PHOENIX – John McCain, the six-term Arizona senator who went from defiant prisoner of war to straight-talking Republican presidential candidate and conservative ideologist, died Saturday little more than a year after doctors diagnosed him with brain cancer. He was 81.
McCain began his public life as an outsider, but he morphed into an Arizona icon with national and international reach by the end of his career.
He earned a reputation as a maverick, and he battled with President Donald Trump and the right-wing base over reforming health care and immigration and bolstering pro-business and property and land rights. McCain, the GOP’s nominee for president in 2008, believed in American involvement on foreign soil, robust health care for veterans and a pro-business approach to environmental rights.
Arizona leaders and residents responded to news of McCain’s death with sorrow and tributes.
⚡️ “Arizonans remember Senator John McCain”https://t.co/skfdN7LcLt
— Cronkite News (@cronkitenews) August 26, 2018
President Trump, who often clashed with McCain, tweeted his condolences to the family.
My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 26, 2018
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, on Twitter, called his longtime Republican colleague a hero.
Words cannot express the sorrow I feel at John McCain’s passing. The world has lost a hero and a statesman. Cindy and the McCain family have lost a loving husband and father. I have lost a wonderful friend.
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) August 26, 2018
Gov. Doug Ducey, who ordered flags at half-staff, will choose a successor for McCain. He has not said who he will choose but would only say he would not select himself, according to azcentral.
The New York Times reported that McCain will lie in state at the Arizona Capitol and in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., and receive a full dress funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral.
Doctors diagnosed McCain with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in July 2017. Months later, former Vice President Joe Biden, whose late son Beau died from the same type of brain cancer, consoled Meghan McCain about her father’s health on ABC’s “The View.”
In an emotional moment, Joe Biden consoles Meghan McCain, whose father was diagnosed with the same cancer as Biden's late son Beau: "There is hope. And if anybody can make it, your dad [can]." pic.twitter.com/Jdr9KzrL83
— The View (@TheView) December 14, 2017
Although glioblastoma was “about as bad as it gets,” Biden said, they had hope for new medical treatments.
“If anybody can make it, (it’s) your dad,” Biden said. “Her dad is one of my best friends.”
But in the last few weeks, McCain spent time at his home near Sedona, receiving a stream of family and friends. On Friday, his Senate office announced he was stopping medical treatment.
The statement says that while the senator “has surpassed expectations for his survival. … The progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict.”
On Saturday evening, a contingent of Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers began a motorcade to carry the senator to Phoenix, according to azcentral.
Gov. Doug Ducey ordered all flags lowered to half-staff to honor the longtime Arizona politician.
I have ordered all flags be lowered to half-staff in honor and remembrance of the incredible life of @SenJohnMcCain. May God rest his soul and look over his entire family. Our state and our nation mourn together. #JohnMcCain #CountryFirst https://t.co/Bj9pgsLIon
— Doug Ducey (@dougducey) August 26, 2018
After the diagnosis, McCain returned to the Senate in late July to cast a deciding vote against a Trump-backed plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. One of the senator’s last actions in Congress was to vote in early December in support of a controversial tax plan backed by the Trump administration.
In October, McCain accepted the Liberty Medal to cap six decades of public service.
As he accepted the medal – previously given to the Dalai Lama, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Muhammad Ali – the senator delivered remarks about a moral responsibility to international leadership and ideals. Some considered them as a formal rebuke of Trump’s U.S. focus. But for most of McCain’s remarks, he expressed gratitude for the ability to serve, pride in the nation and its citizens and awe at his journey.
“We are living in the land of the free,” he said, “the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, the land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.”
After McCain’s diagnosis, Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who has served as Arizona governor and head of Homeland Security, said his legacy will include his willingness to stand against the tide.
“He is one of the most interesting people in modern American politics because of his personal history, his unpredictability and because he didn’t necessarily toe the party line on things,” she said in an interview.
Born into military life
McCain was born Aug. 29, 1936, at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in Panama to John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta McCain.
Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, he entered the Naval Academy in 1954, just one year before U.S. military involvement in Vietnam began. He graduated – near the bottom of his class – after three years of flight school and volunteered for combat duty in Southeast Asia.
