By Robert Donachie
Sen. John McCain of Arizona passed away at his home in Arizona on Saturday evening, putting an end to a nearly six-decade-long career in public service.
The 81-year-old senator ultimately succumbed to a battle with a highly malignant form of brain cancer, known as glioblastoma. Fewer than 5 percent of patients live beyond five years of the diagnosis, with a median survival rate of only 18 months. The same form of cancer claimed the lives of former Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Beau Biden, the late son of former Vice President Joe Biden.
McCain started treatment shortly after his diagnosis in July 2017, splitting his time between Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland and the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. Despite undergoing aggressive rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, the senator managed to fulfill his day-to-day obligations in the Senate until December, providing a loud and prominent voice during both the health care and tax reform debates in 2017.
The son and grandson of decorated U.S. Navy admirals, John Sidney McCain III was born Aug. 29, 1936 at the Coco Solo Naval Station in Panama.
His father’s career forced the family to move frequently throughout his childhood, but the McCain’s eventually settled down in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, where McCain enrolled at Episcopal High School in 1952.
It was at Episcopal where the Washington, D.C. area would first get to know the unabashedly direct, often curt McCain. His high school classmates called him “Punk” but others preferred “McNasty,” a nickname some of his Senate colleagues would later use to describe their wily coworker.
“I arrived [at Episcopal] a pretty rambunctious boy, with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” McCain said at a speech at Episcopal in 2008. “I was always the new kid, and was accustomed to proving myself quickly at each new school as someone not to be challenged lightly.”
“I would respond aggressively and sometimes irresponsibly to anyone whom I perceived to have questioned my sense of honor and self-respect. Those responses often got me in a fair amount of trouble earlier in life,” McCain said.
McCain left Alexandria to enroll at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1954, where he graduated in 1958 near the bottom of his class. The late senator blamed his less-than-stellar class rank on a few academic subjects he did not enjoy and a healthy disregard for a number of the academy’s disciplinary rules.
After leaving the academy, he went on to train before serving as a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War.
His missions got him into a handful of close calls during the war, but two caught him the most attention–for better or worse.
McCain was on board the USS Forrestal preparing to take off on a mission on July 29, 1967, when a rocket from one of the F-4 Phantom jet fighters on the ship accidentally fired a missile. It hit McCain’s aircraft–The Skyhawk–and spilled gallons of lit fuel on the ship’s deck.
The fire spread across the deck, detonating a 1,000-pound bomb. Over 130 sailors lost their lives that day. McCain suffered serious injuries.
The most famous story from McCain’s time in the military, however, occurred roughly three months later, on Oct. 26, 1967.
Flying his 23rd mission, a Russian missile “the size of a telephone pole” blew off the right wing of his plan over Hanoi, sending it into a high-speed nosedive. He quickly ejected but the sheer speed of the fall knocked him unconscious.
Suffering two broken arms and a broken leg, McCain landed in a nearby lake. His heavy military equipment caused him to sink directly to the bottom of the lake and he was forced to repeatedly kick to the surface to breath. Flustered and disoriented, McCain was somehow able to trigger his life vest with his teeth.
Finally making it to shallow water, he was captured by a group of North Vietnamese. He would spend the next five and a half years as a prisoner of war (POW) in Vietnam, where he was tortured, beaten to the point of losing consciousness, and kept in solitary confinement for over three years.
His captors found out that his father was the commander of all Pacific U.S. forces and offered to release McCain in 1968. Suffering from dysentery, multiple broken appendages and dangerous weight loss, McCain refused to give up intel and pledged not to accept any offers home unless his comrades were also released. The future senator would spend roughly four more years as a prison before getting released on May 14, 1973.
After his release, McCain detailed his experiences in a U.S. News & World Report first-person account. Three sentences from the harrowing, multi-page account exemplify the kind of deep seeded, entrenched duty McCain felt towards his country, his government and the American people.
“Once you become a prisoner of war, then you do not have the right to dissent, because what you do will be harming your country,” McCain wrote after his release in 1973. “You are no longer speaking as an individual, you are speaking as a member of the armed forces of the United States, and you owe loyalty to the commander in chief, not to your own conscience.”
“I had a lot of time to think over there, and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life—along with a man’s family—is to make some contribution to his country.”
He returned home to a hero’s welcome and received multiple awards for his service, including the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit.
His call to serve as a member of Congress
McCain said his call to serve as a member of Congress came in 1977, when he started serving as the Navy’s liaison to the Senate. He would often joke about that time, telling a story about having to carry then-Sen. Joe Biden’s luggage on trips overseas.
