In Memoriam: John McCain

On Saturday, August 25th, Senator John McCain of Arizona passed away at the age of 81 after a year-long struggle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. McCain’s struggle with the disease, since July 2017, was well-publicized, and his death came after the announcement on August 24thby his family that he was suspending treatment. Still, the death of one of its most august statesmen shocked the nation. McCain had not resigned from the Senate at the time of his passing, so his over thirty-year term of service ended with his tragic death.

Image Courtesy of USA Today

Image Courtesy of USA Today

While it is proper to mourn the loss of such a committed public servant, it is also bittersweet and fitting to remember his achievements, his failures, and his triumphs. McCain, lauded perennially as a war hero, survived prisoner of war detention and torture at the hands of Communist North Vietnam. He survived brutal captivity and won elected office within a decade following his release. McCain, over his enduring career in the U.S. Congress, distinguished himself as a maverick, willing to buck party orthodoxy or prevailing trends of public opinion. His two unsuccessful presidential campaigns, most recently in 2008 as the Republican nominee, have left a lasting impact on the character of the GOP.

Growing Up McCain

McCain was born into a long tradition of American military service. His forefathers had fought in nearly every engagement of American forces, including the American Revolution, the War of 1812, both sides of the American Civil War, and World Wars I and II. While John McCain II was stationed at the Panama Canal, Roberta Wright McCain gave birth to John McCain III on August 29, 1936.

As his father was stationed around the globe, McCain traveled extensively in his early childhood. Eventually, McCain’s family settled in Northern Virginia, where he attended a private school that instilled discipline in the younger McCain. While not a distinguished student, McCain scored well enough on the entrance exam to attend the United States Naval Academy; both his father and grandfather were graduates. McCain never excelled academically, placing 894thout of 899 in his class, but his courage and loyalty would later come to defy any sort of numerical ranking.

Serving the United States

When McCain received his commission on June 4, 1958, the Vietnam War had been raging for nearly 3 years. Trained as a naval aviator, McCain earned a reputation as a risk-taker. McCain managed to balance his military life with personal life, marrying Carol Sheep in 1965. However, 1965 also marked the start of Operation Rolling Thunder, signaling a major escalation of the Vietnam War by the Johnson Administration.

In 1967, McCain would have his first brush with death when the USS Forrestalcaught fire. While attempting to save another pilot from an enflamed jet, he was injured by shrapnel to his legs and chest. Later in the same year, he would earn a Navy Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star Medal for flying missions under difficult circumstances and lengthy shifts. Then on October 26, 1967, John McCain would face the greatest trial of his life as his plane was shot down over Vietnam.

The words of David Foster Wallace, an American author and journalist who followed McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, describe best the events that would follow:

Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you…

Captured, tortured, and denigrated to the breaking point, his fellow prisoners did not expect McCain to survive. At the age of 31, his hair had turned white and until the day he died, he could not raise his arms high enough to comb his hair. His captors discovered his father was the commander of all U.S forces in Vietnam; he received an offer for an early release. Even after being held in solitary confinement, subject to round-the-clock torture, he did not concede. John McCain refused to be released, unless every other POW was released, resulting in even more torture.

Slowly, other prisoners were released as the war devolved into incompetent escalation. But even McCain had reached his limit—eventually taping a confession that the Vietnamese would use for their deplorable propaganda efforts. McCain later wrote of his coerced complicity in propaganda, “there is never enough time and distance between the past and the present to allow one to forget his shame.”

By December 1972, the war was reaching its end as the Christmas Bombing Campaign showcased American projection directly into Hanoi. Back at home the Anti-War movement was in full force, culminating with Jane Fonda’s infamous visit to North Vietnam. Both domestic and foreign pressures ultimately led to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973. Finally, after five and a half years in captivity, John McCain was released on March 14, 1973, earning the Silver Star Medal, the Legion of Merit, three Bronze Star Medals, an additional Navy Commendation Medal, and the Purple Heart. Though they could not heal his lasting physical and psychological wounds, these medals honored his ability to place others, and service to his country, above his own wellbeing.

