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John McCain, Arizona Republican, two-time presidential candidate and decorated Navy vet, dies at 81

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and two-time presidential candidate whose military service, foreign policy gravitas and occasional aversion to party politics made him one of the most influential lawmakers of this generation, has died. He was 81.

McCain’s life in public service spanned six decades and included a career in the Navy, five-and-a-half brutal years as a Vietnam prisoner of war, two terms in the House and six terms in the Senate.

He had been undergoing treatment since July 2017 for glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. It is the same form of cancer that took the life of another Senate stalwart, the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, in 2009.

McCain initially kept a busy work schedule after his diagnosis. In July 2017, weeks after announcing that he had cancer, McCain made a dramatic appearance on the Senate floor to vote against a Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act. His “no” vote helped sink the bill and was an act of political independence that infuriated his GOP senate colleagues and President Donald Trump. But there were signs in recent months that his health was declining.

Last November, he was seen on Capitol Hill using a walking boot — and later, a wheelchair — after sustaining what his office said was a minor tear in his Achilles tendon. The following month, he was in Arizona, not Washington, as his Senate Republican colleagues pushed the final version of major tax legislation through the chamber. And in April, he underwent surgery for an intestinal infection. On Aug. 24, his family announced he was no longer seeking treatment for his cancer, saying “the progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict.” He died the next day.

WASHINGTON DC - JANUARY 14: Senator John McCain heads to the Washington Reagan Airport on a bus January 14, 2000 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Sen. John McCain speaks to reporters as he arrives for a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington,D.C.. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Even as his condition worsened, McCain stuck to the “maverick” persona he cultivated earlier in his political career, a label he embraced and used as a selling point to voters during his campaign for president in 2008.

“Sometimes it’s meant as a compliment, sometimes it’s not,” McCain said as he accepted the GOP’s presidential nomination at the 2008 Republican National Convention, referring to the maverick reputation. “What it really means is, I understand who I work for. I don’t work for a party. I don’t work for a special interest. I don’t work for myself. I work for you.”

McCain in many ways represented a dying breed in the Senate: a member with the experience, stature and willingness to forge lasting relationships across the aisle. McCain partnered with then-Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, on his signature legislative achievement, a campaign finance overhaul that became law in 2002. McCain was also part of two failed bipartisan efforts to pass comprehensive immigration legislation.

In the final months of his life, a steady stream of Republicans and Democrats made the pilgrimage to his ranch in Arizona to pay their final respects. They included Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close friend of McCain’s, and former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat who for years before the White House served with McCain in the Senate.

“He was a great fire who burned bright, and we lived in his light and warmth for so very long. We know that his flame lives on, in each of us,” his daughter Meghan tweeted Saturday.

“He passed the way he lived, on his own terms, surrounded by the people he loved, in the the place he loved best,” McCain’s wife Cindy tweeted after the news of his death.

The outpouring of public condolences since McCain’s death — including from President Donald Trump, who tweeted his “deepest sympathies and respect” to McCain’s family Saturday — speaks to a lengthy political career that stretched back nearly four decades. McCain’s congressional tenure coincided with broad economic and political changes in the country and within the Republican Party, which transitioned during his time in Washington from a party defined by the traditional conservatism of the Reagan era to one led by a populist, unorthodox outsider in Trump.

McCain’s final years in politics were defined by his opposition to the president. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump criticized McCain’s status as a war hero, and the veteran senator never seemed to forget it. McCain was a frequent and vocal critic of Trump’s policies and rhetoric, including in his latest book, “The Restless Wave,” which was published in May.

“The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values,” McCain wrote.

But politics was McCain’s second calling. Before he was a politician, he was a Navy pilot, and during his time in the military he confronted some of war’s worst horrors firsthand. The year 1967 was especially dark: He survived a deadly fire at sea only to be taken prisoner by North Vietnam a few months later, an experience that would help mold his political views and solidify his dedication to public service.

Navy beginnings

John Sidney McCain III was born on Aug. 29, 1936, on an American military base in the Panama Canal Zone, where his parents — Roberta McCain and John Sidney McCain, Jr. — were stationed. McCain’s father, a Navy officer at the time, rose to the rank of admiral by the late 1960s and eventually assumed command of U.S. forces in the Pacific. McCain’s grandfather, John Sidney McCain, Sr., was promoted to admiral posthumously after commanding a naval battle group in the Pacific during World War II.

