Who Was John McCain?
The son of a decorated Navy admiral, John McCain was born at the Coco Solo Naval Station in Panama on August 29, 1936. He enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy and was dispatched to Vietnam, where he was tortured as a prisoner of war between 1967 and 1973. After his release, McCain served as a Republican congressman and senator from the state of Arizona, earning renown as a “maverick” who challenged party orthodoxy. He launched a bid for the U.S. presidency in 1999 and earned the Republican nomination in 2008, before losing to Barack Obama. After winning a sixth Senate term in 2016, McCain made headlines for his opposition to Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare and his battle with brain cancer. A day after deciding to stop treatment for his cancer, McCain died at his home in Sedona on August 25, 2018.
John Sidney McCain III was born on August 29, 1936, at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone (then a U.S. territory), the second of three children born to naval officer John S. McCain Jr. and his wife, Roberta. Both McCain’s father and paternal grandfather, John S. McCain Sr., were four-star admirals, with John Jr. rising to command U.S. naval forces in the Pacific.
McCain spent his childhood and adolescent years moving between naval bases in America and abroad. He attended Episcopal High School, a private preparatory boarding school in Alexandria, Virginia, until graduating in 1954.
Combat Duty and Vietnam POW
Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, McCain graduated (fifth from the bottom of his class) from the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1958. He also graduated from flight school in 1960.
With the outbreak of the Vietnam War, McCain volunteered for combat duty and began flying carrier-based attack planes on low-altitude bombing runs against the North Vietnamese. He escaped serious injury on July 29, 1967, when his A-4 Skyhawk jet was accidentally shot by a missile on board the USS Forrestal, causing explosions and fires that killed 134.
On October 26, 1967, during his 23rd air mission, McCain’s plane was shot down during a bombing run over the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. He broke both arms and one leg during the ensuing crash. McCain was moved to Hoa Loa prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton,” on December 9, 1969.
His captors soon learned he was the son of a high-ranking officer in the U.S. Navy and repeatedly offered him early release, but McCain refused, not wanting to violate the military code of conduct and knowing that the North Vietnamese would use his release as a powerful piece of propaganda.
McCain eventually spent 5 1/2 years in various prison camps, 3 1/2 of those in solitary confinement, and was repeatedly beaten and tortured. He was finally released, along with other American POWs, on March 14, 1973, less than two months after the Vietnam ceasefire went into effect. McCain earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.
Though McCain had lost most of his physical strength and flexibility, he was determined to continue serving as a naval aviator. After a painful nine months of rehabilitation, he returned to flying duty, but it soon became clear that his injuries had permanently impaired his ability to advance in the Navy.
Arizona Congressman and Senator
McCain’s introduction to politics came in 1976, when he was assigned as the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate. In 1981, after marrying his second wife, Cindy Hensley, McCain retired from the Navy and moved to Phoenix, Arizona. While working in public relations for his father-in-law’s beer distribution business, he began establishing connections in politics.
McCain was first elected to political office on November 2, 1982, easily winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after his well-known war record helped overcome doubts about his “carpetbagger” status. He was reelected in 1984.
Having adapted well to the largely conservative politics of his home state, McCain was a loyal supporter of President Ronald Reagan’s administration and found his place among other “New Right” politicians.
In 1986, after the retirement of longtime Arizona senator and prominent Republican Barry Goldwater, McCain won election to the U.S. Senate. Both in the House and the Senate, McCain earned a reputation as a conservative politician who was unafraid to question the ruling Republican orthodoxy. In 1983, for example, he called for the withdrawal of U.S. Marines from Lebanon, and he later publicly criticized the administration’s handling of the Iran-Contra affair.
Beginning in late 1989, McCain was subjected to investigations by the FBI and the Senate Ethics Committee. As one of the “Keating Five,” McCain was accused of improperly intervening with federal regulators on behalf of Charles H. Keating Jr., a prominent donor and chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings & Loan Association, who eventually was imprisoned for fraud. McCain was cleared of improper actions, although investigators declared that he had exercised “poor judgment” by meeting with the regulators.
