Senator John McCain, one of the nation’s most prominent and controversial Republicans of the last two decades, has succumbed to brain cancer at age 81. He died at his home in Arizona just one day after discontinuing treatments for the disease.
As tributes to his life and times begin to pour in, it is safe to say that whether you loved or hated him, McCain was never far from the nation’s radar screen.
His story has been well-chronicled over a full half-century since the Annapolis graduate and Navy pilot, son and grandson of four-star admirals, was famously shot down over North Vietnam in 1967. McCain, who had already been involved in four plane wrecks, was captured and endured unspeakable cruelty in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp for over five years. He reportedly received constant beatings but rejected offers for early release – due to his family’s prominence in the Navy – unless fellow prisoners were also liberated. He received multiple awards, including the Silver Star, Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross. But he was also left with permanent physical disabilities and deep emotional scars.
That experience would come to define McCain, politically and temperamentally, in the life path he chose upon his return to the homeland. After undergoing a grueling rehabilitation from his injuries and retiring from the Navy in 1981, he settled in Arizona and entered politics the next year, winning two terms in the U.S. House before ascending to the Senate in 1987.
The newly minted politician was ensnared in the massive Keating 5 banking scandal early in his first term but survived to fight many a day. He was re-elected to the upper chamber five times, serving 31 years until an aggressive form of brain cancer led to his demise. He developed a successful political formula over six senatorial campaigns: run for election as a rock-ribbed conservative, and then legislate as a “maverick” more than willing to set himself apart from the Republican crowd.
The senator’s long presence, attraction to the cameras and outspoken demeanor made him a prominent and often controversial figure, mostly within his own party. He saved his most pointed attacks, it seemed, for fellow Republicans, especially Donald Trump. When then-candidate Trump said McCain was not his kind of hero because he was captured, McCain became one of the leading nevertrump critics of the man who would become president.
But Trump was not the only GOP president to feel the wrath of McCain’s vengeance. Never one to forget a slight, he set his sights on George W. Bush after the Bush campaign reportedly circulated rumors of McCain fathering an illegitimate child during the 2000 presidential campaign, when McCain ran for president on the “straight talk express.” After Bush won the election, McCain voted against the 43rd president’s signature tax cuts, but that was just for starters. He stunned the GOP by actively considering an offer from the Democrat presidential challenger in 2004, John Kerry, to join his ticket.
That was evidence of how John McCain became the Democrats’ favorite Republican. Likely because of his willingness to publicly call out members of his own party, the opposition had little bad to say about him. And of course, his major legislative accomplishment was co-sponsoring with liberal Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) the infamous McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, limiting political speech in the run-up to national elections. That bill was widely condemned as a fundamental infringement on the First Amendment and was effectively rendered moot when the Supreme Court issued the famous Citizens United decision, years later.
The Arizona Senator returned to presidential politics in 2008, winning the GOP nomination in a crowded and relatively weak field. He was soundly defeated by Barack Obama.
He chaired the Senate Commerce Committee in the early 21st century, and as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee late in life, his hawkish, neoconservative views on foreign policy were on full display. Along with his longtime friend, the equally camera-friendly Lindsey Graham (R-SC), McCain was a persistent advocate for increased defense spending and aggressive U.S. military action.
McCain and his first wife raised three children before their divorce in 1980. During a 38 year marriage to his second wife Cindy, he fathered two sons and one daughter, Meghan McCain, now a political pundit featured on the ABC daytime show, The View. They later adopted a girl from Bangladesh.
John McCain was a battler to the end, a man who survived a captivity that would break most men, thrived on his own terms in the Washington swamp and was defiant in the face of a fatal illness. His legacy as a significant political figure who bridged the gap from the 20th to 21st century is secure.