John McCain, Senator and Presidential Candidate, Dies at 81
John McCain left an indelible imprint on American politics over the course of more than three decades in Congress. His party’s nominee in the 2008 presidential election, the former prisoner of war established a reputation as an elder statesman on Capitol Hill, where he decried the role of big money in the election process, and was a leading voice on everything from military and foreign policy, to immigration and health care reform.
With his death on Aug. 25 from an aggressive form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma, McCain leaves behind a complicated legacy. A self-styled maverick, McCain could often frustrate presidents from his own party. He famously emerged as a critic of the Bush administration’s interrogation methods and treatment of detainees in Iraq, and cast the decisive vote that helped kill Republican efforts to repeal parts of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
His independent streak had its limits, though. On his path to winning the GOP nomination in 2008, McCain moved rightward, courting evangelical pastors he once derided as being “the outer reaches of American politics.” And despite his stated frustrations with partisan extremes and political tribalism, his selection of Sarah Palin to serve as his running mate is widely credited with helping to give rise to an anti-elite, anti-establishment movement that continues to roil Republican politics.
As the nation mourns McCain’s passing, we look back at key chapters from his life, drawn from our documentary, McCain.
A Prisoner of War
In 1967 at the age of 31, McCain was shot down on a bombing raid over Hanoi, captured and held prisoner by the North Vietnamese. During his captivity, McCain’s captors threatened and beat him to force him to confess to war crimes.
“There was the sheer pain of it and the deprivation and the humiliation,” said Orson Swindle, a fellow American prisoner and friend of McCain’s, in a 2008 interview with FRONTLINE. “We had to endure it 24 hours a day, seven days a week for five, six, seven, eight, nine years.”
McCain, afraid that he would break under torture, tried to take his own life. He failed, and more beatings followed. Eventually, McCain signed and recorded a confession that was broadcast as North Vietnamese propaganda. In a 1999 autobiography, he wrote, “I couldn’t rationalize away my confession. I was ashamed. I felt faithless and couldn’t control my despair.”
His captors offered McCain — the son of the admiral in charge of Pacific command — an early release. McCain refused, believing this was an effort to embarrass his father. It would take almost five more years before he was free.
It was a defining experience for McCain — one that would inform how he approached allegations that American soldiers tortured prisoners in Iraq.
The Keating Five Scandal
Two years into his career as a senator, McCain became embroiled in a Washington controversy that would come to be known as the Keating Five scandal. Five senators, including, McCain, were accused of intervening with federal regulators on behalf of a prominent donor named Charles Keating. The FBI dug into the case, as did Congress.
McCain was cleared of wrongdoing, but as John Weaver, his chief political adviser from 1997 to 2007 told FRONTLINE, “McCain understands, and he’ll admit, that when his obituary is written, the Keating scandal will be somewhere high in the obituary. And so he understands the dark stain that that had on his career.”
A First Run For the White House
As the Republican Party became more ideological under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, McCain charted his own course. He called members of the religious right “agents of intolerance.”
In 1999, McCain launched his first run for the Republican nomination as a self-styled political maverick. His campaign bus was dubbed the “Straight Talk Express,” and backed by a coalition of moderates and independents, he defeated the establishment favorite George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary.
Two weeks later, Bush would beat McCain in the South Carolina primary — a race that turned ugly with a smear campaign that had many in the state falsely believing that McCain’s wife, Cindy, was a drug addict and that McCain had “fathered an illegitimate black child,” a reference to the couple’s daughter Bridget, who was adopted from Bangladesh.
Bush won the presidency, and McCain, back in the Senate, decided to focus on his own agenda.
“McCain came out of the 2000 campaign drawn to the idea that he had become a brand,” said journalist Ron Brownstein. “He represented something to the American public of independence, pragmatism, bipartisanship. And he moved very aggressively to maximize the leverage of that brand legislatively.”
McCain fought the administration on tax cuts. Though he was initially a vocal advocate of the Iraq war, he criticized the strategy, especially after the emergence of photographs showing U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
A Second Run for the Presidency
By 2007, McCain was once again positioning himself for a run for the White House. This time, rather than run as an outsider, he’d move closer to the party faithful on everything from the Bush tax cuts and the president’s controversial plan to change Social Security, the rights of detainees and enhanced interrogation. Importantly, he embraced the evangelical pastors he once called “agents of intolerance.”
He also sought desperately to win over conservatives, but even with the endorsement of President George W. Bush, many were unhappy to have him as their candidate. There was a growing problem: The president’s support among the base was deteriorating.
“I think what McCain did, which almost killed him, was he tried to become Mr. Insider and he tried to become Mr. Establishment,” Gingrich, speaker from 1995 to 1999, told FRONTLINE. “And the truth was, it didn’t work. I mean that nobody believed it on either side.”
A Maverick Picks an Insurgent
Facing a formidable opponent in the 2008 presidential election, McCain picked Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska, as his running mate. Though few realized at the time, the decision would mark a turning point for both the Republican Party and American politics.
“Palin’s arrival on the scene is the opening chapter, in a way, of the transformation of the Republican Party into the Tea Party movement, the idea that we are going to reward people who want to blow up the system, who are bomb throwers, who are firebrands, who appeal to anger, who appeal to grievance,” Peter Baker of The New York Times told FRONTLINE.
Palin held tremendous appeal for the GOP’s base, and became the voice of a growing number of Republicans who were fed up with politics as usual. In choosing her as his vice-presidential candidate, McCain helped usher in an anti-establishment, anti-elite politics of grievance that continues to reverberate today.
Taking a Stand
As President Donald Trump pushed his first major legislative initiative — a repeal of President Obama’s signature health care legislation — McCain was a key vote. On the night of the vote, Vice President Mike Pence pressured McCain to support the president. When it came time for him to vote, McCain walked up to the vote clerks, lifted his hand and made a thumbs-down gesture, casting a decisive vote that killed the repeal effort.
“He knew that this was his one last chance to really take a stand, capture the nation’s imagination in the process, but also remind this party that they have to do things differently,” said journalist Ed O’Keefe.