Sen. John McCain, American ‘maverick’ and political giant, dies at 81
John McCain, who endured more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam before becoming the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and serving Arizona for more than 30 years on Capitol Hill, died Saturday at age 81.
Destined to be remembered among the political giants of Arizona history, the six-term U.S. senator disclosed in July 2017 that he had been diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer called glioblastoma.
McCain was a two-time presidential candidate, losing the GOP nomination in 2000 to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and the general election in 2008 to then-Sen. Barack Obama.
The unsuccessful White House bids were spotlight moments in a long political career that began with his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982. After two terms, McCain ascended to the U.S. Senate in 1987, replacing legendary Republican U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, who in 1964 was the only other Arizonan to top the national ticket of a major U.S. political party. McCain was re-elected to the Senate in 1992, 1998, 2004, 2010 and 2016. He became Arizona’s senior senator in 1995 and chairman of the influential Armed Services Committee in 2015.
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Often called a maverick, McCain was a complicated personality and will be remembered as the most important political figure to emerge from Arizona in the past 50 years.
He was ensnared by the “Keating Five” scandal of the late 1980s and was deemed by the Senate Ethics Committee to have demonstrated poor judgment by joining four Senate colleagues in meeting with federal thrift regulators on behalf of political benefactor Charles H. Keating Jr., a savings-and-loan tycoon and developer.
It was in the wake of that scandal, in the 1990s and early- to mid-2000s, McCain’s “maverick” reputation began to take shape, as he led fights for campaign finance reform and comprehensive immigration reform and against Big Tobacco. During his 2000 presidential run, McCain famously decried leaders of the Religious Right as “agents of intolerance,” a gutsy fight to pick for a Republican.
In 2015, his own presidential ambitions in the past, McCain clashed with Republican Donald Trump in a public feud that extended into Trump’s time in the White House.
On July 28, 2017, McCain sided with two other GOP senators and all Democrats and cast a crucial vote — a literal thumbs-down on the Senate floor — that stalled Republican efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act, a top Trump priority.
Unlike many of Trump’s GOP punching bags, McCain had the stature to go nose-to-nose with the president.
At one point in the early 2000s, Democrats encouraged McCain to consider switching parties, and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry approached him about serving as his running mate. But later, McCain veered to the right, a source of frequent frustrating to his previous admirers on the other side of the aisle.
Although some on the right sneered at what they viewed as McCain’s coziness with the national media — for years after his presidential run, he was a mainstay on the Sunday television public-affairs shows — McCain often kept local media at arm’s length and once wrote in a book that his long relationship with The Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, could fairly be described as “antagonistic.” However, the relationship with The Republic and other local media improved in later years.
McCain also had a love-hate relationship with his media-promoted reputation as a maverick, relying on it or distancing himself from it as the political circumstances warranted.
“That was a label that was given to me a long time ago,” McCain told The Republic in 2010. “I don’t decide on the labels that I am given. I said I have always acted in what I think is in the best interests of the state and the country, and that’s the way that I will always behave.”
Two presidential runs
McCain proved himself to be a thorn in the side of his GOP rival, Bush, at least early in the first term of Bush’s presidency. The McCain vs. Bush fight in 2000 had taken a bitter turn in the South Carolina primary, where McCain and his allies accused their conservative opponents of trying to smear him and his family.
However, he and Bush reconciled as McCain geared up for his second presidential run. A classic Senate hawk, McCain was a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and strongly supported Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. McCain also was a champion of the surge strategy that Bush employed in Iraq in 2007.
During the 2008 presidential race, McCain had to overcome the lingering distrust of many conservatives who resented his maverick record, which included votes against key Bush tax cuts as well as McCain’s successful push for bipartisan campaign-finance-reform legislation.
His decision to gamble on the untested and little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate was cheered by the conservative wing of the Republican Party but may have hurt the GOP ticket among independent voters.
However, McCain never had much of a chance of defeating Obama, given the political atmosphere of the time.
Voters were widely dissatisfied with Bush, whose approval numbers were bad, and war fatigue had set in. If that wasn’t bad enough, the U.S. economy melted down in September 2008, making it unlikely that another Republican would succeed Bush. The political-science models pointed to a Democratic victory.
“You can’t win with conditions this bad for the incumbent party,” Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said after the election. “And that’s McCain’s consolation: He did reasonably well under extremely difficult conditions. It was never meant to be.”
Looking back at the race in an August 2017 interview with The Republic, McCain largely concurred, though he stressed that Obama deserves the credit for his victory.
“One, Barack Obama was a very, very strong candidate and that’s the most important thing,” McCain said. “Second, when the stock market collapsed, it really sent us into a real drop. Third of all, I guess, Americans were ready for a change, too.
“But I’d like to emphasize the first thing I said: Barack Obama was an incredibly impressive candidate and he did a great job campaigning,” he added.
Taking on new foes
Two years after his White House defeat, the perception of McCain as an establishment moderate was still strong enough to attract a Senate primary challenger from the right: former six-term U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a professional broadcaster who was known as a fierce foe of illegal immigration.
In the year of the conservative “tea party” uprising, McCain took no chances and greatly outspent Hayworth, destroying him in the process with an unrelenting barrage of hard-hitting TV campaign commercials. In one memorable ad aimed at Hayworth’s conservative base, McCain rebranded himself as a border hard-liner by calling for the completion of “the danged fence” between the United States and Mexico. After dispatching Hayworth in the primary, McCain effortlessly clinched a fifth Senate term in the 2010 general election.
Near the end of that term, McCain found himself feuding with celebrity-billionaire-turned-presidential-candidate Trump.
In a notorious July 18, 2015, jab at McCain, Trump said McCain was “a war hero because he was captured” and that he liked “people that weren’t captured.”
Trump also derided McCain as weak on immigration and border security. McCain returned the criticism on a number of issues, including Trump’s approach to foreign policy. In October 2016, McCain finally withdrew his endorsement of Trump after a 2005 recording surfaced of Trump talking about women in crude and vulgar ways.
Their duels may have helped McCain in that they made Democrats’ election-year efforts to tether McCain to Trump, who had made a series of inflammatory comments, all but impossible. McCain effortlessly defeated U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, and dramatically outperformed Trump, who also carried Arizona on Election Day but by a much slimmer margin.