The story of Arizona Senator John McCain is complicated. No surprise there. His eighty-one years of life were peppered with incredible highs few among us will ever know and incredible and surrealistically low, lows. So, it might be wise to leave it to history to dive deeply into the life of the man who passed away over the weekend. But, even staying at the grass-tops paints a picture of a remarkable eight-decade journey.
From his first breath, much was expected of the late Arizona Senator. He was born in 1936 on a naval air station in the Panama Canal zone. His father, John S. McCain, Jr., would rise to a four-star rank and command the entire Navy. His grandfather, who carried the same name, also wore four-stars. All three McCains would graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy.
McCain often joked about his Academy class rank---finishing fifth from the bottom. But his dubious academic record did not keep him from becoming a pilot and getting stationed aboard the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Forrestal.
McCain was on duty aboard the Forrestal in July 1967 when a missile fired from a stationary F-4 Phantom flew across the flight deck striking another plane’s fuel tank. It ignited a huge electrical fire that spread quickly triggering a massive explosion that resulted in 134 casualties. Another 161 sailors were seriously hurt. An investigation ruled the incident accidental.
In October 1967, on his 23rd bombing mission, his A-4 took a direct hit over Hanoi. He ejected, injuring himself; both arms and a leg were broken. For the next five-plus years he would be held prisoner, most of the time at what would come to be known as ‘The Hanoi Hilton.’ Because of poorly treated medical care and torture at the hands of his captors that exacerbated his injuries, McCain would not only suffer long-standing pain for his remaining years but would also show the physical effects of his captivity with labored movement in daily life.
McCain, along with other P.O.W.s, was freed in 1973. Though captured as a Lieutenant Commander, he retired as Captain. In 1981, he moved to Arizona and entered politics successfully winning two terms in the House of Representatives. He won a Senate seat in 1987 and served there until his death.
Partisans will either praise or criticize McCain’s record in Congress. While he generally hewed to the Republican line and often glowingly referred to Ronald Reagan as a political giant, he periodically found himself at odds with his own party earning himself the nickname, ‘Maverick.’ He regularly joined Democrats on serious policy issues, including campaign and immigration reform.
On the former, he joined with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, the latter he aligned with good friend, Senator Edward Kennedy. His maverick streak also surprised many with his push for the United States to normalize relations with Viet Nam.
McCain’s efforts to reform campaign financing may have resulted from an influencing-peddling scandal he got caught up in in the 1980’s. He admitted taking money---more than $100,000 and accepting free flights to exotic vacation spots on private jets---from an Arizona savings and loan president, Charles Keating. In exchange, McCain went light on S&L regulatory reform. He admitted it was the low point of his political career. For the remainder of his political life, McCain was linked to the infamous “Keating Five.”
McCain’s rise in standing and stature as a senator did not translate into success in either presidential campaigns he ran. In the first, he was defeated by George W. Bush. A lack of money kept him from truly competing against Bush’s well-funded and ultimately successful campaign. But it did give him a chance to redeem himself for a moral failing he later admitted to.
In the 2000 South Carolina primary, he was asked if the Confederate flag should remain flying above the state capital. He said it should. After the election, he returned to the state and acknowledged the political expediency that stood in the way or his judgment and admitted he should have said the first time that the flag should be taken down.
His second run for president will forever be remembered as the campaign that catapulted Alaska Governor Sarah Palin into the national spotlight. The McCain-Palin ticket lost. He later acknowledged that Palin’s selection was against his “gut” and that he should have picked Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman as a running mate.
A highpoint of that campaign came when he corrected a woman, a supporter who said Barack Obama was a Muslim who couldn’t be trusted. McCain took the microphone and said to the woman she was dead wrong, that Obama was a good, family man.
McCain, who was diagnosed with brain cancer thirteen months ago, died on the anniversary of his friend and colleague’s passing. Senator Ted Kennedy died August 25, 2009, of the same brain cancer that killed McCain. The two, while ideologically different, shared a deep friendship.
McCain will lie in state in the Arizona Capitol on Thursday before he makes his final flight to Washington. There his body will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, only the 31st person in 166 years to be so honored. His public service will be held in the National Cathedral on Saturday. He will be interred at Annapolis. No final date has been set.
At McCain’s request, he will be eulogized by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. His family has specifically requested President Trump, a man with whom McCain had Grand Canyon-sized political, philosophical and moral disagreements, not be part of the ceremony.
In his farewell letter McCain quoted Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He wrote, “the world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.” But as we all must, he has. He also leaves an indelible legacy.
McCain is survived by his wife and seven children. He is also survived by his 106-year-old mother, Roberta.