John McCain, who went from Vietnam War hero to become “the Maverick of the Senate,” died Saturday of brain cancer at his home in Phoenix at his home in Arizona. He was 81. He family had announced August 24 that he was discontinuing treatment for his aggresive glioblastoma.
The son and grandson of Navy admirals who have a warship named for them, McCain represented Arizona in the Senate more than 30 years. He was a decorated naval aviator who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and spent 5½ years in captivity. He was offered an early release but refused, citing the military’s moral code. His father, John McCain Jr., was commander-in-chief of the Pacific Command during most of his imprisonment. The younger McCain’s experience as a POW led him to be a leading voice against so-called “enhanced interrogation,” otherwise known as torture.
Donald Trump famously derided McCain’s war service during his 2016 presidential bid but got elected anyway. “He’s not a war hero,” then-candidate Trump claimed. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” After his cancer diagnosis, McCain his siad one of his final wishes was that Trump not attend his funeral.
McCain’s failed GOP presidential bid in 2008 against Barack Obama raised questions about his judgment when he selected as his running mate Sarah Palin, a little-known Alaskan governor who was widely seen as a sop to the far-right Tea Party. Even so, Hollywood Republicans – including Robert Duvall, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Jerry Bruckheimer, James Caan, Jon Cryer, Jon Voight, Connie Stevens, Kelsey Grammer, Erik Estrada, Patricia Heaton and many others – endorsed McCain, who also had run in 2000 against eventual POTUS George W. Bush and was on the shortlist to be George H.W. Bush’s running mate in the 1988 election.
McCain was lauded on both sides of the aisle when he defended his Democratic opponent during a rally a month before the 2008 election. A woman took the microphone and, standnig maybe a foot away from McCain, said to his face: “I can’t trust Obama. … He’s an Arab.” The candidate took the mic, shook his head and said, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family-man citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.” It was a memorable moment; watch it starting at the 0:43 mark below:
Obama would win the White House in 2008 with a 365-173 margin in the electoral college and 52.9% of the popular vote.
McCain’s maverick spirit played out in dramatic fashion in September 2017. As the GOP-led Senate seemed poised to approve Trump’s touted repeal of Obamacare, McCain returned to Capitol Hill from Arizona, still weak from his emergency brain surgery, and cast the deciding vote to defeat it. In a widely seen theatrical moment on the Senate floor, he held out his right arm for a few moments before pointing a thumb down and saying with emphasis, “No.” The move drew gasps and brief applause. Watch the moment and its immediate aftermath below:
A hardliner on foreign policy, McCain often bucked his own party on domestic issues. “I’m proud of my record of reform, taking on my own party,” he once said. As one of the authors of the McCain-Feingold bill that limited “soft-money” in political campaigns, he gained some measure of redemption for his own brush with political scandal when he was accused of improperly intervening in 1987 on behalf of Charles Keating, the disgraced chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings. The Senate Ethics Committee later cleared McCain but criticized him for showing “poor judgment” in the matter, which cost taxpayers more than $3 billion.
In his failed bid to win the 2000 Republican nomination for president, McCain advocated campaign finance reform and opposed tax cuts for the wealthy. “There’s a growing gap between the haves and have-nots in America,” he said, “and that gap is growing and it is unfortunately divided up along ethnic lines.”
Unlike Trump and his anti-science followers, McCain also believed in evolution and climate change. “Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming or the precise timeline of global warming,” he said on the campaign trail in 2008, “we need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters, and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring.”
He said: “I believe in evolution, but I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.”
Unlike Trump, who has called the press “the enemy of the American people,” McCain was a staunch defender of the First Amendment. “We need a free press,” he said. “We must have it. It’s vital.” And whether he proves prophetic or not, he also said: “Thank God for our form of government. The media won’t let there be any cover-up.” He wasn’t so sure about Fox News, however. “I think that Fox News is a bit schizophrenic,” he said in 2013.
Never one to mince words and possessed of a sharp wit, McCain generally was readily available to the media. He holds the record for most appearances on NBC’s Sunday Beltway show Meet the Press, having surpassed Bob Dole in 2012 and racking up more than 70 visits in all.
Bucking another Trumpian trend, he also backed the doomed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, which would have granted amnesty and a pathway to citizenship to 12 million undocumented immigrants. “I defend with no reservation our proposal to offer the people who harvest our crops, tend our gardens, work in our restaurants, care for our children, and clean our homes a chance to be legal citizens of this country,” he said.
In a Deadline interview with Ken Burns, the director of The Vietnam War docuseries, referred to McCain as a “unvarnished hero of the kind our draft-deferred current president could never be, because courage and heroism involve sacrifice in the name of something bigger, and in the service of others, and this president doesn’t do anything that isn’t for himself, and has no real concept of the other.”
McCain also irked some GOP colleagues by voting for two gun-control measures in 2016 that would have expanded background checks and allowed the Attorney General to delay the purchase of a firearm for three days and permanently block the purchase if a court finds there is probable cause the applicant has committed or will commit terrorism.
HBO Documentary Films produced John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, an in-depth docu that aired on Memorial Day 2018.
McCain also was in the news this past summer when White House aide Kelly Sadler made what she said was a “joke” about his opposition to Trump’s pick of Gina Haspel as CIA director, saying that it did not matter because “he’s dying anyway.” She was fired weeks later, but not before the senator’s daughter — a co-host of ABC’s The View since October 2017 — called Sadler out on-air, saying, “The thing that surprised me most is, I don’t understand what kind of environment you’re working in where that would be acceptable, and then you can come to work the next day and still have a job.”
On the lighter side, McCain a 2002 episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, appearing as Attorney General John Ashcroft in a sketch that lampooned MSNBC’s Hardball and as himself on Meet the Press in another. The first sitting senator to host SNL, he would retun the show a number of times, with comic timing and self-deprecating humor intact. He also appeared as himself in a 2015 episode of the Peacock’s long-running sitcom Parks and Recreation, starring SNL alum Amy Poehler, and often was a guest on late-night talk shows. McCain famously jabbed at Jon Stewart during his final episode as host of The Daily Show in 2015. Appearing as the puppeteer of a Stewart dummy, he mocked: “‘’I’m Jon Stewart. I’m dumb, I’m stupid.’ Nyah-nyah-nyah! So long, jackass.” Watch it starting at the 1:13 mark below:
His daughter Meghan McCain has been a co-host of ABC’s The View since Octoiber 2017.
His epitaph might do well to cite a line from a speech he gave at the Reagan Forum in 1998: “I am a proud Republican, but my pride obligates me to speak in opposition to ideas that are at variance with our principles, whether those ideas are proposed by Democrats or Republicans.”
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.