John McCain has died of brain cancer, Vietnam War hero and senator was 81
Many people have disproved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s axiom that there are no second acts in Americans lives. But Sen. John McCain proved there can be third and even fourth acts.
Mr. McCain, veteran of the Vietnam war, more than 35 years in Washington, two presidential campaigns and countless personal and political revivals, died Saturday after a year-long bout with brain cancer, leaving a legislative legacy unmatched by any Republican of his generation.
His family announced his death in a statement from his Senate office, just a day after saying he was ending his treatments after more than a year of fighting his latest cancer diagnosis.
“The progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict. With his usual strength of will, he has now chosen to discontinue medical treatment,” the family said in a statement, though they pointed out Mr. McCain had already “surpassed expectations” in surviving more than a year since the diagnosis.
He’d been absent from the Senate since December, battling the disease from his home near Sedona, Arizona and using his final months to complete one last book, welcome visitors from among the political elite and weigh in from afar about the goings-on back in Washington.
Both President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were favorite targets for the ailing senator, who saw both of them as dangerous to the international order.
In Washington, Mr. McCain was one of the few grandees who managed to transcend party, serving at times as a loyal Republican and other times as a massive thorn in the side of the GOP. He staked out issues that won him adulation from a liberal press and made him a popular legislative companion for Democrats, even as his own party leaders steamed.
One of his final votes in the Senate last year was dealing the fatal blow to Mr. Trump’s plan to repeal Obamacare.
Mr. McCain showed an early talent for both winning friends and infuriating people at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, where the yearbook dubbed him “the Punk.”
“His magnetic personality has won for him many life-long friends. But, as magnets must also repel, some have found him hard to get along with,” the editors concluded.
Also clear from the start was that Mr. McCain was headed for a life in the Navy, where he was a legacy. His father, Admiral John S. McCain Jr., attended. So did his father’s father, Admiral John S. McCain Sr. And like them, Mr. McCain battled against the rules and regimentation of the school, coming in near the bottom of his class.
His path to Naval greatness took a detour through Vietnam, where he repeatedly sought combat duty, surviving the fire on the U.S.S. Forrestal before being shot down while on a bombing mission Oct. 26, 1967.
His North Vietnamese rescuers first bayonetted him and smashed his shoulder, then took him to the infamous prisoner of war camp dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.” Beatings were frequent over the next five and a half years, and he was tortured into making an anti-American propaganda “confession” at one point. Yet after his father was made commander of all American forces in the Vietnam war and his captors offered him early release, hoping for a propaganda victory, he refused.
Released in 1973, Mr. McCain stayed in the Navy and eventually wound up in Washington as a service liaison to Congress.
With chances for advancement in the Navy dim, his time on Capitol Hill set him on the path to a second career in politics. Along the way he divorced his first wife and quickly remarried to Cindy Hensley, who was from Arizona.
In 1982 he would win election to a U.S. House seat from Arizona, and in 1986 won his Senate seat, becoming one of the rare lawmakers whose influence ran from legislating to investigating to budgeting, and he excelled at each.
His name adorns the most important campaign reform legislation in history, the 2002 McCain-Feingold law; he launched the probe that exposed the corrupt dealings of megalobbyist Jack Abramoff; he led the effort to end interrogation tactics such as waterboarding that were used during the war on terror; and he railed against pork-barrel spending such as the Bridge to Nowhere, eventually helping end the practice of lawmakers tucking pet projects into massive spending bills.
“It’s pretty hard to think of any serious issues facing our nation without recalling the role John played,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after paying a visit to Mr. McCain in Arizona in early May.
His legislative dominance was matched by a personality that was at times gallant and other times truculent toward presidents, congressional colleagues, military leaders, Capitol Hill and administration staffers, and reporters.
That latter category he sometimes referred to as his “constituency,” a recognition of the on-again, off-again affair the American media had with the man they dubbed “the maverick.”
Reporters particularly loved chronicling Mr. McCain’s feuds with fellow Republicans, and it was the press that boosted Mr. McCain before and during the 2000 presidential campaign, then helped cement him as a legislative force on Capitol Hill. It helped that in many of his crusades, such as campaign finance or immigration reform, the battles he fought were in line with the editorial policies of the country’s dominant media establishment.
