U.S. Senator John Sidney McCain III was born on August 29, 1936 at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone to Lieutenant John S. “Jack” McCain Jr. and Roberta Wright McCain. The son and grandson of four star admirals, he was raised in the navy and in a tradition of military service that began before the American Revolution.
His grandfather, John S. McCain Sr., called “Sid” or “Slew,” was the first of the family to attend the United States Naval Academy, and the first to become a naval aviator, earning his wings at the age of fifty. As a passed midshipman, he served in the Philippines on a gunboat skippered by Chester Nimitz, and sailed home to America on the flagship of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet.” The Senator’s colorful great uncle, Brigadier General “Wild Bill” McCain was a West Point graduate, and served under General Pershing in Mexico. Another West Point graduate, General Henry Pinkney McCain, fought in the Battle of Manila, was adjutant general of the Army and established the selective service during World War One. Various McCains served in the armies of the Confederacy during the Civil War, one branch of the family having settled in the mid-19th Century on a plantation in Carrol County, Mississippi. An ancestor served on General Washington’s staff, and Washington himself is the Senator’s cousin many times removed.
The Senator was the second of Jack and Roberta McCain’s three children, arriving after his older sister, Sandy, and before his younger brother, Joe. His early life was nomadic as the family accompanied his father to various duty stations.
“I was rootless for more than half of my eighty-one years, beginning with my itinerant childhood,” he recalled in his last memoir, The Restless Wave. “I lost track of how many places we lived, how many schools I had attended. The actual moving, of course, was undertaken by my capable, adventurous mother, hauling three kids across country, detouring here and there to visit some natural wonder or cultural attraction.”
One of the Senator’s earliest memories was the December afternoon in 1941, when a black sedan pulled up in front of the family’s home in New London, Connecticut, and an officer called out to his father, “Jack, the Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor.” His father got into the car and drove off. The McCain children saw little of their father over the next four years, as the submarine skipper patrolled the Atlantic off North Africa, and hunted Japanese destroyers in the Pacific. McCain Senior was in charge of all land based aircraft during the Guadalcanal campaign, and in the last year of the war, he commanded the fast carrier task group under Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.
The McCains were legendary admirals, respected by their fellow officers and admired by the men under their command for their personal courage and fighting spirit. Slew McCain attended the Japanese surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri, standing in the first rank of officers observing the ceremony. Jack McCain waited for him in Tokyo Harbor, where father and son had a last reunion on the submarine tender, U.S.S. Proteus. The admiral was preparing to travel home to Coronado, California before taking up new responsibilities as the head of veteran affairs in Washington. Years afterward, Admiral McCain Jr. recalled his father’s final words to him. “Son, it’s an honor to die for the country and principles you believe in.”
A few days later, at a homecoming party his wife Katherine had arranged, the sixty-one-year-old, Admiral John S. McCain Sr. suffered a massive heart attack and died. It’s believed he had a milder heart attack during the last weeks of the war, and had tried to hide the fact from his subordinates.
John S. McCain Jr. was back in harm’s way in 1950, serving as executive officer on a cruiser during the Korean War. His subsequent commands included the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs, where he earned the admiration of prominent members of Congress serving on the House and Senate armed services committees; the 1965 Dominican Republic incursion, and U.S. Naval Forces in Europe. In 1968, he assumed command of United States Forces in the Pacific, the largest operational command in the U.S. military.
In 1951, John S. McCain III enrolled in Episcopal High School, a private boy’s boarding school in Alexandria, Virginia, where he was a standout wrestler and played for the junior varsity football team. His parents had wanted him to receive his secondary education in one location and have the same circle of friends for more than a year. There he began to exhibit a rebellious, non-conformist streak, underscored by an occasional brawl and regular unpermitted excursions off campus into Washington. But he was careful never to violate Episcopal’s strict honor code, and he was greatly influenced by an English master at Episcopal, whom he revered as “one of the wisest, most honorable men I ever met,” William B. Ravenal, who had served in Patton’s tank corps in World War Two. Years later, when he returned home from Vietnam, McCain hoped to see, “Mr. Ravenal.” “He was one of the few people who hadn’t been there that I thought I could explain the experience to,” he recalled, but, sadly, his mentor had passed away some years before.
