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America remembers the Maverick

U.S. Sen. John McCain, war hero, is dead at 81

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addresses supporters during a campaign rally at the New Mexico State Fair Grounds in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, Oct. 25, 2008. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

In this file photo, U.S. Sen. John McCain, then running for president, addresses supporters during a campaign rally at the New Mexico State Fair Grounds in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, Oct. 25, 2008. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

America is in mourning.

And in John McCain’s home state, the pain is plainly palpable.

“I dare you to read this without tearing up,” said pollster George Khalaf after re-tweeting Meghan McCain’s post.

“Took the dare. Lost,” replied political strategist Chad Heywood.

“I love you forever – my beloved father,” Meghan McCain had said.

But amid the grief, there’s also celebration – of McCain’s life and legacy, and, grateful for all he has done for his country, many view his death not as a defeat in his fight against cancer, but as another example of how to live even under impossible odds.

“His courage, his refusal to bow to his disease, his strength in the face of struggle – that was the stuff of victory,” said the consultant David Leibowitz.

Others find it tough to imagine Arizona without McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who carved his own destiny and became a towering figure in American politics and on the international stage.

Many remember him by posting photos they had with him.

There’s a photo of a young Eric Spencer, now the state’s elections director, with the senator. Both wore a red tie, but McCain wore the bigger grin.

“As a college intern 22 years ago, he served as a role model. As an Army soldier in Iraq 12 years ago, he gave me inspiration because he believed in my mission and had faith the surge would work. It did,” Spencer wrote on his Twitter account.

And there’s the photo of McCain and Jan Brewer, the former Arizona governor, inside a plane, both leaning slightly toward each other as the camera snapped.

Lorna Romero, who spoke for McCain’s re-election campaign in 2016, said she is “beyond blessed” to have spent time with McCain.

Across the country, remembrances of the senator poured in.

New York Times columnist Nick Kristof said in the courage-free zone that is Congress, McCain “showed that principle and politics can mix at the highest levels. And if it wasn’t often enough, well, he would be the first to admit it.”

Writing for The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen, a previous counselor of the U.S. Department of State, lamented that “Great-Heart is Gone.”

“He was, very simply the greatest political figure of this generation, not because he carried his colleagues with him (though he did more than is realized), and not even because he could stand against them, against presidents and against his own party,” Cohen wrote. “Rather, it was because in that harsh growl of his he sang the song of America like no leader since Reagan or Kennedy.”

McCain’s office announced his death yesterday.

McCain, 81, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer in 2017, and last Friday, his family said he had chosen to discontinue medical treatment as the “progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict.”

“I am so lucky to have lived the adventure of loving this incredible man for 38 years. He passed the way he lived, on his own terms, surrounded by the people he loved, in the the place he loved best,” Cindy McCain said.

In a statement, Gov. Doug Ducey called McCain a giant.

“He was a giant. An icon. An American hero. But here at home, we were most proud to call him a fellow Arizonan. Like so many of us, he was not born here, but his spirit, service and fierce independence shaped the state with which he became synonymous,” Ducey said.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said Arizona has lost a relentless warrior: “Our nation has lost a steadfast defender, and the world has lost a beacon of democracy.”

Former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said just as important as the battles McCain fought was how he fought them – with a “combination of valiance and decency that few have.”

On Twitter, former President Barack Obama said few have been tested the way McCain was.

“But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means. And for that, we are all in his debt,” Obama said.

Joe Biden, the former vice president, said McCain was many things. “But, to me, more than anything, John was a friend. He will be missed dearly,” he said.

U.S. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, called a truth teller, a man “never afraid to speak truth to power in an era where that has become all too rare.”

***

Editors’ note: This profile of John McCain was first published in December last year, when he received the Arizona Capitol Times’ Leaders of the Year Lifetime Achievement award.

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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