On one of his bombing missions, a missile hit McCain’s A-4E Skyhawk jet, forcing him to eject, according to his first-person account in U.S. News & World Report and his memoir. He landed on enemy territory in Hanoi.
North Vietnamese troops captured the battered McCain but refused to treat his injuries until they discovered his father was a high-ranking admiral, according to news media reports. As a prisoner of war, he was routinely tortured and kept in joint or solitary confinement. He was offered release as a political ruse but declined, requesting that other prisoners be sent home before him, according to his book, “Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir.”
After nearly six years, McCain was released when the Paris Peace Accords were signed to mark the end of the Vietnam War. He was welcomed as a war hero upon his return to the U.S. in March 1973. He received a Silver Star for “extreme mental and physical cruelties” and the Purple Heart, among others awards, for his bravery in Vietnam.
McCain launched his first foray into politics as the Navy’s liaison to the Senate. He retired from the Navy in 1981 as a captain.
Arizona, and a new life, loomed on the horizon.
During his stint as liaison, McCain met Cindy Hensley, daughter of wealthy beer distributor Jim Hensley, at a military reception in Hawaii. The father of three, he was in a troubled marriage at the time, but after a year, he divorced and married Hensley, according to the Washington Post. After he retired, the newlyweds moved in 1981 to Cindy McCain’s home city of Phoenix, where John went to work for his father-in-law and started to make key connections with Republicans across the state.
A political newcomer on the rise
When he first ran for office, critics saw him as a “carpetbagger,” according to Newsweek and other news media accounts. But his war hero status eventually helped overcome the label, winning him his first election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served two terms.
Voters elected McCain into the U.S. Senate in 1986, securing the position from retiring Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater.
“He stands alone with Barry Goldwater as two of the greatest politicians and advocates for Arizona and the military,” Arizona resident Steven Isham said of McCain in 2017. “He has served with distinction in every environment of his life.”
Years later, in 1998, McCain would write a Goldwater eulogy, saying, “In all the histories of American politics, he will remain a chapter unto himself. The rest of us will have to make do as footnotes.”
McCain’s campaigns led to easy victories to keep his Senate seat, but he faced two ultimately disappointing runs to become the nation’s president. After campaigning on the Straight Talk Express, so-called because of McCain’s unusual candor and reputation as a maverick, he ceded the Republican nomination to George Bush in 2000.
He later rose to capture the party nomination in 2008 and brought an unknown Alaska politician, Sarah Palin, into the national conservative fold as his running mate to battle Barack Obama for the presidency.
Palin, then a political neophyte on the national stage who became beloved by conservatives and a magnet for critics for her lack of experience, bolstered McCain’s image as a “conservative crusader.” Palin was anti-abortion, leaned far right on environmental issues and disagreed with McCain’s support of gay marriage.
Obama and McCain disagreed about most major issues, most notably foreign policy. Throughout the election, McCain often criticized Obama’s proposed strategies for Iraq and Iran.
But after voters elected Obama as the nation’s first African-American president, McCain congratulated the nation.
“Tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama,” McCain said in his concession speech.
McCain, who had a record of coasting to victory as an Arizona senator, faced a tough reelection battle on his final run for office in 2016. He won with 53 percent of votes against Democrat opponent Ann Kirkpatrick.
Land rights, veterans support and foreign policy
McCain built his political reputation as a conservative with bipartisan reach, a man with a temper and the rare elected official to speak without a political filter.
“He’s someone who will be viewed as an independent actor, as someone who on some issues worked across the aisle,” former Gov. Napolitano said.
A fervent opponent of Obamacare, McCain returned to the Capitol days after his glioblastoma diagnosis to cast the deciding vote against a proposed Senate bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. The senator said the issue needed more time and proper discussion. When the vote came, McCain dramatically signaled thumbs down.
McCain left some of his strongest marks on land rights, foreign policy and veterans issues.
Beginning in the early 1980s and ‘90s, McCain was outspoken on issues of foreign policy, first attacking Ronald Reagan’s decision to invade Lebanon – a critique that would later be vindicated after more than 200 U.S. Marines died in a truck bombing. McCain also voiced his distaste for Bush’s Iraq policy, urging the president for years to send more troops, the Washington Post reported.
In 2014, he spearheaded bipartisan efforts with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to investigate delayed and denied care at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. Together they wrote the Veterans’ Access to Care Through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act. The act allowed veterans to choose alternate local health care providers that could provide quick and affordable care and called for the VA to hire more doctors and nurses.