Campaigns for President
McCain weathered the scandal and won reelection to the Senate in 1992 and 1998, each time with a solid majority. His reputation as a “maverick politician” with firm beliefs and a quick temper only increased, and many were impressed by his willingness to be open with the public and the press. He worked diligently in support of increased tobacco legislation and reforming the campaign finance system, at times professing more liberal views and generally proving to be more complex than a strict conservative.
In 1999, McCain published Faith of My Fathers, the story of his family’s military history and his own experiences as a POW. He also emerged as a solid challenger to the front-runner, Governor George W. Bush of Texas, for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Many people from both political parties found his straight talk refreshing. In the New Hampshire primary, McCain won by a surprisingly wide margin, largely bolstered by independent voters and crossover Democrats.
After a roller-coaster ride during the primaries—Bush won South Carolina, while McCain captured Michigan and Arizona—Bush emerged triumphant on “Super Tuesday” in early March 2000, winning New York and California, among several other states. Though McCain won most of the New England states, his large electoral deficit forced him to “suspend” his campaign indefinitely. On May 9, 2000, after holding out for two months, McCain formally endorsed Bush.
McCain was back in the headlines in the spring of 2001, when the Senate debated and eventually passed, by a vote of 59-41, a broad overhaul of the campaign finance system. The bill was the fruit of McCain’s six-year effort to reform the system, along with Democratic Senator Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin. Central to the McCain-Feingold bill was a controversial ban on the unrestricted contributions to political parties known as “soft money.” The new law was narrowly upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003.
McCain supported the Iraq War, but criticized the Pentagon several times, especially about low troop presence. At one point, McCain declared that he had “no confidence” in the leadership of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. McCain supported the 2007 surge of more than 20,000 troops, which supporters said increased security in Iraq.
McCain also publicly supported President Bush’s bid for reelection in 2004, although he differed with Bush on several issues, including torture, pork barrel spending, illegal immigration, a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and global warming. He also defended the Vietnam War record of Bush’s opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, which came under attack during the campaign.
With Bush limited to two terms, McCain officially announced his entry into the 2008 presidential race on April 25, 2007, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Not long after, he secured the Republican nomination in the election. After officially becoming the Republican Party’s nominee, McCain delivered a speech: “Now, we begin the most important part of our campaign: to make a respectful, determined and convincing case to the American people that our campaign and my election as president, given the alternatives presented by our friends in the other party, are in the best interests of the country we love,” he said.
However, McCain was occasionally overshadowed by the attention devoted to his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and was unable to combat the tide that was carrying Illinois Senator Barack Obama to historic heights. Obama wound up handily winning the 2008 election with almost 53 percent of the popular vote, garnering 365 electoral college votes to 173 for McCain.
Presidential Candidate Support
At the Republican National Convention in 2012, McCain showed his support for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan. In his convention speech, McCain emphasized a need for change in American foreign policy and new military action in the Middle East, specifically in Syria and Iran.
He began his narrative by noting the outcome of the 2008 election: “I had hopes once of addressing you under different circumstances. But our fellow Americans had another plan four years ago, and I accept their decision,” he said. “When we nominate Mitt Romney, we do so with a greater purpose than winning an advantage for our party. We charge him with the care of a higher cause. His election represents our best hopes for our country and the world.”
Butting Heads With Donald Trump
Four years later, McCain found himself at odds with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. In response to McCain’s criticism that Trump “fired up the crazies” in the Republican party, Trump mocked McCain’s military service on the campaign trail. “He was a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said about McCain being held as a POW. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
McCain wound up grudgingly endorsing the Republican nominee, only to withdraw his support after The Washington Post released a 2005 recording in which Trump lewdly described kissing and groping women. Regardless, Trump prevailed with a stunning Election Day win over Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016, while McCain celebrated his own reelection to the Senate for a sixth term.