While that period would prove valuable for his later political career, it would also mark the end of his first marriage to Carol Shepp. McCain later called the dissolution his marriage to Carol his “greatest moral failing,” and blamed it, in part, on a number of extramarital relationships affairs he had while serving as the Navy’s liaison.
McCain married Cindy a few years after his divorce. Cindy’s parents founded the third-largest Anheuser-Busch beer distributor in the U.S.
His notoriety from his time as a POW, newfound connections in Congress and the financial backing of Cindy’s family provided much of what he needed to launch a formal political career.
McCain became a member of the House of Representatives in November 1981.
He quickly defined himself as a Republican who was not scared to challenge the party line and conservative traditions.
As a freshmen House member in 1983, McCain was against a Reagan and bipartisan-backed proposal to continue the deployment of troops in Lebanon. He argued that there was no discernible objective in the nation and that he felt the longer troops remained in Lebanon the harder it would be to get them out. Later, on Oct. 23, 1983, 307 Marines were killed in an attack on the barracks.
Although he lost out in that particular fight, the move proved to Republicans nationwide that McCain would think for himself.
He made his successful bid for the Senate after former Republican presidential nominee and conservative stalwart Barry Goldwater retired in 1986.
His first years in the Senate were seemingly smooth sailing, unmarred by scandal or major mishaps. The Republican National Committee even invited him to speak in 1988.
Things got a bit bumpy for McCain in 1989, when he became the subject of both FBI and Senate Ethics Committee investigations. McCain, along with a handful of senators, was accused of unlawfully intervening in the federal regulatory process on behalf of an Arizona magnate, Charles H. Keating Jr., who donated to his campaigns.
Keating owned Lincoln Savings & Loan, a now defunct home loan and small profit-lending company based out of Irvine, California. The firm was barred under state law from participating in risky investments, but Keating ignored the rules and used depositors’ life savings to purchase high-yielding, risky investments.
He ultimately served 4.5 years in prison for fraud, racketeering and conspiracy. Taxpayers were left holding the bag for $3.4 billion in Lincoln’s losses.
The Ethics Committee did not find McCain guilty of any crime, but said he exercised “poor judgement.”
The Keating episode sparked a concern for campaign finance reform in McCain, leading him to co-author his single most famous piece of legislation–the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.
During his roughly three-decade career in the Senate, McCain put himself outside the mainstream Republican party, siding with liberals on issues like immigration, health care and fiscal policy.
The 2000 presidential election was the first time McCain threw his name in the hat for the presidency. He campaigned, like many Republicans before him, on reforming an expansive government and promising to bring common-sense solutions to the problems facing the nation.
McCain was unable to best George W. Bush in the primary, but became one of his biggest supporters in his re-election bid in 2004. The late senator also supported the former president during the Iraq War, including Bush’s highly-debated decision to send a late surge of troops to Iraq, a move that drew a great deal of flack from then-Sen. Obama and Democrats.
Bush gave McCain his full endorsement in the 2008 presidential election and remained in contact through the end of McCain’s life.
The former president called McCain following his diagnosis in July and wished him a full recovery.
“I was impressed by his spirit and determination,” Bush said in a statement. “He has devoted his life to his country. Thankfully, he is committed to continuing that service. Laura and I pray for our friend to fully recover and quickly return to the Senate, where his voice and leadership are needed. And we send our very best wishes to Cindy and the entire McCain family.”
Bush’s backing, along with a healthy mirage of donors, helped McCain decidedly take the Republican nomination for president in 2008, but pit him up against one of the most charismatic candidates in the past century, Barack Obama.
President Obama ultimately took the White House, winning both the popular and electoral college vote by a large margin and dealing a major blow to McCain’s hopes of becoming the commander-in-chief.
Despite losing the election, McCain and Obama developed a working relationship Obama once likened to a “romantic comedy.”
“He’s an example of a number of Republicans in the Senate and the House who want to be for something, not just against things,” Obama said of McCain in 2013.
McCain memorably gave a speech he gave on the Senate floor a week after he found out he had terminal cancer. The late senator called for his colleagues to work together in a bipartisan manner to achieve true, lasting and positive change for the American people.
“I have been a member of the United States Senate for 30 years. I had another long, if not as long, career before I arrived here, another profession that was profoundly rewarding, and in which I had experiences and friendships that I revere,” McCain said.
“But make no mistake, my service here is the most important job I have had in my life. And I am so grateful to the people of Arizona for the privilege – for the honor – of serving here and the opportunities it gives me to play a small role in the history of the country I love.”
His closing remarks to his colleagues that summer day are indicative of the spirit of a man who would not quit, no matter what challenge or obstacle laid before him.
“I have every intention of returning here and giving many of you cause to regret all the nice things you said about me. And, I hope, to impress on you again that it is an honor to serve the American people in your company.”
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