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John McCain, Legendary Republican Senator, Dead at 81

The longtime conservative icon was a public servant for decades

John McCain: A Patriot, a Paradox

John McCain

Christopher Morris/VII/Redux

Legendary senator John McCain has died after a nearly year-long bout with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. He was 81.

“Senator John Sidney McCain III died at 4:28pm on 25th August 2018,” his family said in a statement. “With the Senator when he passed were his wife Cindy and their family. At his death, he had served the United States of America faithfully for sixty years.”

“My heart is broken. I am so lucky to have lived the adventure of loving this incredible man for 38 years,” Cindy McCain, his wife, tweeted on Saturday. “He passed the way he lived, on his own terms, surrounded by the people he loved, in the the place he loved best.”

Meghan McCain, his daughter, also shared a lengthy statement on Twitter that included: “My father’s passing comes with sorrow and grief for me, for my mother, for my brothers, and for my sisters. He was a great fire who burned bright, and we lived in his light and warmth for so very long.”

The son and grandson of Navy admirals, McCain survived being taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, before launching a storied career in politics, rising to become the 2008 Republican nominee for president. Throughout his career, McCain leveraged his relationship with the media — his “base,” he joked — to craft an image as a “straight-talking maverick,” a patriot who put country over party. Transcending an era of bitter partisanship and polarization, the charismatic McCain built a following across the American political spectrum.

McCain’s legacy is more complex than his legend, of course. Many of his maverick moments covered for less-noble motivations – of pique or public relations. And his dying regret that he did not select Joe Lieberman as his running mate does not heal the damage he did to our body politic. By tapping Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for the 2008 ticket, McCain opened a Pandora’s Box of right-wing populism, energizing the nascent Tea Party and presaging the triumph of Donald Trump.

Born at a naval air station in Panama, John Sidney McCain III grew up in Washington, D.C., in the shadow of admirals. His four-star grandfather commanded carrier operations in the Pacific during World War II. His distant father, “Junior,” also rose to four-star rank, serving as Commander-in-Chief of Pacific Command during the Vietnam War.

The third John S. McCain fell farther from the tree. Growing up rebellious and hot-tempered, McCain graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis. As a young Navy pilot, he displayed a higher aptitude for carousing than flying. He crashed planes and even caused a minor international incident while “clowning” in the skies over southern Spain.

Deploying to Vietnam in 1967, Lt. Commander McCain was at the center of a catastrophic accident aboard the USS Forrestal; the ensuing inferno claimed 134 sailors’ lives and nearly sank the carrier. Months later, flying a bombing run over Hanoi, McCain was shot down and captured — suffering through more than five years as a prisoner of war. His crash injuries were ill-treated, and McCain was tortured into writing a propaganda statement for the North Vietnamese. “I had learned what we all learned over there,” McCain would reflect. “Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.”

(Original Caption) North Vietnamese claimed to have shot down and captured U.S. Navy flier Lt. Commander John Sydney McCain, shown in file photo, son of Adm. John S. McCain, Jr., Commander of American Naval Forces in Europe. He was said to have been aboard a two-man F4 Phantom fighter shot down by a surface to air missile over Hanoi.

North Vietnamese claimed to have shot down and captured U.S. Navy flier Lt. Commander John Sydney McCain, shown in file photo, son of Adm. John S. McCain, Jr., Commander of American Naval Forces in Europe. He was said to have been aboard a two-man F4 Phantom fighter shot down by a surface to air missile over Hanoi.

On his homecoming, McCain penned a first-person account of his captivity for U.S. News and World Report, in which he wrote of his torture by the “gooks” and his admiration for “President Nixon’s courage” — including “the bombing in Cambodia.” Loyalty to the Republican war president earned McCain cachet in right-wing politics. And after his Naval career and first marriage stalled out, McCain moved with his new wife, Cindy, to Arizona, and pivoted to politics, winning election to the House of Representatives in 1983.

McCain diminished himself early, opposing the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday – a vote he would later regret. McCain also grabbed the national spotlight by opposing President Ronald Reagan’s deployment of Marines to Lebanon. The media “tend to notice acts of political independence from unexpected quarters,” McCain later wrote. Suddenly, he found himself “debating Lebanon on programs like MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post,” he added. “I was gratified by the attention and eager for more.”

McCain vaulted into the Senate in 1987, taking the seat of libertarian icon Barry Goldwater, but soon found himself embroiled in scandal. McCain had asked bank regulators to back off on an investigation of a Savings & Loan belonging to Charles Keating, a top political patron, who had treated the McCain family to private vacations at his “Shangri-La” in the Bahamas. Keating’s S&L soon collapsed, costing taxpayers billions. Admonished by an ethics investigation and branded part of the “Keating Five,” McCain would seek atonement, and political rehabilitation, by pursuing campaign-finance reform legislation. He ultimately partnered with Democrat Russ Feingold on the “McCain-Feingold” law of 2002 that curbed donor influence in Washington, for a time, until the floodgates reopened with the 2010 Citizens United decision. McCain called Citizens United “the worst decision of the United States Supreme Court in the 21st century.”