President Trump’s administration began amid a swirl of controversy over allegations of Russian interference in the recently completed campaign, a situation that drew the attention of McCain as chair of the Senate Armed Service Committee. McCain made clear his support of the intelligence community’s assessment that Russians had attempted to sway the election outcome, as well as his displeasure of Trump’s friendly overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Health Care Holdout and Tax Reform
On July 25, 2017, less than two weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a blood clot from above his eye and learning he had a brain tumor, McCain made a dramatic return to the Senate to vote to proceed on repealing Obamacare legislation. He also delivered a memorable speech to his colleagues, in which he urged Republicans and Democrats to put aside their differences and work together, but also warned that he would not “vote for the bill as it is today.”
Early in the morning of July 28, McCain made good on his word. Called to the Senate to vote on the “skinny repeal” bill, he was seen conferring with several prominent senators, as well as Vice President Mike Pence, before delivering his decisive “no” vote to torpedo the bill’s chances of passing.
Two months later, when Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy spearheaded another attempt at repealing Obamacare, McCain again announced that he would not back the legislation. “I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats, and have not yet really tried,” he said. “Nor could I support [the bill] without knowing how much it will cost, how it will affect insurance premiums, and how many people will be helped or hurt by it.”
In late November, as Senate Republicans sought to push through a new tax bill, McCain announced that this time, his party had his support. “After careful thought and consideration, I have decided to support the Senate tax reform bill,” he said in a statement. “I believe this legislation, though far from perfect, would enhance American competitiveness, boost the economy, and provide long overdue tax relief for middle class families.” Aided by McCain’s crucial vote, the Senate tax reform bill barely passed in early December.
Even while away from the Senate to deal with health issues in early 2018, McCain demonstrated that he would continue to speak out when necessary. This time, the issue was a controversial House memo that purportedly demonstrated how the FBI and DOJ abused authority when obtaining a wiretap warrant for a Trump campaign associate. Although many Republicans supported the public release of the memo as evidence of bias against Trump, McCain was among those who expressed concern that it would prove damaging to the intelligence community.
“The latest attacks against the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests—no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s,” McCain said. “The American people deserve to know all the facts surrounding Russia’s ongoing efforts to subvert our democracy. … If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him.”
McCain also sought to remain involved in the ongoing debate over immigration reform by teaming with Delaware Senator Chris Coons to propose legislation. In April, he said that the president’s comments about withdrawing troops from Syria had emboldened Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, his words seeming prophetic when al-Assad was accused of launching deadly chemical attacks against his people later in the month.
In August 2018, President Trump fired another round in his longstanding feud with the senator when he signed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act and thanked several people, but never once mentioned the man whose name graced the bill. McCain took the high road by declining to call attention to the snub, writing on his website, “I’m proud the NDAA is now law & humbled Congress chose to designate it in my name. As Chairman of the Armed Services Cmte, I’ve found high purpose in service of a cause greater than self—the cause of our troops who defend America & all that she stands for.”
Book: ‘The Restless Wave’
In late April 2018, McCain released an excerpt of his upcoming memoir, The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations, in which he delves into the discovery and fallout of his cancer diagnosis, leaving him in a position where he is now free to “vote my conscience without worry.”
Befitting his status as an elder statesman, McCain warns his Senate colleagues against “secluding ourselves into ideological ghettos” with increasing reliance on personalized news sources and like-minded communities. “Before I leave I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations,” he says. “I would like to see us recover our sense that we are more alike than different.”
The Restless Wave excerpt also had McCain musing on his own mortality, with a nod to For Whom the Bell Tolls: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it,” he writes. “I hate to leave it. But I don’t have a complaint. Not one. It’s been quite a ride. I’ve known great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war, and helped make a peace. I made a small place for myself in the story of American and the history of my times.”
McCain married Carol Shepp, a model originally from Philadelphia, on July 3, 1965. He adopted her two young children from a previous marriage, Doug and Andy Shepp, and in 1966 they had a daughter together, Sidney. The couple divorced in April 1980.