Childhood in his Navy family meant moving from school to school. But after spending some of his teenage years at an all-boys boarding school outside Washington, D.C., McCain set off — like his father and grandfather before him — for the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

The senior McCains went on to become admirals, but the late Robert Timberg, a McCain biographer, has noted that they were among the lower-ranking midshipmen in their respective classes at the academy. In this respect, McCain also followed suit: He graduated fifth from the bottom of his class in 1958 before moving on to become a Navy pilot.

McCain’s Navy career eventually put him in the middle of the Vietnam War. He was aboard the U.S.S. Forrestal on July 29, 1967, the day a rocket accidentally fired on the deck of the aircraft carrier while it was in the Gulf of Tonkin, setting off a chain reaction that caused the Forrestal to go up in flames. The fire and explosions on board killed more than 130 servicemembers, and the accident remains one of the worst American naval disasters of the last several decades.

McCain was injured aboard the Forrestal, but was in the air again that October, taking off on a bombing mission from a different vessel, the U.S.S. Oriskany.

In a firsthand account that was published in a May 1973 issue of U.S. News & World Report, McCain recalled how a “missile the size of a telephone pole” blew apart the right wing of his A-4 Skyhawk bomber. McCain ejected from his stricken plane and landed in a lake near Hanoi, where he was pulled out, beaten and captured as a prisoner of war.

HANOI, VIET NAM:  A photo taken in 1967 shows US Navy Airforce Major John McCain being examined by a Vietnamese doctor. John McCain, current US presidential hopeful, was captured in 1967 at a lake in Hanoi after his Navy warplane was been downed by Northern Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War. One of his rescuers said 24 February 2000, McCain was well treated after being pulled from the lake by villagers. McCain said that upon capture he was beaten by an angry mob and bayoneted in the groin.  (B/W ONLY) AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/Getty Images)

A photo taken in 1967 shows US Navy Airforce Major John McCain being examined by a Vietnamese doctor in Hanoi. (AFP/Getty Images)

It was the beginning of a brutal ordeal that lasted more than five years. In that time, McCain endured beatings, torture and solitary confinement, especially early on during his captivity. Still, around the time his father took charge of the Pacific Command, in the summer of 1968, McCain defied his North Vietnamese captors and refused their offers of early release, because it would have meant being released ahead of other U.S. service members who were captured before him.

Freedom for McCain did not come until March 14, 1973. “We had been peaked up so many times before,” McCain wrote in his U.S. News account that year, “that I had decided that I wouldn’t get excited until I shook hands with an American in uniform. That happened at Gia Lam, and then I knew it was over.”

“There is no way I can describe how I felt as I walked toward that U.S. Air Force plane,” he recalled.

The politician

McCain took time to heal after he returned home, but his recovery would be never be complete. Later in life, McCain still had difficulty raising his arms above his head, which helped account for his go-to gesture on the campaign trail: both arms outstretched, at shoulder height, hands waving stiffly at supporters. As he dealt with his lingering injuries, McCain delved into studies at the National War College in Washington. Around that time, in the late 1970s, he also got his first glimpse of politics while working as the Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate.

There were changes in McCain’s personal life during that period as well. In 1980, he divorced his wife of 14 years, Carol Shepp, with whom he had a daughter, Sidney. Not long after, McCain married Cindy Lou Hensley, the daughter of a wealthy beer distributor. And in 1981 McCain retired from the Navy, giving up the chance to earn his own admiral’s stars.

It was all politics from there. In the 1982 midterm elections, McCain, who had moved by then with his family to Arizona, won a race to replace a retiring Phoenix-area congressman. Four years later, Arizona elected him to the Senate to replace another retiring politician, Barry Goldwater, a former Republican presidential nominee and conservative titan from an earlier era.

McCain’s rise in American politics was swift. A New York Times story from August 1988 called the freshman senator “the Senate’s young man in a hurry.” But he would soon be entangled in an influence-peddling scandal, the shadow of which presented McCain’s young political career with its first serious challenge.