As his Episcopal classmates prepared for enrollment in the University of Virginia and various Ivy League schools, Senator McCain anticipated with resignation, respect and a little resentment his entry into the United States Naval Academy.
“From the time I was small boy,” he remembered, “I heard my parents tell friends, ‘Johnny’s going to the Naval Academy.’ It wasn’t an aspiration. It was a fact.”
He joined the USNA Class of 1958 in June of 1954. He didn’t mind the first weeks of plebe summer, and enjoyed fighting in the class boxing smokers. Robert Timberg described his style in the ring in The Nightingale’s Song. “Unschooled as a boxer, McCain would charge to the center of the ring and throw punches until someone went down. That summer it was always the other guy.”
His brief enjoyment of his plebe year came to an abrupt halt when the upperclassman arrived in September. He was offended by the routine hazing accorded plebes, which he considered “demeaning and absurd,” and by the expectation he defer to other young men “for the minor accomplishment of having lived a year or two longer than I had.” His insolence in exchanges with upperclassmen, and even his company commander, were subtle at first, but grew bolder in time.
His roommate, Frank Gamboa, recalled an incident in the mess hall where a first classman at their table was abusing a Filipino steward. “Hey mister, why don’t you pick on someone your own size,” McCain blurted out. “What’s your name, mister?” the stunned senior demanded in response. “McCain,” came the reply. “What’s yours?”
For his regular infractions of the rules he accumulated enough demerits to become something of a class legend, although not so many to require his expulsion. By his own, possibly exaggerated calculation, he marched enough extra duty on the weekends as punishment, “to walk to Baltimore and back many times.” He became an informal leader of his class, the rebellious yin to his best friend and class president, Chuck Larson’s more squared away yang.
He was an engaged student in classes where he enjoyed the subject material, chiefly literature and history, and a poor one in mathematics and engineering classes where he didn’t bother to feign an interest. Nevertheless, to the surprise of some of his contemporaries, he did well enough to graduate, barely, fifth from the bottom of his class, and was commissioned an ensign.
McCain spent the next two years training to be a naval aviator, first at Pensacola Naval Air Station and later at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, where he crashed his single-engine AD-6 “Skyraider” into Corpus Christi Bay on a training run. He was knocked unconscious on impact, but came to in time to swim to the surface and return to his quarters in good enough shape to keep his plans for a night on the town. He graduated from flight school in 1960, and in November of that year reported for duty at Norfolk Naval Station, joining VA-65 for several Mediterranean deployments on the U.S.S. Intrepid. On one such deployment, he clipped power lines in southern Spain while flying too low, causing a power outage in the area.
Early in 1962, he deployed on the Navy’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise, on its first cruise, and was promoted to lieutenant in June of that year. In October, the Enterprise was the first carrier to arrive in the Caribbean to enforce the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
He was assigned to a training squadron at Meridian Naval Air Station as flight instructor in 1963, where the air field is named for his grandfather. On July 3, 1965, while still stationed at Meridian, he married Carol Shepp and adopted her two sons from a previous marriage, Doug and Andy. In 1966, their daughter, Sidney, was born, after McCain had been selected for combat duty in the Vietnam War. He trained to fly A-4 bombers, and reported in May 1967 to VA-46 squadron, on the U.S.S.Forrestal, which reached the Gulf of Tonkin two months later, where the squadron joined Operation Rolling Thunder.
While preparing for his fifth mission over North Vietnam on July 29, a Zuni missile accidently fired from an F-4 Phantom on the other side of the flight deck struck McCain’s A-4, ruptured its fuel tank, and ignited the spreading fuel. McCain crawled out of the cockpit and onto the plane’s refueling probe. He dropped to the deck, rolled through a firewall, patting out flames where his flight suit had caught fire. He had turned to help another pilot, when the first bombs cooked off, peppering his legs and chest with shrapnel, and starting a conflagration that would nearly sink the Forrestal, claim 134 lives, and take a full 24 hours to bring under control. With the Forrestal out of commission, McCain volunteered to join another A-4 attack squadron, VA-163, nicknamed “the Saints,” onboard the carrier, the U.S.S. Oriskany.