McCain met Cindy Lou Hensley, a teacher from Phoenix and daughter of a prosperous Arizona beer distributor, while she was on vacation in 1979 with her parents in Hawaii. McCain was still married at the time, but separated from his first wife. John and Cindy were married in Phoenix on May 17, 1980. They have four children: Meghan (born in 1984), John IV (known as Jack, born in 1986), James (known as Jimmy, born in 1988) and Bridget (born in 1991 in Bangladesh, and adopted by the McCains in 1993).
In August 2000, McCain was diagnosed with skin cancer (he had lesions on his face and arm, which doctors determined were unrelated to a similar lesion he had removed in 1993). He subsequently underwent surgery, during which all the cancerous tissue was successfully removed. McCain also underwent routine prostate surgery for an enlarged prostate in August 2001.
Brain Cancer Diagnosis
On July 14, 2017, McCain underwent a procedure to remove a blood clot from above his left eye at the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix. The operation led to the discovery of an aggressive, malignant brain tumor known as glioblastoma, a condition that had killed McCain’s former Senate colleague Edward Kennedy.
After undergoing his first round of chemotherapy and radiation in mid-August, McCain announced that he would continue working at the Senate between treatment stints.
McCain’s daughter Meghan tweeted a photo with her dad on a hike after his diagnosis.
In December 2017, it was revealed that the senator had been hospitalized for a viral infection and was heading home to Arizona for treatment. Although he expressed hope that he would return to the Senate early the following year, McCain’s recuperation continued well into the spring of 2018.
On April 16, McCain’s office released a statement that said the senator was in stable condition after undergoing surgery to treat an intestinal infection, and offered a progress report of his activity since leaving Washington.
“Over the last few months, Senator McCain has been participating in physical therapy at his home in Cornville, Arizona, as he recovers from the side effects of cancer treatment,” the statement said. “He has remained engaged on his work as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and has enjoyed frequent visits from his family, friends, staff and Senate colleagues. Senator McCain and his family are grateful to the senator’s excellent care team, and appreciate the support and prayers they continue to receive from people all over the country.”
End of Treatment and Death
On August 24, 2018, a statement from the McCain family announced the senator would forego further treatment for his cancer. “With his usual strength of will, he has now chosen to discontinue medical treatment,” said the statement. “Our family is immensely grateful for the support and kindness of all his caregivers over the last year, and for the continuing outpouring of concern and affection from John’s many friends and associates, and the many thousands of people who are keeping him in their prayers. God bless and thank you all.”
On August 25, just one day after the announcement, McCain died at his home in Sedona, Arizona, at age 81.
His daughter, Meghan, released a statement that said: “I was with my father at his end, as he was with me at my beginning. … All that I am is thanks to him. Now that he is gone, the task of my lifetime is to live up to his example, his expectations, and his love.”
The senator’s wife, Cindy, also shared heartfelt thoughts on Twitter: “My heart is broken. I am so lucky to have lived the adventure of loving this incredible man for 38 years. He passed the way he lived, on his own terms, surrounded by the people he loved.”
Two days after his death, McCain’s office released a posthumous letter from the senator, in which he implored Americans to come together one more time. “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,” said the letter. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
“Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here,” the letter continued. “Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”
Meanwhile, the lingering feud between McCain and Trump continued when the president declined to issue a formal statement marking the senator’s death, in place offering condolences to his family via Twitter, and with the White House only briefly lowering its flag to half-staff before returning it to full height by August 27. Bowing to pressure, Trump released a statement later that day in which he acknowledged McCain’s service to the country and had the flags lowered again.
Five days of memorial tributes for McCain began August 29, with his body brought to the Arizona Capitol to lie in state. A memorial service took place at the North Phoenix Baptist Church the following day, with the senator’s 106-year-old mother, Roberta, expected to attend the funeral in Washington, D.C., on September 1.