McCain was among the “Keating Five” senators who came under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee for their ties to Charles Keating, a bank executive and prominent political donor. The five senators had met with a federal regulator who was probing Keating’s bank, Lincoln Savings & Loan, which eventually failed during the so-called “savings and loan” crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

President George Bush addresses reporters at the White House, October 23, 1992, on the release of documents by Hanoi on Americans missing in Southeast Asia. Bush, with Senator John McCain (L) and Senator John Kerry, said the information will allow the United States to "begin writing the last chapter of the Vietnam War." REUTERS/Mike Theiler US ELECTIONS  AS - RP1DRICQWWAB

John McCain, left, with Senator John Kerry and President George H.W. Bush at the White House in 1992. Photo by REUTERS/Mike Theiler

The lengthy congressional investigation included multiple public hearings, which McCain, the lone Republican among the “Keating Five,” later called “a public humiliation.” In the end investigators cleared McCain, though they issued him a lesser reprimand for “poor judgment.” (They handed down harsher rebukes to some of the other “Keating Five” senators.)

Still, the brush with scandal left a deep impression on McCain, who wrote about the investigation in “Worth the Fighting For,” the 2002 book he co-wrote with speechwriter Mark Salter, who also co-wrote McCain’s new memoir.

“I still wince thinking about it,” McCain wrote, “and find that if I do not repress the memory, its recollection still provokes a vague but real feeling that I had lost something very important, something that was sacrificed in the pursuit of gratifying ambitions, my own and others’, and that I might never possess again as assuredly as I once had.”

Whatever his feelings, McCain worked hard at the time to put the scandal behind him. His profile rose during the First Gulf War and in the years that followed, as he carved out a niche in the Senate as an expert on military and foreign affairs. On domestic policy, McCain staked out a hawkish stance on government spending. He also became a leading advocate for campaign finance reform, a cause that helped McCain position himself as a foe of business-as-usual politics in Washington.

Eventually, those priorities would double as themes for a national campaign.

Candidate McCain

McCain ran as an anti-establishment candidate in the 2000 GOP presidential primaries, pitching himself to voters as a moderate Republican who was willing to challenge the political status quo. But he faced serious headwinds from the start. Republican Party leaders and donors largely lined up behind McCain’s main opponent, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the son of a former president and a talented retail politician who was viewed by many on the right as the party’s best hope of recapturing the White House.

Bush and his campaign, flush with cash, touted his experience running one of the country’s biggest states. Bush also highlighted his faith and conservative social values at a time when many Republicans were eager to elect someone who could stand in sharp contrast to Bill Clinton, the outgoing Democratic president, whose presidency had been nearly derailed by a sex scandal.

Despite his underdog status, McCain gained traction in New Hampshire, the site of the year’s first primary. He dubbed his campaign bus “The Straight Talk Express,” and promised as much as he rode from town hall to town hall.

Shadows from waiting media fall upon Republican presidential hopeful John McCain and his wife Cindy as they arrive for the Raymond town meeting January 29. McCain is making his way around the state in frantic bid to win the Febraury 1 primary.  KL/JP - RP2DRHYURPAB

McCain, pictured with his wife Cindy arriving at an event in Raymond, New Hampshire on Jan. 29, 2000. (KL/JP)

“I am speaking plainly,” he told voters at one Rotary Club meeting there. “And I’m not going to do anything that, at the end of this campaign, if you vote for me, that you will say, ‘Gee, McCain told me something there at the Rotary Club in New Hampshire, and he was down in South Carolina and said something else. And then he was in California and said something else.’”

“In other words,” he continued, “I’m not going to disappoint you.”

McCain surprised the political world by beating Bush easily in New Hampshire. As he celebrated that night with supporters, McCain hailed his win as “a powerful message to Washington that change is coming.”

His momentum was stymied soon afterwards, however, as the primary race turned to South Carolina and the Bush campaign stepped up its criticism of McCain with a flurry of attack ads. McCain also became the target of a racist, unsubstantiated rumor that he had a black child out of wedlock. The rumor was spread through phone calls to voters where they were asked if they would support McCain if they knew he had an illegitimate black child. It took hold with Republicans in the state even though all four of the children John and Cindy McCain had together — daughters Meghan and Bridgette, who was adopted from Bangladesh, and sons Jack and Jimmy — appeared on the campaign trail with their father. (Bush campaign officials have denied that they were behind the attack.)

