John McCain, 1936–2018
The war hero who served as a Senate maverick
John McCain liked to joke that Arizona may be the only state “where mothers no longer tell their children that someday they can grow up and be president.” Following the path trod by fellow Arizona giants Sen. Barry Goldwater and Rep. Mo Udall, McCain fell short in his runs for the White House, but became a larger-than-life presence in American politics. A former Navy pilot and prisoner of war, the six-term senator captured the public’s imagination with his independent streak. His underdog 2000 bid for the Republican presidential nomination became the stuff of campaign trail legend: McCain jawed with reporters in all-day bull sessions aboard his “Straight Talk Express” bus. He later came from behind to win the GOP’s 2008 nomination, but the historical moment belonged to Barack Obama. McCain rose to meet it, delivering a gracious concession speech lauding the nation’s first black president. Americans “never hide from history,” McCain said. “We make history.”
Born in the Panama Canal Zone, McCain “was bred for combat,” said The Washington Post. The son and grandson of four-star admirals, he initially rebelled at the weight of his family’s legacy and was known as McNasty at boarding school for his brawling and carousing. After enrolling in the U.S. Naval Academy, he trained as an aviator, survived three crashes, and earned a reputation for recklessness. McCain volunteered to serve in Vietnam and was on a bombing run over Hanoi in 1967 when a missile sheared his jet’s wing, said The Arizona Republic. “Seriously wounded, he was captured and would spend more than five brutal years as a POW.” He refused early release, vowing he’d only leave with his fellow prisoners, and was routinely tortured. Freed with other POWs in 1973, McCain returned home a war hero but with a lifetime disability: His injuries left him unable to raise his arms above his head.
McCain headed to Washington in 1977 to run the Navy’s Senate liaison office “and caught the political bug,” said The Times (U.K.). He retired from the Navy in 1981 and settled in Arizona—home of his second wife, Cindy—with an eye toward running for Congress. Elected to the House in 1982, he soon earned his “maverick” label by opposing President Reagan’s dispatch of U.S. troops to Lebanon; he was vindicated a few months later when the Marine barracks in Beirut was bombed, killing 241 Americans. After two terms in the House, McCain won the Senate seat vacated by the retiring Goldwater. His success soon gave way to scandal, said The Wall Street Journal. He was one of five senators accused of pressuring regulators to go easy on a savings and loan association owned by a political benefactor. A Senate ethics committee ultimately found McCain guilty only of “poor judgment,” but to clear the stain on his honor he pushed for campaign finance reforms and helped pass a 2002 law barring unlimited contributions to political parties.
In 1999, McCain announced an insurgent bid for the Republican presidential nomination, pitting him against Texas Gov. George W. Bush “and most of the GOP establishment,” said the Los Angeles Times. He trounced Bush in the New Hampshire primary but ran aground in South Carolina, after Bush supporters spread rumors that he’d fathered a black child out of wedlock. McCain won the GOP nomination in 2008, but the odds weren’t in the then–72-year-old’s favor. The Iraq War, which he’d supported, was unpopular, as was the Republican president. His erratic running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, became a story in her own right. More importantly, after eight years of Bush, his younger Democratic rival, Obama, represented change. McCain would remain a maverick in the Senate, where he was one of the few Republicans to buck President Trump, who had mocked his war record. Last summer, days after being diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, McCain returned to the Senate to cast one of his final votes—a vote that foiled Trump’s attempted repeal of Obamacare. “It’s been quite a ride,” McCain wrote in his recent memoir. “I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.”