The Saints had suffered the highest casualties of any squadron in Operation Rolling Thunder, flying some of the most dangerous missions of the war through the most formidable air defenses in history. McCain reported to the squadron on September 30, 1967. By the end of that year, the Saints lost had lost one third of their pilots. On October 26, McCain prepared for his twenty-third mission over North Vietnam. The day before he had destroyed two MiGs parked on a runway at an airfield outside Hanoi. Today’s “alpha” strike would be McCain’s first over the city. The target was a thermal power plant in Hanoi. He had pleaded with the operations officer to include him in the mission. As McCain dove in on the target, he heard the tone sounded, warning him that a surface-to-air (SAM) was flying toward him. Just after he released his bombs and pulled back the stick to climb to a safer altitude, the SAM tore off his right wing.
Striking part of the airplane and hitting the airstream, he broke his left arm, his right arm in three places and his right knee, and was knocked unconscious. He came to when he hit the water of Truc Bach lake in the center of the city. He pulled his life jacket toggle with his teeth and a group of Vietnamese using bamboo poles fished him out of the water. An angry crowd gathered as he lay dazed on the ground. Someone smashed a rifle butt into his shoulder. Someone else stabbed him with a bayonet in his ankle and groin before an army truck arrived and soldiers took him to Hoa Lo prison, which the American pilots residing there had named the Hanoi Hilton.
He was placed on a stretcher and set down on the floor of an empty cell, stripped to his underwear and under a blanket. He drifted in and out of consciousness for several days as interrogators demanded information about his squadron and refused him medical attention. He was feverish, his knee grossly swollen, unable to keep food down, and desperately thirsty. On the fourth day, he pleaded to be taken to the hospital. A medic was brought to the cell, who took his pulse, and conferred with an officer. “It’s too late,” the officer informed McCain, and the two Vietnamese left him to his fate. A short while later, the officer returned to his cell, and shouted, “Your father is a big admiral. We take you to hospital.” McCain again lost consciousness while he was being transported to a military hospital.
McCain came to two days later in a filthy hospital room with pools of mud and water on the floor. He was given a blood transfusion and a glucose IV drip, and after his condition had stabilized, he was interrogated, threatened and struck repeatedly when he refused to answer questions. Eventually he gave them the names of his ship and squadron, and identified the Green Bay Packers offensive line as his squadron mates. A doctor tried to set the three fractures in his right arm, manipulating the limb without administering an anesthetic, and eventually decided just to encase the arm in a heavy chest cast. McCain’s left arm and broken leg were left untreated for a time. A French television journalist filmed an interview with McCain just minutes after the unsuccessful attempt to set his right arm.
After initially refusing him an operation on his broken leg, the Vietnamese relented in December 1967. During the course of the surgery, which the Vietnamese filmed, the surgeon severed the ligaments on the inside of his knee.
Suffering from dysentery, severe weight loss and a high fever, McCain appealed to officials to be placed in the care of other Americans. After six weeks in the hospital, he was taken to the camp the POWs called, “the Plantation,” and put in a cell with two Air Force majors, George “Bud” Day and Norris Overly, whom the future senator credits with saving his life. Both men believed their new cellmate — emaciated, bug-eyed, bright with fever, his gray hair turned white — would not survive, and the Vietnamese had left him with them so they could blame them for his death. Nevertheless, they did everything they could to nurse him. Because of the severe injuries Day had sustained during his shootdown and in the course of an epic escape attempt, most of the nursing fell to Overly, whom the Senator recalled as “gentle and uncomplaining” and the “soul of kindness.” Responding to Overly’s care and the morale boost the two men’s company provided, McCain slowly recovered.
Two months later, in February 1968, the Vietnamese offered Norris Overly and two other prisoners amnesty, and Overly returned to the United States. The following April, Bud Day was taken to another prison, and McCain was moved into the cell where he spent the two worst years of his captivity. He was still suffering dysentery and weighed little more than a hundred pounds. He was kept in solitary the entire time and rarely saw other prisoners. He was beaten regularly and tortured for refusing to make propaganda statements and violating prison rules, though McCain believed his treatment, with the exception of one episode, wasn’t as severe as that suffered by other POWs.
