- Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
- The late John McCain led a remarkable life.
- Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, he served in the Navy, was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, served in the US Senate for 30 years, and ran for president twice.
- He died at the age of 81 in 2018. He would have celebrated his 83rd birthday on August 29, 2019.
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Republican Sen. John McCain died at the age of 81 in August 2018.
The Arizona senator was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer and began treatment for the disease in July 2017. McCain appeared to be undeterred for several months after his diagnosis was made public.
He was seen back at work on Capitol Hill in Fall 2017 and weighed in on major legislative policies, including the annual defense authorization bill and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
McCain made headlines upon his return – including when he dramatically voted no on the Republican version of a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act in July 2017.
His career as a public servant spanned decades of honorable service, and despite some challenges along the way, McCain established himself as a key figurehead of the Republican Party. He was known to buck the GOP’s leadership – earning the nickname “Maverick” – and reach across the political aisle to voice his candid opinions.
Here’s a look back at John McCain’s incredible life.
McCain graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1958 and served as a pilot.
- National Archives
Early in his career in naval aviation, McCain’s flying ability and judgment were questioned after he crashed three planes. His commanders were said to have sarcastically called him “Ace McCain” because of his record.
“John was what you called a push-the-envelope guy,” Sam Hawkins, who flew in McCain’s squadron in the 1960s, told the Los Angeles Times. “There are some naval aviators who are on the cautious side. They don’t get out on the edges, but the edges are where you get the maximum out of yourself and out of your plane. That’s where John operated.”
On October 26, 1967, during the Vietnam War, McCain was flying over Hanoi when a surface-to-air missile hit his plane’s wing, forcing him to eject.
“Some North Vietnamese swam out and pulled me to the side of the lake and immediately started stripping me, which is their standard procedure,” McCain wrote in USA Today.
“Of course, this being in the center of town, a huge crowd of people gathered, and they were all hollering and screaming and cursing and spitting and kicking at me.”
McCain broke both of his arms and his right knee. He had lost consciousness until he hit the water after ejecting from the plane.
McCain was held as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) for five and a half years. He was subjected to torture and solitary confinement in a Vietnamese prison nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Upon learning that McCain’s father was an admiral in the Navy, who would eventually command all US forces in the Pacific, NVA forces provided medical care to McCain. Doctors performed surgery on his leg, according to McCain, but made incorrect incisions on one side and cut all the ligaments.
McCain would spend the rest of his life walking with a noticeable limp.
McCain was released on March 14, 1973.
The North Vietnamese Army had previously offered McCain his freedom, but he refused, thinking that it would bring shame and demoralize his fellow POWs.
Carol, McCain’s first wife, raised three children while he was gone, and was reportedly recovering from a devastating car crash that left her impaired for months.
McCain made several trips back to Vietnam to bridge relations with the US.
McCain would eventually retire from the Navy in 1981 as a captain. His awards include a Silver Star and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
- National Archives
“I have watched men suffer the anguish of imprisonment, defy appalling human cruelty … break for a moment, then recover inhuman strength to defy their enemies once more,” McCain said to the Naval Academy’s graduating class in 1993. “All these things and more, I have seen. And so will you. My time is slipping by. Yours is fast approaching. You will know where your duty lies. You will know.”
Source: Stars and Stripes
Some areas of the prison where McCain was held were converted into a museum, dedicated to the historic link between his service and the Vietnam War.
During a visit to the infamous prison, McCain said he could not forgive the jailers who mistreated and killed fellow POWs.
McCain married Cindy Hensley in 1980 and had a daughter, two sons, and adopted another daughter from Bangladesh.
Source: Los Angeles Times
After serving as a Navy liaison in the Senate, McCain took the leap into politics and was elected to serve Arizona’s 1st Congressional District from 1982 to 1984.
“Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”
“Looking back, I think the race was effectively over right then,” McCain recalled in his autobiography. “But I didn’t know that then. I was just mad and had taken a swing.”
Source: New York Times, AZ Central
After his two terms in the House, McCain sought Arizona’s Senate seat and won a landslide victory in 1986.
- Jim Bourg/Reuters
As a senator, McCain was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He would eventually become the chairman of the committee, weighing in on a variety of matters involving the US military, such as funding and mission scope.
Source: AZ Central
Sen. McCain hit a bump in the road in 1989.
McCain was one of the “Keating Five” – five senators accused of trying to persuade federal regulators to ease up on Charles Keating, a major campaign donor who became financially compromised during the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis.
McCain, who emerged relatively unscathed after the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigation, was found to have exercised “poor judgment.” While the other four senators retired in the 1990s, McCain soldiered on.
“Despite my recovery, the Keating Five experience was not one that I have walked away from as easily as I have other bad times,” McCain said in his memoir.
“Twelve years after its conclusion, I still wince thinking about it and find that if I do not repress the memory, its recollection still provokes a vague but real feeling that I had lost something very important, something that was sacrificed in the pursuit of gratifying ambitions, my own and others.”
Following the scandal, McCain soon earned the moniker of “Maverick,” a term his colleagues from both sides of the political aisle gave him as he advocated for campaign finance reform and sought to end government waste.
- US Senate
In the 1990s, McCain took on special-interest groups like the tobacco industry, and pushed for raising cigarette taxes to pay for anti-smoking campaigns. But McCain’s anti-tobacco bill ultimately fell short after the tobacco industry launched a $40 million PR effort of its own.