Becoming the “Maverick”

McCain first won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1983 from Arizona’s 1stcongressional district. He had emerged from a hotly contested Republican field to claim the nomination and win the seat of a retiring longtime incumbent. At the time, McCain fully affiliated himself with the Reagan Republican tide sweeping the GOP. In the House, his early opposition to the creation of a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day lingered with him for much of his political career. Still, his two terms as a Representative positioned him well for higher political office.

In 1986, McCain won election to succeed Arizona Senator and Republican icon, Barry Goldwater, who was retiring from Congress. He was a member of the Armed Service Committee and worked to advance Native American issues as a member of the Indian Affairs Committee.

As his first term in the Senate progressed, McCain became embroiled in a major national political scandal as a member of the so-called “Keating Five,” a group of five senators accused of corruption. McCain had received donations from banker Charles Keating Jr. and his firm, and was accused of intervening on behalf of Keating when his financial institution came under a federal regulatory investigation. Eventually, two of the Keating Five, Senators McCain and John Glenn (D-Ohio) were cleared of any wrongdoing but were criticized for their “poor judgment.”  Both would later win reelection.

Following the experience of the Keating Five scandal, McCain became a committed advocate of campaign finance reform. Forming a lasting alliance with Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, McCain fought tirelessly to limit the influence of “soft money,” private contributions to political parties and committees, on elected figures. Though much of the public was sympathetic to McCain and Feingold’s campaign finance reforms, their draft legislation was met in the Senate with fierce opposition from both parties and filibustered.

McCain’s maverick reputation continued to develop through this period. He distinguished himself by voting to confirm President Bill Clinton’s liberal Supreme Court nominees, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He broke with most Republicans to challenge the tobacco industry, winning the support of the Clinton administration in these efforts. He later voted to convict President Clinton in his 1999 trial following his impeachment by the House of Representatives. In 1999, McCain and Feingold were awarded the Profile in Courage Award by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, for their efforts to enact campaign finance reform.

Running for President

In late 1999, McCain announced his candidacy for the presidency, challenging Texas Governor George W. Bush for the nomination. McCain’s campaign efforts were centered around the early New Hampshire primary and his platform appealed to independent voters. His campaign compensated for lack of funds through direct interaction with the electorate and the use of free media. He won the New Hampshire primary with a resounding 49% to Bush’s 30%, and for a brief moment his campaign seemed unstoppable. McCain’s momentum slowed after a primary defeat in South Carolina, where Bush was better able to mobilize evangelical Christian voters and outspend McCain. Though he achieved a few more primary wins, McCain’s campaign faltered and Bush went on to claim the Republican nomination handily.

After his loss in the 2000 Republican primaries, McCain returned to the Senate as his once-adversary, George W. Bush, went on to win the presidency. His voting record diverged with the positions of the Bush administration early on; he was one of only two Republican Senators to vote against the Bush tax cuts in early 2001 and continued to pursue campaign finance reform legislation opposed by President Bush. His defeat by Bush in the primaries had not dampened his maverick spirit or brought the iconoclastic McCain into line with GOP orthodoxy.

Following the September 11thattacks, McCain supported consensus decisions but also reached across the aisle. He supported the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. He collaborated with then-Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman to establish the 9/11 Commission and co-sponsored the legislation responsible for federalizing airport security.

McCain’s presidential campaign, while unsuccessful, established him as a leader in the GOP and one of the most influential Senate Republicans. In 2002, Senators McCain and Feingold were finally able to their pass their campaign finance reform legislation, which had been in the making for seven years. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, popularly known as “McCain-Feingold,” passed the House and the Senate, with most of its supporting coming from the Democratic Party in addition to a minority of dissident Republicans. Though many of its provisions concerning corporate donations were struck down in Citizens United v. FEC, McCain-Feingold remains the most significant legislative accomplishment of its namesake Senators.