McCain ran for president twice, and nearly a third time. In the 2000 election, he challenged George W. Bush as a centrist insurgent, campaigning aboard a bus he dubbed the Straight Talk Express. (Full disclosure: I voted for McCain in the 2000 California primary.) When Bush won – thanks in part to a racist smear campaign against McCain’s adopted daughter – McCain plotted a 2004 rematch. He voted against the first Bush tax cut and reportedly even flirted with becoming a Democrat. But as the early days of the War on Terror solidified Bush’s political standing, McCain stepped back – and swung, instead, hard right.

The senator who had briefly stood up for the environment — calling global warming “a serious and urgent economic, environmental and national security challenge” — would campaign for the presidency in 2008 on a platform of “Drill, Baby, Drill!” The man who’d once urged military caution in Lebanon would embrace the ideals of neoconservatism, and joke on the stump about “that old Beach Boys song,” singing: “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb; Bomb, Bomb Iran” to the tune of “Barbara Ann.” He once said he’d be “fine” if American troops remained in Iraq for “a hundred years.”

The selection of Palin as his running mate is perhaps McCain’s defining legacy. “I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee to what we see today in Donald Trump, the emergence of the Freedom Caucus, the Tea Party, and the shift in the center of gravity for the Republican Party,” President Obama reflected in the summer of 2016.

In McCain’s political career, there were a few constants. One was steadfast opposition to torture. “I would hope that we would understand, my friends, that life is not 24 and Jack Bauer,” he said during the W. Bush years; in his final days, McCain inveighed against Gina Haspel’s nomination to CIA director, writing: “Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.” McCain’s commitment to America’s veterans, and to defense appropriations, was also resolute; the latest $716 billion Pentagon funding package was called the “John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act.”

But on many other issues McCain was a chameleon. He voted to confirm both Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example. He unleashed Palin on America, but later decried her fellow travelers in Congress as “Tea Party Hobbits.” McCain visited Muammar Gaddafi at his ranch in 2009, only to cheerlead the Libyan leader’s ouster two years later. A one-time champion of campaign finance reform, McCain was backed in his final election by $4.2 million from a Super PAC called Arizona Grassroots Action, funded by Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Up to and including his final year in office, McCain’s bold declarations of principle were often later reversed, or quietly abandoned.

In the age of Trump, McCain positioned himself, superficially, as the president’s antagonist. In 2017, McCain relished playing executioner for a version of Trumpcare. With soap-operatic flair, McCain delivered a “thumbs down” on the Senate floor, voting “nay” to doom passage of the “skinny repeal” of Obamacare. In that moment, with cameras rolling, McCain exacted revenge on Trump, who had demeaned McCain’s Vietnam record. “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said during the campaign. “I like people who weren’t captured.”

At the time, McCain couched his opposition as a defense of “regular order” – calling on the senate not to jam through partisan bills, but to work instead through committees to advance bipartisan measures. Yet just months after this principled stand, McCain backed the senate version of the Republican tax bill – legislation that had advanced on a strictly partisan basis, with no committee hearings, and passed literally in the dead of the night. Heightening the contradiction, the Senate bill contained the central feature of the “skinny repeal” McCain had voted against — ending Obamacare’s individual mandate. The bill also opened the Arctic National Wildlife to drilling, a measure McCain once fiercely opposed.

It’s fruitless to decouple McCain the politician from McCain the television personality. The Senator appeared on endless Sunday talk shows, interpreting the latest convulsions in Washington with plain-spoken wit and, often, a biting critique of his own party. He had easy rapport with his interviewers, including the likes of John Dickerson and Jake Tapper who had covered his campaign aboard the Straight Talk Express in 2000. As much as anything, McCain’s passing marks the end of a television era, not unlike the deaths of NBC’s Tim Russert or ABC’s Peter Jennings.

To the end, McCain remained widely popular – in particular among Democrats, 68 percent of whom gave the senator positive marks in a late 2017 CNN poll. And to the end, McCain received glowing — even embarrassing — coverage from the press. Out of proportion to any action he’d taken, McCain was presented on a cover of New York magazine last year under the headline “McCain v. Trump: Just how far will the senator go?”

The honest, difficult, answer was: Not very far.

When I last saw Senator McCain in Washington, shortly after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and Robert Mueller had been appointed special counsel, I asked him if the Senate would consider censuring Trump – based on the president’s efforts to obstruct justice that were already public record. McCain waved me off, insisting: “Let’s see what the results of the the investigation are.”

That investigation has outlived him.

In This Article: John McCain

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