John McCain: War Hero, Senator, Maverick, Has Died

The Arizona senator, who died on Saturday at the age of 81, will be long remembered for staying true to his principles and putting country over politics.
John McCain Photo

Longtime Arizona Senator John McCain has passed away.

John Sydney McCain III, senator from Arizona, died Saturday afternoon at his home in Sedona after battling brain cancer. He was 81. He is remembered for his strong love of country, family, and service. A decorated war hero, he endured 5 ½ years in a North Vietnamese POW camp after his fighter jet was shot down over North Vietnam. Nearly 20 years later, he was elected Arizona’s junior senator and developed a reputation as a “maverick” for asking the hard questions. 

Twice he ran for president of the United States, the first time in 2000, when he lost the nomination to fellow Republican George W. Bush. Then in 2008, he won his party’s nomination before being defeated by Barack Obama. He returned to the Senate and resolutely pursued issues he felt were important — strengthening the military, fighting pork barrel spending, and immigration reform. In one of his last acts as a maverick, he opposed the Republican-backed repeal of Obamacare in July 2017.

John McCain was born August 29, 1936, at Coco Solo Naval Station in the Panama Canal Zone when it was a U.S. territory. Being the son and grandson of career U.S. Naval officers didn’t make for an easy childhood. There was the constant moving from one port to another as his father moved up the ranks. By the time young John entered high school, he had attended nearly 20 schools. He finally found some much-needed stability while attending Episcopal High School, where English teacher William Ravenel taught him the school’s honor code of never lie, cheat, or steal and report any student who does — values McCain would take into his core.

McCain graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1958 and flight school two years later. Volunteering for duty in Vietnam, his plane was shot down on October 26, 1967, near Hanoi, North Vietnam. In the crash, McCain sustained fractures on both arms and one leg. He was captured and spent 5 ½ years at the Hoa Loa prison (the "Hanoi Hilton"), surviving brutal treatment at the hands of his captors. After being released, McCain endured months of grueling rehabilitation.

John McCain Photo

John McCain photographed while serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy.

Before going to Vietnam, McCain married Carol Sheep on July 3, 1965. He adopted her two children, Douglas and Andrew, and together they had a daughter, Sidney. The marriage ended in divorce in 1980. In 1981, he married Cindy Lou Hensley. Together they had three children, Meghan, John, and James, and adopted daughter Bridget.

McCain stayed in the Navy, but it was apparent his injuries would prevent him from advancing very far. He was assigned as the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate in 1976 and the experience gave him his first taste of politics. Around this time, his marriage to his first wife began falling apart, and he began to look for a new purpose in life. 

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John McCain during an interview on April 24, 1973, approximately one month after returning from Vietnam.

An important part of John McCain’s next chapter would be meeting his second wife, Cindy Lou Hensley. Beautiful and well educated, she was the only child of James Hensley, founder of a large beer distributorship in Arizona. McCain worked for his father-in-law but always knew his life was to be one of service. 

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1982, McCain became a loyal supporter of President Ronald Reagan, backing the economic policies of “Reaganomics.” In 1986, longtime Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater retired and McCain seized the opportunity, winning the seat. While serving in both houses of Congress, McCain earned his reputation as a politician who was “partisan-blind” when it came to asking the hard questions of those in power. He didn’t hesitate to strongly disagree with President Reagan sending U.S. Marines into the chaos in Lebanon in 1983 or criticize the administration’s handling of the Iran-Contra affair in 1987.

The one blemish on an otherwise stellar political career came in 1989, when McCain was accused of improperly intervening with a federal investigation on behalf of a friend and political contributor, Charles H. Keating Jr., during the Savings & Loan crisis. McCain was cleared of improper actions but was said to have exercised “poor judgment” by meeting with regulators.

Without breaking stride, John McCain got past the scandal and never looked back. He won reelection to the Senate in 1992 and again in 1998 with solid majorities. His reputation as an independent increased as he pushed to reform the tobacco industry and campaign finance, positioning him for his first run for president in 2000. He emerged as a formidable challenger to Republican frontrunner George W. Bush with a surprising victory in New Hampshire, bolstered by independent voters and crossover Democrats. McCain continued to perform well in several key primaries, but midway through it was clear he didn’t have the delegate count needed to become the nominee, and he bowed out.

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John McCain in his Senate office.

McCain’s inner mantra of honor before duty was strongly evident when he returned to the Senate after the election. Though an ardent supporter of the military, he was especially critical of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s leadership during the Iraq War and differed with President Bush on issues ranging from enhanced interrogation to the administration’s support for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Sensing the time might be right, on April 25, 2007, John McCain announced his bid for the presidency, and after a hard-fought campaign he claimed the Republican nomination. As a candidate, McCain looked strong in the early months of the campaign. His rhetoric was firm but fair and his message was sincere. But the effort was undermined by several factors: the unpopularity of his predecessor, George W. Bush, his controversial running mate, then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and the tidal wave what would carry Illinois Senator Barack Obama to an historic election.

Though the 2008 defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, McCain once again returned to the Senate without losing his self-confidence or his sense of mission. Though staunchly adhering to conservative principles, he also continued to speak truth to power through his public comments and his voting record. During his last 10 years in the Senate, McCain continued to push for the issues close to him, campaign finance reform, national defense and security, and budget and spending. He was reelected to the Senate in 2010 and 2016.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, John McCain saw the need for his voice to be heard. He criticized Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric, stating it “fired up the crazies” in the Republican Party. Trump shot back in an interview that McCain was a war hero only because he was captured, adding, “I like people who weren’t captured.” 

McCain would go on to grudgingly endorse Trump, but he later withdrew his support after a recording was released of the nominee bragging about kissing and groping women. Amid allegations of Russian interference during the presidential campaign, McCain, as chair of the Senate Armed Service Committee, announced his support for the intelligence community’s determination that the Russians had attempted to sway the election outcome to favor Trump.

On July 14, 2017, John McCain underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from above his left eye. Laboratory results confirmed the presence of a very aggressive brain tumor, the same type of cancer that killed Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau. The outpouring of supporting for McCain was tremendous: Obama and Biden both wished him well, as did all of his congressional colleagues and even his sometime antagonist, President Trump. Not long after McCain's diagnosis, his daughter Meghan tweeted a photo of the two of them resting during a hike. 

On July 28, McCain courageously returned to the Senate to vote on a bill to repeal Obamacare legislation. Earlier, he had expressed deep reservations about the bill because it offered no alternative for health care. On the day of his return, President Trump called McCain an “American hero.” The next day, McCain was one of the last senators to vote. After he crossed the Senate floor in front of the lectern, he delivered a decisive thumbs-down gesture, killing the bill.  

Throughout the rest of the year, McCain remained true to his character and value system. He openly criticized President Trump when he felt it was necessary, but also praised him when the president spoke favorably on the issues McCain had fought all his career to support.

McCain supported the Senate’s tax reform bill in December 2017, but was unable to vote on it after being hospitalized for a viral infection and returning to his home state to recuperate. Still, he managed to make his presence felt in the chamber as partisan bickering raged on. 

In February 2018, McCain blasted a controversial memo released by Republican Congressman Devin Nunes that alleged the FBI abused its surveillance authority while investigating Russian activity. In his written statement, McCain pointedly said, "While we have no evidence that these efforts affected the outcome of our election, I fear they succeeded in fueling political discord and dividing us from one another."