Following victory with electoral reform, McCain took a principled and personal stand against the use of torture on detained combatants in the War on Terror. McCain’s advocacy for human rights in wartime was remarkable, as he brought his own experience as a prisoner of war to bear in the debates. He was a serious opponent of the Bush administration’s policies concerning extrajudicial detention and interrogation at Guantanamo Bay. His opposition came from not only his survival of brutal torture but also his commitment to the rule of law. His position can be summarized with his telling quote, “…even Adolf Eichmann got a trial.” McCain staunchly expressed that the U.S. had to adhere to international conventions of warfare and human rights.

Empowered by his successes and growing reputation, McCain ran in the 2008 presidential election. He triumphed soundly in the primaries, defeating, among others, former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, for the Republican nomination. Contemporaneously, a junior Senator from Illinois, the once obscure Barack Obama, defeated early Democratic favorite Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, to claim the Democratic nomination for the presidency.

John McCain had to fight an uphill battle in the election, as the incumbent Republican President, George W. Bush, was unpopular leaving an economy on the brink of collapse. Furthermore, McCain’s age made the GOP’s VP pick a highly scrutinized decision. The 2008 election was one of the most recent elections where the VP pick of the candidates played a major role in the outcome. Sarah Palin, then the novice Governor of Alaska, originally intended to balance the ticket and disrupt Obama’s momentum, ultimately eroded McCain’s campaign efforts.

Among the major issues of the election was the ongoing war in Iraq, which had been raging on for five years with no end in sight. McCain’s support for the war, resulted in some non-interventionist conservatives voting for Obama instead. McCain campaigned on a platform of tax relief, stronger national security, tighter immigration controls, as well as opposition to universal healthcare and U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Both campaigns found common ground on some issues, promising to keep jobs in America, protect the environment, and encourage legal immigration.

McCain’s defeat was determined largely by circumstance. The escalation of the financial crisis and the advent of the Great Recession overshadowed the historic election of 2008. At the same time, Obama rode on a wave of Democratic Party momentum with a clear message of “Hope” to confront the wars and financial peril. That image, as well as Obama’s rhetorical skills and outsized campaign spending, contributed enormously to the junior senator’s landslide victory over McCain in November 2008.

The Maturing Maverick

Following his crushing defeat, the indefatigable McCain returned to the floor of the Senate. He became a fierce opponent of the earliest policy maneuvers of the Obama administration, from the economic stimulus package to the Affordable Care Act. He continued to support the interventionist foreign policy of the Bush administration, championing the War in Afghanistan. He fought futilely against the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning homosexuals in the armed forces, but compromised on some issues, such as tax relief. Following the outbreak of the Arab Spring, he vocally advocated support and even military intervention on behalf of rebel forces in embattled countries. He was an advocate for democratic movements wherever they arose, even in contentious Ukraine.

McCain’s last few years in the Senate were characterized by concurrent developments in national politics, most importantly the rise of Donald Trump. The animosity between President Trump and Senator McCain began in 2015 during the presidential primaries. At the 2015 Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, Trump claimed that McCain “was a war hero because he was captured.” President Trump, who dodged the Vietnam draft, continually professed his discontent for the Vietnam war and McCain. Their relationship further deteriorated when McCain referred to a group of Trump supporters as “crazies.”

Perhaps McCain’s and Trump’s relationship is explained through the ideological differences, as well as the visions for the Republican party that they hold. Trump, who ran a populist campaign, criticized the Iraq War and President George W. Bush, as the “establishment.” McCain voted conservative inconsistently, had given his support for the Iraq War and the “establishment.” Thus Trump attacked McCain through the 2016 election. While Trump’s attacks were uncouth, Senator McCain eventually declared that he would support the Republican nominee, irrespective of who the nominee was.

