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John McCain – Lifetime Achievement

 In this Feb. 18, 2010 file photo, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. listens to a question from the audience at a Veterans Town Hall Meeting in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

In this Feb. 18, 2010 file photo, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. listens to a question from the audience at a Veterans Town Hall Meeting in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

The English poet William Ernest Henley wrote “Invictus” at the turn of the 19th century, roughly 60 years before the birth of John McCain, but Henley might as well have been contemplating McCain’s life.

The poem, read in secret by American prisoners of war in North Vietnam, eloquently expresses the grit and perseverance that McCain, now larger than life, has come to be known. Part of that can be explained by the American public’s tendency toward mythmaking, of which McCain is a happy participant. As Mark Leibovich wrote for The New York Times Magazine, he’s invariably the maverick, the curmudgeon, the war hero, the sore loser, the last lion, the loose cannon, the elder statesman, etc.

But what his supporters and critics can agree on is that behind each caricature is a man who has lived many a night black as the pit from pole to pole, and under the bludgeoning of chance, he is unbowed.

The arch of McCain’s life is well known. Born at the Coco Solo Naval Station in Panama on August 29, 1936, to an illustrious family of sailors, John Sidney McCain followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps by joining the U.S. Navy. He was dispatched during the Vietnam War, when, based on his recollections, a Russian missile the size of a telephone pole blew off his jet’s right wing on his 23rd bombing run.

John McCain while a prisoner of war.

John McCain while a prisoner of war.

He ejected, shattered his right leg and both arms, was pulled out of a lake, and went in and out of consciousness for the next few days.

McCain would spend the next five years in wretched conditions that included beatings and solitary confinement. He refused to be sent home when offered the chance because, he said, he had “no right” to go ahead of other men captured before him.

“When the pressure was on, you seemed to go one way or the other,” he wrote of his captivity. “Either it was easier for them to break you the next time, or it was harder. In other words, if you are going to make it, you get tougher as time goes by.”

That kind of resilience would resurface time and again after McCain came home to the United States and later entered politics, first as a member of the House of Representatives, which he won in 1982, and four years later, as a United States senator.

That’s not to say McCain is without fault. His record will forever be marred by the Keating Five scandal. He was cited by a Senate committee for “poor judgment” – a mild rebuke – for having met with regulators.

His outbursts are legendary. In 2015, McCain said then-candidate Donald Trump’s visit to Phoenix has “fired up the crazies.”

He is famous for his temper, and it’s a testament to his outsized stature that having been at the receiving end of that temper is considered a badge of honor.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake thought he was lucky enough to have escaped it during his 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I got to the Senate and my first vote that I cast was on some obscure Senate rule or part of the rules package,” Flake fondly remembered the episode. “He came over and just let me have it.” Several senators who witnessed it told him, “You’ve been initiated now,” Flake chuckled.

On a more pleasant occasion, Flake said he can’t forget the day he and McCain were on the same plane on the way to Arizona for the funeral of Congressman Bob Stump. Flake, who had just been elected to the U.S. House, had been getting a lot of heat for his opposition to earmarks.

U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake

U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake

“Senator McCain walked back to where I was on the plane and stuck his finger in my chest, and I thought, ‘Oh, no. He’s going to go after me, too,’” Flake said. “He said, ‘Don’t back down.’”

McCain can be stubborn, with humorous results.

Former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl recounted how McCain recoiled at the charge – completely erroneous, Kyl maintained – that the reason he fought for a spot at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport for Arizona’s then hometown airline was so he could take advantage of direct flights.

“At that time, we had to connect in Dallas or Chicago, and flying every weekend – that got old fast,” Kyl said. “Finally, he had enough of the false accusation and blurted out that he would prove it false by refusing to take the direct flight if we got it.”

McCain would continue to change planes in Dallas for years even after getting the slot. “[He] told me that was the second stupidest thing he had done in his life! Second, of course, to running into an anti-aircraft missile over Vietnam Nam, as he joked – self-deprecating humor being another of his traits,” Kyl said.

He is a survivor – of imprisonment, of losing not one but two presidential campaigns (2000 and 2008), of the ideological wars still being fought in his party.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 25, 2017, as the Senate was to vote on moving head on health care with the goal of erasing much of Barack Obama's law. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 25, 2017, as the Senate was to vote on moving head on health care with the goal of erasing much of Barack Obama’s law. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

This year, McCain was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, and he acknowledged that his prognosis is “very poor.”

The possibility that McCain might step down from his U.S. Senate seat is filling some quarters in Arizona with dread.

“The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is one reason that no one stays up worrying about Davis-Monthan or Luke Air Force or the Goldwater Range,” said lobbyist Kevin DeMenna.

Kyl, the former U.S. senator, said McCain fits neatly in the long line of Arizonans who represent America’s national aspirations.

“So, even when he fights for military bases in Arizona, for example, it is out of principle, not parochialism. In that regard, he is an advocate for closure of military bases no longer needed for our national security,” Kyl said.
Of late, he has found – or maybe rediscovered – his voice as a statesman, the lion from the desert railing against “half-baked, spurious nationalism” and excoriating his colleagues for their partisan rigidness.

Lobbyist Chuck Coughlin, who was finance director of McCain’s first U.S. Senate campaign, said Arizona’s senior senator has lived up to the tradition of public service carved out by the likes of Barry Goldwater.

“He lives up to his own standards and his own beliefs, regardless of political or partisan criticism. He leaves a fine example for everybody else for being true to yourself,” Coughlin said.

Indeed, McCain had little control over being shot down in Vietnam and fracturing different parts of his body.

But he had complete control over how to respond.

In the end, many would agree that McCain has mastered his fate, and he is the captain of his soul.

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