His penchant for bipartisanship went so far that in 2004 in between his two runs for president as a Republican Democrats sounded him out about being their vice presidential nominee.
He was also one of the country’s most ardent supporters of the men and women serving in the military, though the same could not be said for the top brass, who regularly faced withering questions from Mr. McCain in the Armed Service Committee, which he chaired at the time of his death.
* * *
It’s a bizarre twist of history that America, which has loved its war heroes as presidents, elected three draft-avoiders from the Vietnam era to the Oval Office, while rejecting two men who actually served, in John F. Kerry, the former senator and secretary of state, and Mr. McCain.
The first of Mr. McCain’s rejections came in 2000, when he faced off against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the GOP primary. Mr. McCain scored a surprising showing in New Hampshire but was unable to overcome the inevitability of a second Bush in the White House.
Eight years later Mr. McCain tried again, emerging as the early favorite on the GOP side for a country that had wearied of Mr. Bush. Again Mr. McCain stumbled early, overspending and struggling in the polls.
He cut his staff back so much that he famously began to carry his own bags on the campaign trail. The bare-bones approach fit him well, and he easily surmounted Mitt Romney to claim the party’s nomination.
Any other year he would have been formidable in a general election but eight years of Mr. Bush, and the enticing opportunity for voters to elect the first black president in Democratic nominee Barack Obama, were again too much for him to surmount.
Mr. McCain responded to the losses with characteristic self-deprecating humor.
“I’ve been sleeping like a baby,” he told late-night show host Jay Leno after his 2008 defeat. “Sleep two hours, wake up and cry, sleep two hours, wake up and cry.”
Mr. McCain survived scandals that doomed his colleagues, emerging scarred but no less powerful in the corridors of Congress, nor less beloved by the press.
And when he did penance, the country did it along with him.
That was the case after he was snared in the Keating Five, when a handful of senators were accused of flexing their influence to try to head off a federal investigation of a wealthy Phoenix businessman. After reprimands and admonishments by the Senate ethics committee in 1991, most of the senators announced retirements.
Mr. McCain was chastened, but turned the episode into a defining political moment. He began to rail against the system he blamed for allowing corruption into Congress, resulting in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as McCain-Feingold.
The law was controversial from the beginning indeed, even as he signed the bill Mr. Bush said parts of it were unconstitutional.
Mr. McConnell led the push against his fellow Republican senator, even taking the matter to the Supreme Court. Mr. McCain’s law prevailed in the first go-around in 2003, but by 2010 the high court had whittled it down, leaving the chaotic, interest group-dominated system that prevails today.
Mr. McConnell said he and Mr. McCain spent a decade in that fight, then worked to rebuild their relationship afterward: “You’d rather be on his side than not,” the Kentucky Republican concluded.
Mr. McCain also teamed up with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 2006 to write a massive immigration overhaul. McCain-Kennedy became the blueprint for every comprehensive immigration bill since, even though Mr. McCain himself wasn’t always on board, saying at times that the country needed more border security first.
Mr. McCain and Mr. Kennedy came to symbolize the era of Big Legislators senators who struck deals, made compromises, then built their own coalitions, even if it meant going around party leaders.
Yet Mr. McCain also wasn’t bound by past stances, including on immigration, where he would take a stiffer stance toward the illegal side of the equation in his 2008 presidential campaign, only to emerge a legalization support after his loss.
One area on which Mr. McCain had no such wobbles was pro-life issues, where the movement counted him among their best supporters.
He was also wary of Russia and warned Americans to be wary of Mr. Putin early on. After Mr. Bush said saw in the Russian leader’s eyes the look of a man who could do business, Mr. McCain retorted that when he looked at Putin, “I saw three letters: K-G-B.”
The inability to pigeonhole Mr. McCain has often confounded voters, and he is more beloved among Democrats than in his own party. That’s particularly true in Arizona, where a CBS News poll in June found 62 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of him, compared to just 20 percent of the GOP.