Regardless of who was responsible, the damage was done. Voters in South Carolina’s Republican primary ended up siding with Bush over McCain. Despite McCain’s defiant primary night remarks to supporters — “I will not take the low road to the highest office in this land,” he vowed — his campaign never recovered. It folded weeks later.

Return to the Senate

It was Bush’s Republican National Convention that summer. And McCain, on the sidelines, was openly downplaying, at least in public, any talk of having presidential ambitions in the future.

He broached the topic in an interview during the convention with the PBS NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer. “Certainly, it’s been put in deep cold storage,” McCain said of his desire to become president. “In 2004, I expect to be campaigning for the re-election of President George W. Bush. And by 2008, I think I might be ready to go down to the old soldiers’ home and await the cavalry charge there.”

Instead, the Arizona senator, with his broader national profile, plunged back into his legislative work. Within two years, McCain clinched his signature legislative achievement: the bipartisan “McCain-Feingold” campaign finance law, which placed a new limit on individual and corporate donations to national political parties. Reformers applauded the law, saying that it would reduce the influence of special interests and give small donors more say. Critics argued the law would have the unintended consequence of empowering outside groups that do not have to disclose their campaign spending, and also give rise to a new era of secret, so-called “dark money” spending in politics.

U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) get a briefing from General David Petraeus (2nd R), U.S. Commander in Iraq, and an unidentified military escort (L) as they visit the Shorga marketplace and interacted with local merchants while walking the streets of Baghdad April 1, 2007. Photo taken April 1, 2007. REUTERS/Sergeant Matthew Roe/10th Public Affairs Operations Center/Handout  (IRAQ).  EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. - GM1DUYLXNSAA

McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., get a briefing from General David Petraeus during a visit to Baghdad in 2007. Photo taken April 1, 2007. Photo by REUTERS/Sergeant Matthew Roe/10th Public Affairs Operations Center/Handout

The skeptics, it turned out, had cause for concern: outside political groups — aided by subsequent Supreme Court rulings that loosened campaign finance laws — have seen their influence rise steadily in recent years. Nevertheless, the law was seen at the time as an important step forward, and remains the last major campaign finance measure to come out of Congress.

McCain also joined forces with some Democrats in efforts to overhaul the country’s immigration laws, and to preserve the Senate’s filibuster rules. At the same time, he clashed with the Bush administration on its push for tax cuts, and soured, over time, on its handling of the Iraq War. But even as the American death toll mounted and public opinion of the war eroded, McCain helped lead calls for a “surge” of U.S. troops into the country, and voiced support for then-Army Gen. David Petraeus’ plan to turn the tide there.

“We who are willing to support this new strategy, and give General Petraeus the time and support he needs, have chosen a hard road,” McCain admitted during an April 2007 speech at the Virginia Military Institute. “But it is a right road. It is necessary and just,” he said, adding, “I would rather lose a campaign than a war.”

The speech, in many ways, was classic McCain. It embodied his sense of duty and belief in taking a principled stand, politics be damned. But his support for the troop surge aligned him more closely with Bush at a time when many Americans had grown weary of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would come back to haunt McCain when he ran for president again, this time against a young senator from Illinois.

McCain vs. Obama

His presidential ambitions having thawed from the “deep cold storage” he described after his first loss, McCain formally launched his second campaign for the White House in April 2007 in a speech in New Hampshire.

This second presidential bid seemed doomed early on. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and other Republicans soaked up attention and fundraising, and McCain was forced to shrink his campaign staff and rely on New Hampshire to save his campaign. It did. Republican primary voters there rewarded McCain again and vaulted him back into contention. The South Carolina primary, which derailed his 2000 bid, fell his way as well. He pressed ahead from there, through Florida, Super Tuesday, and eventually, to the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

The revelry of the night he accepted the nomination gave way to a rocky fall campaign. McCain was pitted against the Democrats’ pick, Sen. Barack Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois who had become the first African-American presidential nominee from either of America’s two major parties. Obama drew large crowds to his events and his campaign set fundraising records.

