John McCain, the Arizona senator and one-time Republican presidential nominee who distinguished himself as a political maverick in an era of increasing polarization and partisanship, has died. He was 81.
McCain was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor in July 2017. His death was confirmed by a statement from his office. “At his death he had served the United States of America faithfully for 60 years,” the statement read, noting that his wife Cindy and other family were with him when he died Saturday at 4:28 p.m. at his home in Arizona.
McCain had not been present in the Senate since December, but continued to weigh in on major issues through his office.
A Vietnam veteran who endured almost six years in captivity in North Vietnam, where he was beaten and tortured by the North Vietnamese, McCain was a key champion of the military and veterans affairs, as he chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee. He appeared at the Kennedy Center along with his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, John Kerry, for a screening of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War.”
There, he shared the lessons for leaders who send soldiers into war. “Tell the American people the truth. Make everybody be involved if we are going to be involved. And three, learn what victory means and don’t forget it.”
He also was a figure familiar to TV viewers — not just for what he said but for his prolific appearances on Sunday morning talk shows. In 2014, The New York Times said he held the record for most appearances over a span of five years.
Unpredictable and at times irascible, McCain in recent years became a voice of conscience in the Senate, calling out both parties for straying from norms or when traditions were not respected. In a momentous week in July, he returned to Washington after undergoing surgery and cast a vote to send a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare to the floor.
But he also used the occasion to call for a return to trust and “regular order,” or the type of deliberation that once was routine with major pieces of legislation.
“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us,” he said. “Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.”
Three nights later, he surprised his Republican colleagues when he voted against the legislation. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looked on, McCain pointed his thumb downward, a gesture that only seemed to add to the drama of the moment.
John Sidney McCain III was born on Aug. 29, 1936, in the Panama Canal zone, where his father, naval officer John McCain Jr., was then stationed. The elder McCain, along with his father, each became four star Navy admirals.
After moving with his family for each of his father’s assignments, McCain followed his father into the military, and graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1958. He volunteered for duty in Vietnam, and began flying bombing runs in the north.
On Oct. 27, 1967, as he was on a mission above Hanoi, his plane was struck by a missile, and he ejected. He broke his right leg and both arms. When he was captured, he was immediately sent for interrogation.
“I refused to give them anything except my name, rank, serial number and date of birth,” McCain wrote in U.S. News & World Report in 1973. “They beat me around a little bit. I was in such bad shape that when they hit me it would knock me unconscious. They kept saying, ‘You will not receive any medical treatment until you talk.'” Eventually, he did get treatment, but it was in a crude medical facility, and it was only the beginning of a harrowing, 5 1/2 years in captivity.
Moved to the so-called “Hanoi Hilton” in 1969, McCain was offered early release by his captors, but he refused, knowing that the North Vietnamese would use his father’s notoriety as propaganda.
Released in March, 1973, and with the U.S. involvement ending, McCain tried to take an more positive view of the impact of the war, which divided the American public and left many veterans feeling unappreciated and ignored.
“I think America is a better country now because we have been through a sort of purging process, a re-evaluation of ourselves,” he wrote that year. “Now I see more of an appreciation of our way of life. There is more patriotism. The flag is all over the place. I hear new values being stressed—the concern for environment is a case in point.”
He also expressed a desire for a career in public service, something that he pursued in 1976, when he became the Navy’s Senate liaison. After retiring from the Navy, he moved to Arizona and ran for a congressional seat in 1982, easily winning the general election.
Four years later, McCain ran for Senate, succeeding a legend of Arizona politics, Barry Goldwater. In his freshman term, though, McCain was beset by a scandal, when he was identified as one of the members of the so-called “Keating 5,” a group of senators who were accused to trying to use their influence to aid Charles Keating, the chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings & Loan. McCain was cleared, but many years later he said that the experience made him “wince.” He later wrote that since then, “I have carefully avoided situations that might even tangentially be construed as a less than proper use of my office.”
He pursued campaign finance reform, culminating in the passage of legislation he co-sponsored with Senator Russell Feingold, a Democrat, that limited the influence of money in politics.
By the latter part of the 1990s, after being reelected twice, McCain had burnished his image as a “maverick,” willing to buck Republican orthodoxy and even conventional wisdom.