He worked hard to improve his physical condition and preserve his sanity. But his chronic dysentery and resulting weakness limited the former effort, and only his regular communications in whispers and tap code with his immediate neighbors, Air Force Major Bob Craner and Air America pilot Ernie Brace kept him from losing his mind.
In late June 1968, as Admiral McCain Jr. was preparing to assume command of U.S. forces in the Pacific, his son was summoned to the first of several interviews with the senior Party cadre in charge of the POW camps, the man the POWs called, “the Cat.” Using as an interpreter an English speaking officer, the Cat asked McCain if he would like to go home. Taken aback, McCain asked for time to consider the offer. He knew the POWs’ code of conduct instructed that prisoners be released in order of the date of capture. He also knew that the Vietnamese would require him to make some kind of propaganda statement before releasing him. He was miserable, underweight, suffering from dysentery and heat rash. He discussed the offer with Bob Craner, who advised him to accept it. He wasn’t sure McCain would survive otherwise. McCain believed he would. He didn’t know it at the time, but the Vietnamese hoped to use his release to embarrass him and his father, the Pacific commander-in-chief, and demoralize his fellow POWs by claiming the admiral’s son took amnesty while they, lacking privileged parents, were left behind to suffer more privation and danger.
Several days later McCain informed the Cat that he wouldn’t accept his offer of early release. The Cat told McCain that President Johnson had ordered him home. McCain asked to see the order, and the Cat handed him a letter from his wife, Carol, expressing her hope he would be released, and instructed him to reconsider his answer. On July 4, he was summoned to a final interview, and when he informed the Cat that his answer was unchanged, the officer snapped in half an ink pen he was holding, and angrily spoke to McCain in English for the first time. “They taught you too well, Mac Kane,” he spat before abruptly leaving the room. With that McCain was warned by the translator that ‘things will go very badly for you now,” and he returned to his cell.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened until late August, when several guards took to him to a large room, where the camp commander was waiting, and demanded, “why do you treat your guards disrespectfully?”
“Because they treat me like an animal,” McCain responded.
The commander shouted an order and the guards began to beat and kick McCain severely. When they stopped, McCain was ordered to confess his war crimes. He refused. His arms were tied behind his back, the ropes cinched tightly around his biceps restricting circulation. He was left seated on stool overnight in considerable pain. He was taken to another interrogation room in the morning, and again ordered to confess. He again refused, and was beaten repeatedly at two hour intervals. The abuse continued for three days. He suffered several cracked ribs and broken teeth. His injured right leg was swollen and he was unable to stand. He lay in his own blood, vomit and waste. On the third night, he received his worst beating. He was knocked down and landed on his waste bucket, re-breaking his left arm. On the fourth day he gave up and agreed to make a taped confession, which the Vietnamese played over the camp loudspeakers, and made sure a copy of the recording fell into the possession of U.S. intelligence, and was provided to the prisoner’s father. When asked about it later in his life, McCain declared, “I failed,” and confessed to lingering shame over it.
The following Christmas he was moved from the Plantation to the Hanoi Hilton, where he remained in solitary confinement for another year. He was often caught communicating with other prisoners and punished. He and another prisoner, Sam Johnson, served as the camp mailmen, tossing notes from one cell to another as they were moved to the showers or to interrogations. He was uncooperative and often insolent to guards and interrogators, and paid a price for it. Though he was never abused as severely as he had been the previous summer, he was placed in punishment cells and knocked around often enough “to keep my edge,” he later joked.
