Arizona Senator John McCain’s words filled the air at a press conference on Monday, August 27, 2018, at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix. Since the 81-year-old senator had died the previous Saturday at his home in Arizona, the words were read by Rick Davis, McCain’s former campaign manager and family spokesperson. The end of his life was not a surprise for McCain. He had been fighting a brain tumor since doctors first discovered it in 2017. In his final days, the senator no doubt gave much thought to his life and political career, as his farewell statement showed.
“My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for sixty years, and especially my fellow Arizonans,” McCain began. “Thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.”
Born in 1936, McCain would go on to serve the United States both as a Navy pilot and as a member of Congress.
The son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals, McCain also pursued a career in the Navy. His time at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, gave little indication of his future achievements. Argumentative and rebellious, young McCain found himself frequently in trouble with his superiors. Academically, when he graduated from the academy in 1958, he was ranked 893rd out of 899 members of his class.
“I was something of a discipline problem to begin with,” McCain admitted later in life. “The problem being, I didn’t like discipline.”
His father and grandfather had made their military careers commanding aircraft carriers and submarines. Instead, John McCain became a pilot. In 1967, while fighting in the Vietnam War, the 31-year-old McCain’s airplane was shot down over the North Vietnamese city of Hanoi. Although he was able to reach the ground by parachute, he suffered broken arms and a shattered leg.
McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese and imprisoned. At the time, his father was about to be named commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean. Once his Vietnamese captors realized who McCain was, they knew they had a powerful weapon. Having the son of a U.S. naval commander as a prisoner could lift the confidence of North Vietnamese citizens, as well as weaken U.S. resolve to fight the war. It was later reported that the North Vietnamese had remarked, “We have the crown prince.”
What followed was several years of mistreatment by his North Vietnamese captors. When they asked if he wanted to be released early, McCain refused. The U.S. military code of conduct required captured prisoners to be released in the order they were imprisoned. Also, McCain knew that being released early, just as his father was assuming command of the Pacific, would have sent the wrong message to Americans.
Eventually, mistreatment at the hands of his captors took a toll on the Navy pilot. He agreed to sign a confession admitting to “black crimes.” “I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point,” McCain later wrote. “I had reached mine.” However, most people in the U.S. at the time understood that McCain had no choice in signing his name on that document. When he was finally released in 1973, he received several service awards including the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit. John McCain was welcomed home as a hero.
McCain continued his career in the Navy. In 1977, he became the U.S. Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate. He was attracted to the functions of government, saying that this appointment was “his real entry into the world of politics and the beginning of my second career as a public servant.”
Then, he relocated to Arizona. In 1982, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. After two terms in the House, McCain was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986. Although a Republican and political conservative, McCain started to gain a reputation as a maverick. Sometimes he would support issues in defiance of Republican party leaders, while at other times he would compromise with Democratic senators. On issues like military spending, gun control, and labor, McCain stood with fellow Republicans. Then again, he might unexpectedly break with Republican ranks. For example, even though he had been held captive in Vietnam as a war prisoner, he became a strong advocate for restoring U.S. diplomatic relations with that country.
Eventually, he set his sights on the U.S. presidency. In 2000, McCain lost the Republican presidential nomination to George W. Bush. However, in 2008, his luck was to change, as he won his party’s nomination. He ran against Democrat Barack Obama. McCain’s campaign benefitted from his national name recognition, his work on campaign finance reform, and a reputation for straight talk.
McCain would reinforce his reputation as a maverick with an unexpected decision. The candidate chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate. Many people were excited to have a woman in such an important political role. Palin was the first Republican and just the second major party woman nominee for vice president. However, some voters questioned Palin’s qualifications. Also, if McCain won, at age 72, he would be the oldest person in history to serve as president. If he were to die while in office, some argued, Palin was not skilled enough to take over his position.
McCain would eventually lose to Obama. Some critics said that Obama’s campaign was simply too well organized for McCain to defeat. Others pointed out that McCain suffered from the political environment created by then president and fellow Republican George W. Bush. Bush’s approval ratings had dropped significantly because of an unpopular U.S. war in Iraq and a widespread economic crisis. Obama received 53 percent of the popular vote while McCain received 46 percent. McCain’s 173 Electoral College votes were no match for Obama’s 365.
“Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did,” Obama remarked upon hearing of McCain’s death. “But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means.”
Throughout his career, McCain’s ideas continued to be shaped by the time he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
“I have spent time in the company of heroes,” he said in an address to graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy in 1993. “I have watched men suffer the anguish of imprisonment, defy appalling cruelty until further resistance is impossible, break for a moment, then recover inhuman strength to defy their enemies once more. All these things and more I have seen. And so will you. I will go to my grave in gratitude to my Creator for allowing me to stand witness to such courage and honor. And so will you.”