McCain usually showed a Republican bent on issues such as the environment and gun control. He opposed a proposal to add 1.7 million acres as a national monument surrounding the Grand Canyon National Monument, calling it a land grab. He countered moves by Obama on gun control, saying drastic changes would cost businesses and consumers dearly.
In 2016, McCain released a statement against Obama’s executive action on gun control, saying, “Obama has once again ignored the separation of powers and disregarded the rule of law. Regardless of merit, this is a classic abuse of executive power.”
In October 2017, McCain applauded the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to withdraw from the Clean Power Plan, a decision made under Trump-appointed Republican administrator Scott Pruitt. McCain released a statement saying, “This onerous rule would have created millions in compliance costs for Arizona utilities, which would have been forced to pass on costs to Arizona consumers.”
But McCain never shied from taking a more liberal stance on key issues, often to the surprise of his political partners.
McCain would eventually buck his own party – as well as his tendencies on environmental issues – in 2017, calling for common sense solutions to changes in the climate, which he called “unprecedented” in recent years.
He became a stark contrast to most conservative opinions on campaign finance reform. Most notably, McCain spearheaded the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 alongside his Democratic colleague and friend, Russ Feingold. The law brought attention to unregulated “soft money” – contributions to a political party that go toward things such as “party building” activities.
Bumping into Trump
The McCain-Trump relationship soured further during the 2016 presidential campaign after Trump, referring to McCain’s POW experience, said, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
McCain didn’t reply directly to the remarks, but he criticized Trump.
In Oct. 8, 2016, according to the Arizona Republic, McCain officially withdrew his support for Trump after recorded evidence surfaced of Trump speaking of women in a sexually demeaning manner.
“When Mr. Trump attacks women and demeans the women in our nation and in our society, that is a point where I just have to part company,” he said, referring to the Access Hollywood tape.
Trump replied to McCain’s decision in a tweet, defending the comments as “locker room remarks.”
The very foul mouthed Sen. John McCain begged for my support during his primary (I gave, he won), then dropped me over locker room remarks!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2016
During a rally in Phoenix, Trump lashed out at McCain, calling him an “incompetent politician,” according to azcentral.com.
Earlier this year, CNN reported that McCain stymied efforts by the GOP to overhaul the Affordable Care Act, a decision he acknowledged was a tough one. “I take no pleasure in announcing my opposition. Far from it,” McCain said in a statement.
“His thumbs-down vote to gut Obamacare was quintessential McCain,” Napolitano said. “He was voting independently and set up the moment for maximum dramatic effect.”
McCain cast the dramatic “no” vote despite the fact that Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of McCain’s closest friends, was a primary backer of the bill. Graham took to Twitter to assure the public that McCain’s vote wouldn’t hinder their friendship:
My friendship with @SenJohnMcCain is not based on how he votes but respect for how he’s lived his life and the person he is.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) September 22, 2017
But the vote came as a disappointment to Trump, who had tweeted before the voting his desire for an all-Republicans-on-board strategy for the bill:
Rand Paul, or whoever votes against Hcare Bill, will forever (future political campaigns) be known as "the Republican who saved ObamaCare."
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 22, 2017
The McCain family
McCain leaves his wife, Cindy McCain, and seven children: Douglas, Andrew, Sidney, Meghan, John, James and Bridget.
Cindy McCain was at the Grand Canyon in April as a plaque dedicated to her husband and the late Rep. Morris Udall was unveiled.
Cindy McCain, who spoke at the ceremony unveiling the plaque’s design, said she was moved by the tribute.
“It’s heartwarming, and it’s such an honor,” she said.
Meghan McCain, who rose to become a notable public figure during her father’s 2008 presidential campaign, later became a Fox News host and joined the daytime television talk show “The View.”
On Friday, after the announcement that her father was discontinuing treatment, Meghan McCain expressed her appreciation of the support that poured in.
My family is deeply appreciative of all the love and generosity you have shown us during this past year. Thank you for all your continued support and prayers. We could not have made it this far without you – you've given us strength to carry on. pic.twitter.com/KuAQSASoa7
— Meghan McCain (@MeghanMcCain) August 24, 2018