The Slatest

Sen. John McCain, War Hero Turned Presidential Candidate, Dies at 81

Sen. John McCain looks on during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on July 27, 2017.
Sen. John McCain looks on during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on July 27, 2017.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

John McCain, a Vietnam War hero who became one of the most formidable Republicans in Congress throughout a political career that spanned more than three decades, died Saturday. He was 81. The six-term senator died a little over a year after he disclosed in July 2017 that he had been diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. And his death came a day after his family announced Friday that he was ending medical treatment.

“Senator John Sidney McCain III died at 4:28 p.m. on August 25. 2018. With the Senator when he passed were his wife Cindy and their family. At his death, he had served the United States of America faithfully for sixty years,” read a statement issued by the office of Sen. John McCain. His death came after McCain spent an unusual number of months away from the public eye, accepting visits from old friends and colleagues to discuss the meaning of his life and the future of the country.

McCain was a naval officer, a jet pilot and then a prisoner of war when his plane was shot down on a bombing mission over North Vietnam in 1967. He spent more than five years suffering horrific torture and was used for propaganda purposes, which turned him into the most famous prisoner of the war. Then after retiring from the Navy with the rank of captain, he ran for a House seat. He served two terms in the House of Representatives until 1987, and six in the Senate. McCain always represented Arizona, which was the home state of his second wife, Cindy.

McCain quickly emerged as a towering figure who became one of the most powerful forces within the Republican Party. He “seemed his truest self when outraged,” notes the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty. That led him to be known as the GOP’s “maverick” for his penchant to go against the grain and speak up against his party’s leadership. McCain was also known for compromising with Democrats on certain issues, particularly campaign finance reform and immigration.

Despite his successes in Congress, McCain never realized his obvious ultimate dream of becoming president. In 2000 he fought a fierce primary battle against George W. Bush, in which he played the role of little guy fighting against the Republican establishment. Then in 2008 he won the GOP nomination but didn’t even come close and lost badly to Barack Obama. Many have pointed to his selection of Sarah Palin as his vice president as the launching pad for a more populist wing of the Republican Party to gain power, which ultimately led to the election of President Donald Trump years later. In a memoir, McCain expressed regret he did not choose Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent, to be his runningmate.

More recently McCain openly clashed with President Donald Trump and became one of the few voices within the Republican Party willing to stand against the commander in chief. The two had made it clear during the campaign they didn’t like each other and Trump even mocked McCain’s military past: “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Once in office, McCain often spoke up against the president. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” McCain declared after Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. He also famously became the decisive “no” vote on legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

John Sidney McCain III was born on Aug. 23, 1936 at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father was serving in the Navy.

In an interview with CNN in September, host Jake Tapper asked McCain how he wanted to be remembered. “He served his country and not always right. Made a lot of mistakes. Made a lot of errors, but served his country,” McCain said. “And I hope we could add honorably.”

Read more from Slate on John McCain.