“The losers are the children of America,” McCain said.
Regardless of the outcome for some of his ambitious reforms, McCain’s was easily reelected in 1992 and 1998.
Source: AZ Central
McCain would soon became a household name in politics. He set his sights higher and announced in 1999 that he would run for president in the 2000 election.
After losing several states in the primaries to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, McCain withdrew from the race and endorsed Bush.
- Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
One of McCain’s crowning achievements in the Senate was the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002.
McCain, along with Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, helped enact the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, one of the first major amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act.
The legislation was designed to regulate financing for political organizations and curb the influx of soft money.
Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, McCain supported the US-led coalition war in Afghanistan.
- Larry Downing/Reuters
McCain explained his support for Operation Enduring Freedom in a Wall Street Journal opinion column published in October 2001.
“There is no avoiding the war we are in today, any more than we could have avoided world war after our fleet was bombed at Pearl Harbor,” McCain wrote. “America is under attack by a depraved, malevolent force that opposes our every interest and hates every value we hold dear.”
“War is a miserable business. Let’s get on with it.”
McCain also supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and claimed Saddam Hussein was “turning Iraq into a weapons assembly line for al-Qaida’s network.”
- US Army
Although McCain continued to voice his support for US military options in Iraq, McCain later admitted it was a mistake.
“The principal reason for invading Iraq, that Saddam had [weapons of mass destruction], was wrong,” McCain wrote in his memoir.
“The war, with its cost in lives and treasure and security, can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”
Source: USA Today
McCain announced his second presidential bid for the 2008 election.
- Mike Segar/Reuters
McCain gracefully spars with then-Sen. Barack Obama.
McCain secured the Republican nomination in the primaries and faced off against then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the general election.
As McCain trailed behind polls, Obama’s critics sought to discredit him by promoting false theories about his heritage and religion. During a campaign rally in 2008, one of McCain’s supporters explained why she said she did not trust Obama.
“I have read about him, and he’s not, he’s not – he’s an Arab,” the woman said, incorrectly.
McCain quickly grabbed the microphone, shook his head and set the record straight.
“No ma’am,” McCain said, calling Obama “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.”
McCain selects Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate.
- Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters
McCain later said he regretted the decision and wished he selected Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic senator from Connecticut, and his longtime friend, as his running mate.
“It was sound advice that I could reason for myself,” McCain said in his memoir. “But my gut told me to ignore it and I wish I had.”
McCain concedes to Obama in November 2008: “This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.”
On November 5, 2008, McCain formally conceded the election and congratulated President-elect Obama on his victory.
“A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him,” McCain said. “To congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.”
“This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight,” McCain added.
“I’ve always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too.”
As the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain provided legislative oversight of the military and became a leading voice on veterans issues.
- US Marines
But as the chairman of the legislative body of military affairs, McCain also had to account for the military’s failures.
- Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
For the most part, McCain maintained friendly ties with other lawmakers, regardless of their political party.
- Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
In July 2017, McCain announced he had been diagnosed with brain cancer.
- Aaron Bernstein/Reuters
McCain received broad support for his recovery from both sides of the political aisle.
“I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support – unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand-by!” McCain said on Twitter.
But McCain remained strong in his conviction that elected officials should be held accountable for their actions.
None of that changed, even when President Donald Trump took office in 2017.
Prior to making a move to politics, the real-estate tycoon threw verbal jabs at McCain, in part by throwing insulting his military service.
Trump said the former naval aviator “was captured,” and expressed doubt about whether he should be hailed as a hero.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said at a leadership summit in 2015. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
“I think John McCain’s done very little for the veterans,” Trump later said. “I’m very disappointed in John McCain.”
Trump would continued to criticize McCain throughout the first 18 months of his presidency.
McCain frequently called Trump’s rhetoric that he believed was beneath the office of president. On Trump’s controversial performance at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in last month, McCain described it as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
McCain also denounced Trump’s repeated attacks on the press: “Trump continues his unrelenting attacks on the integrity of American journalists and news outlets,” McCain wrote in an op-ed. “This has provided cover for repressive regimes to follow suit.”
A decisive Affordable Care Act vote.
- Senate TV
A few weeks after being diagnosed with brain cancer, McCain returned to the Senate floor and cast a stunning “no” vote that scuttled a “skinny repeal” bill, one of many variations the Republican Party put forward in order to hamstring the Affordable Care Act.
“Watch the show,” McCain said to reporters as he walked into the chamber before the vote.
McCain’s vote that night had been a continued source of ire for Trump, who frequently disparaged McCain during his campaign rallies over the senator’s vote.
McCain also had a gruff, but affectionate relationship with journalists.
- J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters
McCain discontinues treatment for brain cancer.
On August 24, 2018, the McCain family announced he would discontinue his cancer treatment.
“In the year since, John has surpassed expectations for his survival,” McCain’s family said in a statement. “But 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.”
In a passage from his memoir, which was published in May 2018, McCain writes:
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here. Maybe I’ll have another five years. Maybe, with the advances in oncology, they’ll find new treatments for my cancer that will extend my life. Maybe I’ll be gone before you read this. My predicament is, well, rather unpredictable.”
“I have some things I’d like to take care of first, some work that needs finishing, and some people I need to see. And I want to talk to my fellow Americans a little more if I may.”
“It’s been quite a ride.”
- J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters
“It’s been quite a ride,” McCain wrote. “I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.”