Sen. John McCain died about a month ago, just a few days short of his 82nd birthday. Especially considering what his body and mind endured 1967-73, it is a testament to his stamina and stubbornness that he lived that long before brain cancer finally overcame his indomitable spirit.
McCain was born in 1936 on a Navy base in the Panama Canal zone, the son and grandson of two four-star admirals. He followed in the family tradition and attended Annapolis, where he was known for his leadership among his peers, his rebelliousness, and partying –– which probably contributed to a ranking near the bottom of his graduating class.
His career as a Navy aviator began shakily with two crashes and a collision with power lines during his training years. He was known for “pushing the envelope.”
McCain served with heroism as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and received numerous awards. On his 23rd bombing mission in 1967, he was shot down and captured by the Vietcong. His wounds were left untreated for months by his captors, and he was subjected to regular beatings and torture at “the Hanoi Hilton,” the most notorious Vietnamese POW camp.
The enemy’s efforts to extract a bogus “confession” from McCain taught him, as he later acknowledged, that everyone had a breaking point. McCain refused to allow the Vietnamese to win a propaganda victory by releasing the son of an admiral. He insisted that he remain imprisoned until all those captured before him had been set free.
When he was finally released, McCain had some difficulty adjusting to life back in the United States. His first marriage eventually failed, due partly to his infidelity (a subject that I wrote about in a Chieftain column in 2008), and probably partly to the pressures that all war veterans endure after their return to civilian life.
But in fairness to McCain’s decent character, it should be noted that he remained on good terms with his first wife and the children from his first marriage throughout his life, and that his second marriage to Cindy and his family life thereafter were a lifelong success.
One of my favorite quotes from the “straight-talking” McCain came in response to a voter in Arizona, who accused him of being a “carpetbagger” when McCain first ran for the U.S. House in 1982.
McCain’s response to the man went like this: “Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My father was 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 .”
Needless to say, McCain won that race, and he served in the House for four years before advancing to the Senate, where he served for 32 more until his death.
Some of his greatest achievements as a Senator probably won him more praise from Democrats and Independents than they did from Republicans. His signature accomplishment was the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act, but also noteworthy were his bipartisan efforts to help restore the normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam and his less successful but persistent attempts to improve immigration policies.
McCain ran for president twice, in 2000 and 2008. His primary battle against George W. Bush was thwarted in South Carolina, after a particularly venomous smear campaign against him took its toll. He lost an honorable battle against Barack Obama in 2008.
One of his best moments in that campaign came in response to a voter who accused Obama of being “an Arab.” McCain politely but bluntly replied, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
McCain was a man of principle, but also one who knew the value of respect and forgiveness. It is a lasting tribute to his spirit that he honored both President George W. Bush and President Obama by inviting them to deliver eulogies at his funeral. His pallbearers included friends from both sides of the aisle.
It is also telling that he requested that President Trump and his former running mate, Sarah Palin, not be invited to his funeral. Even as he faced death, McCain understood that our country deserves a high standard of dignity and tolerance among those who are expected to make a good faith effort to solve the nation’s problems.
John McColgan writes from his home in Joseph.