over the coming days as the nation mourns the loss of a man who, above all else, loved his country and gave the last full measure of his duty to right to very end.
Speaking for myself, it’s safe to say that there were many times that I disagreed with the Senator on policy issues over the years, and of course, I did not know him personally. Notwithstanding those disagreements, though, it was always clear that he took the positions that he did because he believed they were in the best interests of his country and, perhaps most importantly, he was part of that generation of American leaders that was able to reach across the aisle and form bonds with everyone from Ted Kennedy, who died nine years ago today of the same form of cancer that has now taken the Senator, to former Vice-President Joe Biden, whose son Beau died in 2016 of the same form of cancer as well. As the son and grandson of Admirals, he could have spent the Vietnam War in a secure position but instead chose to be put in a combat role and, after he was captured and offered early release because of his father’s position in the American military, McCain chose to stay with his fellow P.O.W.’s until they were all released. That alone says everything that needs to be said about his character.
Thank you for your service, Senator.
Update: It has been announced that Senator McCain will lie in state at the Arizona State Capitol and the United States Capitol, this will be followed by a service at the Washington National Cathedral at which both former President George W. Bush and former President Barack Obama, the two men who defeated McCain in his runs for the Presidency, will deliver eulogies. After this, McCain will be buried on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Additionally, since I posted this last night, a number of tributes have been posted in memory of McCain from family, friends, as well as world and national leaders, most of them to social media:
My heart is broken. I am so lucky to have lived the adventure of loving this incredible man for 38 years. He passed the way he lived, on his own terms, surrounded by the people he loved, in the the place he loved best.
— Cindy McCain (@cindymccain) August 26, 2018
— Meghan McCain (@MeghanMcCain) August 26, 2018
My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 26, 2018
— Leader McConnell (@SenateMajLdr) August 26, 2018
As you go through life, you meet few truly great people. John McCain was one of them. His dedication to his country and the military were unsurpassed, and maybe most of all, he was a truth teller – never afraid to speak truth to power in an era where that has become all too rare.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) August 26, 2018
Words cannot express the sorrow I feel at John McCain’s passing. The world has lost a hero and a statesman. Cindy and the McCain family have lost a loving husband and father. I have lost a wonderful friend.
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) August 26, 2018
John McCain was a giant of our time—not just for the things he achieved, but for who he was and what he fought for all his life. He will always be listed among freedom’s most gallant and faithful servants.
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) August 26, 2018
Today we lost an American original. Sen. John McCain was a maverick and a fighter, never afraid to stand for his beliefs. John never took the easy path in life – and through sacrifice and suffering he inspired others to serve something greater than self.
— Sarah Palin (@SarahPalinUSA) August 26, 2018
John McCain was my friend. I will remember the good times. My family and I send prayers for Cindy and the McCain family.
– Sarah Palin and family pic.twitter.com/KRvcIQ99cA
— Sarah Palin (@SarahPalinUSA) August 26, 2018
Our statement on the passing of Senator John McCain: pic.twitter.com/3GBjNYxoj5
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 26, 2018
John McCain was many things – a proud graduate of the Naval Academy, a Senate colleague, a political opponent.
But, to me, more than anything, John was a friend. He will be missed dearly. pic.twitter.com/AS8YsMLw3d
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 26, 2018
John McCain believed that every citizen has a responsibility to make something of the freedoms given by our Constitution, and from his heroic service in the Navy to his 35 years in Congress, he lived by his creed every day. https://t.co/946T7PnG53
— Bill Clinton (@BillClinton) August 26, 2018
— Jim McGrath (@jgm41) August 26, 2018
"Some lives are so vivid, it is difficult to imagine them ended. Some voices are so vibrant, it is hard to think of them stilled. John McCain was a man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order.” […] Full statement by President George W. Bush https://t.co/FQVYWIUyGL pic.twitter.com/W8LCxJXRLi
— George W. Bush Presidential Center (@TheBushCenter) August 26, 2018
America and Freedom have lost one of her greatest champions.
….And I’ve lost one of my dearest friends and mentor.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) August 26, 2018
"John McCain was a great statesman, who embodied the idea of service over self. It was an honour to call him a friend of the UK. My deepest sympathies go to his family, and the American people." – PM @theresa_may
— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) August 26, 2018
Senator John McCain was an American patriot and hero whose sacrifices for his country, and lifetime of public service, were an inspiration to millions. Canadians join Americans tonight in celebrating his life and mourning his passing.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) August 26, 2018
John McCain was a true American hero. He devoted his entire life to his country. His voice will be missed. Our respectful thoughts go to his beloved ones.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) August 26, 2018
His support for Israel never waivered. It sprang from his belief in democracy and freedom. The State of Israel salutes John McCain.
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) August 26, 2018