At a time when political strategists were carefully crafting politicians with talking points and photo ops, McCain seemed to relish spontaneity, and became a favorite of the media on Capitol Hill for his accessibility and humor. He also became close friends on the other side of the aisle — not just with Kerry, a fellow veteran, but Senator Ted Kennedy. In 2009, McCain delivered one of the eulogies at Kennedy’s memorial service.
McCain had close ties to Hollywood, having once served as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which dealt with many of the industry’s regulatory issues. But he became friends with such figures as Warren Beatty, one of the industry’s staunch liberals, and honored him when Beatty won the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 2008.
McCain waged his first presidential bid in 2000, running a campaign for the GOP nomination as a candidate with an independent streak and touring states in a bus labeled the “Straight Talk Express.” His surprise victory in the New Hampshire primary almost scuttled the presidential hopes of Texas Governor George W. Bush, considered the favorite, until Bush recovered in the South Carolina primary a week later. The latter contest proved to be a particularly brutal battle.
Eight years later, McCain tried again. He went into the race a favorite, but his campaign quickly skidded. For months his prospects were written off, but McCain concentrated on New Hampshire. Again, the state came through for him, and his campaign was resurrected. He had largely secured the nomination by March of 2008.
McCain was said to prefer another friend, Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, as his running mate, but he faced a potential revolt from the right. Instead, he was convinced to make a bold move in his selection, that of a little-known governor from Alaska, Sarah Palin.
The choice of Palin initially looked like a “game changer,” as the term went, as she delivered a highly successful convention speech and helped draw larger crowds on the campaign trail. But the collapse of Lehman Brothers the following month, and a sharp dive in the economy, proved to be a drag on the Republican party. A series of interviews that Palin gave to CBS News anchor Katie Couric also exposed her inexperience, and their momentum stalled.
He declined to participate in far-right attacks on his opponent Barack Obama that questioned his religion and birthplace. At town hall rally, when one woman said she couldn’t trust Obama because “he is an Arab,” McCain shook his head and said, “No mam. He’s a decent family man citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
McCain gave a gracious concession speech, recognizing the historic importance of Obama’s election and telling his supporters, “Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.”
Eight years later, McCain sparred early with Donald Trump, criticizing him for a rally where he “fired up the crazies.” But Trump fired back with an attack not on what McCain said but on his military service, telling an Iowa audience that he liked people who “who weren’t captured.” McCain withheld withering criticism of that comment, leaving it to friends and colleagues, but he skipped the 2016 Republican National Convention and ultimately refused to support Trump in the general election.
After Trump took office, McCain complained about being asked to comment on the president’s tweets, and when he did criticize him, they were often philosophical.
Speaking to “60 Minutes” in September of last year, he said that he understands “that we’re very different people. Different upbringing. Different life experiences. He is in the business of making money and he has been successful both in television as well as Miss America and others. 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.”
McCain is survived by his wife, Cindy, and their children, Meghan, Jack, Jimmy and Bridget. He also is survived by a daughter, Sidney, from his first marriage to Carol Shepp, along with two adopted sons, Douglas and Andrew, from her earlier marriage. McCain’s marriage to Carol Sheep ended in divorce in 1980.
McCain also is survived by his mother, Roberta, who is now 106.
Roberta McCain and other family members appeared at the Capitol in May for a screening of an HBO documentary “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
“Each of us who served with John McCain can remember a time he was our fiercest ally, and a time when he was our most maddening opponent,” McConnell quipped to the crowd of senators and others.
As he faced a grim prognosis last fall, McCain told CNN’s Jake Tapper that “every life has to end one way or another.”
Asked how he would like to be remembered, McCain said, “He served his country. And not always right, made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of errors. But served his country. And I hope, could add, honorably.”
Memorials for McCain will be held in both Arizona and Washington D.C. The Arizona State Capitol will hold a memorial open to the public and available to be livestreamed online on Aug. 29, as well as at the North Phoenix Baptist Church Aug. 30, which requires an RSVP to limited public seating. In D.C, a memorial that is open to the public will be held Aug. 31, with an invite-only national memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 1.