At 47, Obama was also significantly younger than his 72-year-old opponent, and represented a new era of leaders who came of age after the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal — events that had shaped the perspective of politicians of McCain’s generation.

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain and vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin wave to supporters at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota on Sept. 4, 2008.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES)  US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA) - GM1E4950W7P01

McCain and vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin wave to supporters at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota on September 4, 2008. Photo by REUTERS/Rick Wilking

In part to reduce the enthusiasm gap between the campaigns, McCain gambled by selecting a little-known politician, first-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as his running mate. She helped the campaign draw energetic crowds, too, and the anti-establishment tone of her stump speeches lined up with parts of McCain’s message. But Palin quickly proved to be a major liability, famously displaying a weak grasp of foreign and domestic policy in a series of damaging interviews on national television. (In his recent memoir, McCain defended Palin’s performance that fall, but also said he wished he had gone with his gut instinct and chosen then-Sen. Joe Lieberman, a centrist Democrat from Connecticut, as his running mate.)

McCain’s selection of Palin, who had little exposure to national politics before joining the Republican ticket, undercut his main argument against electing Obama: that voters should not take a chance on a young and inexperienced politician. Nevertheless, McCain relied on that message in the presidential debates that fall, repeatedly asserting that Obama wasn’t experienced enough in politics and policy to protect the country from crises abroad and at home. Obama, meanwhile, made the argument that McCain’s politics and policies bore too much of a resemblance to those of the sitting Republican president.

“I am not President Bush,” McCain told Obama during their third debate. “If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.”

The defense didn’t work. In the end, the party led by McCain and Bush could not hold off what turned out to be a wave of support for the Democrats. McCain, whose campaign had also stumbled in responding to the start of the financial crisis, lost the popular vote by more than 9 million votes, and voters put Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time since the early 1990s.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain (L) and U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (R) take part in the first U.S. presidential debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, September 26, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/Pool  (UNITED STATES)   US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA) - GF2E49R05J001

McCain and Barack Obama take part in the first U.S. presidential debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, on September 26, 2008. Photo by REUTERS/Jim Bourg/Pool

McCain did not wait long that night to concede. And when he did, he acknowledged the historical significance of Obama’s win, and urged the country to try and bridge its differences after a heated campaign.

“Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans,” McCain said in his concession speech. “And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.”

The final years

McCain remained a force in the Senate even as his career there stretched into fifth and sixth terms. He became a staunch critic of Obama’s foreign policy and eventually came to wield the gavel of the powerful Armed Services Committee.

There were also shifts in his politics, as McCain tried to balance his own bipartisan instincts with the demands of Arizona’s conservative base. On immigration, for instance, he was part of a 2013 bipartisan push to overhaul the country’s immigration laws, even after he took up a more conservative tone in a 2010 re-election ad, supporting efforts to “build a dang fence” along Arizona’s border with Mexico.

But his “maverick” tendencies persisted as well. He had already been diagnosed with brain cancer when he chastised the Trump administration last year, without referring to the Republican president by name, for letting “some half-baked, spurious nationalism” drive its foreign policy. And it was his dramatic “no” vote last year that sank a Republican proposal to repeal Obama’s health care law. McCain’s criticism of Trump and opposition to the health care repeal drew ire from some conservatives, who never forgave him for supporting the bipartisan immigration plan.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attends the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on worldwide threats in Washington, D.C. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

McCain attends the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on worldwide threats in Washington, D.C. on March 23, 2017. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

At the time, the Republican-controlled Senate was struggling to clear any major legislation. McCain was frustrated, and he let it show, in what turned out to be one of his final floor speeches. “We’re getting nothing done, my friends! We’re getting nothing done,” he warned.

For most of his 15 minutes on the floor, McCain dwelt on the Senate’s dysfunction, and urged his colleagues to find a way to break it. But as stern as his warnings were, McCain struck a warm tone as well, using the occasion to reminisce on past successes: Those times he helped forge bipartisan solutions to national problems, he said, were the proudest moments of his career.

“Make no mistake, my service here is the most important job I have had in my life,” he assured fellow senators. “It is an honor to serve the American people in your company.”

After offering one last thanks to his Senate colleagues, he ended his speech, and yielded the floor.

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