It was only when the Hollywood Access tape broke out that McCain withdrew his support for Trump, only one day before the Presidential Election, on November 8th. Yet, while Trump was in office, McCain supported most of Trump’s picks for his cabinet, save for Gina Haspel, and voted for the very popular nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. The perpetual maverick’s most overriding vote came when he infamously voted against repealing Obamacare. Such was the shock and importance of the vote, that many left-leaning outlets claimed the said vote was McCain’s most important one.

After McCain’s passing, tensions could be seen in McCain’s invitation of Presidents Bush and Obama to present eulogies at his funeral, and as well in Trump’s reaction to McCain’s death. When flags were only flown at half-staff for two days, a massive outcry caused President Trump to reverse his decision and extend the mourning period. McCain’s death brought an atmosphere of unity to the country, with officials from all political persuasions recollecting their favorite John McCain story.

Remembering McCain

Senator McCain was no stranger to Dartmouth College. During the 2000 Primaries, McCain campaigned hard in the state of New Hampshire. John McCain even called New Hampshire his second favorite state. Joseph Bafumi, associate professor in the Government Department recalled, “sometimes John McCain was called the third senator from New Hampshire because we liked him so much.” According to former Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Frank J. Reagan Chair in Policy Studies, Linda Fowler, “McCain drew energetic crowds to his events on the Dartmouth campus where students admired his self-deprecating humor, his accessibility to the press, and his candor about his policy positions.”

Former Dartmouth College Professor James Wright said of McCain, “he knew something about the Dartmouth football team and our tradition. I found him very impressive. He was a true hero.” With such fond memories, there is little doubt that McCain was a true friend of the College and the people of New Hampshire.

Senator John McCain’s legacy lives on in his ability to forgive his former enemies. Interestingly, both President Bush and Obama were invited to present the eulogies at McCain’s funeral. In the 2000’s primaries, he faced then-Texas governor George W. Bush, in a highly contested race. McCain was defeated in his bid but would later win the 2008 GOP nomination for President. In the 2008 campaign, many Democrats ruthlessly attacked John McCain portraying him as a warmonger and a racist. In contrast, when an Obama birther told McCain that Obama was “an Arab.” McCain retorted with “No Ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.” McCain’s grace and honor distinguished him even in the heat of fierce competition, and his forgiveness was unremitting.

Senator McCain’s forgiveness has been extended to his past Vietnamese captors. When asked how he felt about the Vietnamese, McCain replied, “I hold no ill will toward them.” Pictures taken after his death show Vietnamese crying and laying flowers on a statue that holds his name. McCain’s compassion and legacy went beyond the borders of America. McCain also supported the Ukrainians and the Kurds in their struggle for freedom when others would not. His encouragement for more transatlantic ties, packaged along with his strong support for better relationships with Taiwan and Pakistan, make him among the few Senators that valued America’s benevolent role on the world stage.

In remembering his long and illustrious career of service, McCain is regarded as the last in a dying breed of “conviction politicians,” who placed their own values over what it is politically convenient or more electable. It is difficult to regard McCain as totally selfless or unerringly principled, given his memorable theatrics and demonstrated ambition. He made mistakes throughout his career, suffered consequences, and learned lessons. Through his travails, he came to embody a purer form of American electoral democracy, in which politicians could not be bought or sold, in which duty to country and principles came above duty to party and special interests, in which people came before personal power. McCain’s maverick personality, his trademark, made him not only a captivating figure but also an unusually thoughtful and decisive politician.

In the weeks, months, and years following McCain’s death, he will be remembered in many different ways; he will be called a war hero, a failed presidential candidate, a legislative legend, and a warmonger. Only time will tell how he is remembered by the great consensus of historians. When we look back at his life, we should view McCain’s story as one of triumph in the face of adversity and absolute personal resolve and commitment. In the span of a single lifetime, he gave everything, up to that last full measure of devotion, for his country. John McCain’s legacy is a torch illuminating a great corridor of history. Looking to the past, it shows us how public servants ought to be, and looking to the future, it shows us what they can be.

R.I.P. Senator John S. McCain III

Thank you for your service.