At Christmas 1970, following an unsuccessful American attempt to liberate a POW camp north of Hanoi and widespread public reports of prisoner abuse, most POWs were moved into large cell blocks at Hoa Lo, with thirty to forty prisoners in each room. “Camp Unity,” as the prisoners called it, was a welcome development, and McCain was reunited with many of his friends from the Plantation, including his cellmate, Bud Day. Routine physical abuse had largely stopped as well. Except for his temporary relocation to a punishment camp the prisoners called “Skid Row,” for participating in what came to be known as the “Christmas riot,” a prisoner protest over the Vietnamese refusal to allow them to hold a Christmas service, McCain remained in Unity for the rest of his captivity. He was there when President Nixon ordered the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, and with his fellow prisoners cheered as the bombs fell, knowing the decision would hasten the end of the war. Not long after, the peace accord was concluded. Henry Kissinger came to Hanoi to initial the final agreements, and the Vietnamese offered to let him take Lieutenant Commander McCain home. Kissinger refused, and McCain would later thank him for “saving my honor.”
The POWS were released in order of their date of capture. McCain was released on March 14, 1973. Among the decorations he received for his service in Operation Rolling Thunder and as a prisoner-of-war include the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, and the Prisoner-of-War medal.
He was reunited a few days later with his family in Orange Park, Florida. He underwent three operations to treat his injuries at Navy hospital in Jacksonville. He was promoted to commander in July 1973, and in the fall enrolled in the National War College at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., where he studied the history of the French and American wars in Vietnam. He also began months of intensive physical rehabilitation to get his knee to bend with the hope of regaining flight status. The McCains also began a friendship with then Governor Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan, when Commander McCain was invited to speak at a prayer breakfast hosted by the Reagans, and impressed his hosts.
McCain returned to Vietnam with several other POWs in November 1974, and received the National Order of Vietnam, five months before Saigon fell.
He passed his physical – barely — and regained flight status. In August 1974, he was assigned to the Replacement Air Group VA-174 at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, the largest squadron in the United States Navy. He became the squadron’s executive officer the next year, and its commanding officer in July 1976. Under his leadership, VA-174 overcame budget shortfalls, parts shortages, and chronic low morale to earn its first Meritorious Unit Commendation after reporting no accidents for the year while managing to get all of its aircraft flight ready. McCain remembers his command of the RAG squadron as the most satisfying assignment of his navy career.
The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral James Holloway selected McCain in 1977 for a job in the Office of Legislative Affairs as the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate, giving McCain his first real exposure to politics and to the important role played by the Senate Armed Services Committee in the nation’s military readiness. He formed lasting friendships with some younger senators in both parties, including Gary Hart, Bill Cohen, and Joe Biden. He frequently escorted Senate delegations on overseas trips, earning the notice and respect of the most senior members of the body, senators such as Barry Goldwater, Jacob Javits, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and John Tower, the ranking Republican on the committee who would become McCain’s mentor. He was promoted to captain in the summer of 1979.
The McCain’s marriage ended during this period, which he attributed to “my own selfishness and immaturity.” Their divorce was final in April 1980. The following month, McCain married Cindy Hensley, whom he had met in 1979 at a reception in Hawaii, while escorting a senate delegation.
He failed his flight physical in 1980, which ended his ambition for a command at sea that would ensure his rise to flag officer. He made the decision to retire from the Navy, and pursue a career in politics. His last day in uniform, March 27, 1981, was the day of his father’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Admiral McCain had died of a heart attack on March 22 while returning to the U.S. from Europe on a military transport plane. His son signed his discharge papers after attending the funeral, and relocated that same day to Phoenix, Arizona, Cindy’s home, which he would make his own.
He went to work for his father-in-law, Jim Hensley’s Anheuser-Busch distributorship as Vice President for Public Relations, and began cultivating relationships with local political, media and business community leaders. Though McCain had been encouraged to seek elective office in the state before pursuing a seat in Congress, when John Rhodes, the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, announced his retirement, the McCains bought a house in his congressional district the same day. McCain announced his candidacy in March 1982, and entered the crowded primary to face three other better known candidates, two of whom were members of the Arizona legislature and the third was a prominent civic activist. McCain was the least well-known of the aspirants.
Working hard to introduce himself to the district’s voters, John and Cindy knocked on doors in the district morning, afternoon and evening, six days a week. His campaign’s lead consultant nicknamed him the “White Tornado” for his furious energy and white hair. His opponents’ dismissed him as a carpetbagger, a perception he put to rest in a candidate debate, when one of them had repeated the charge. McCain gave an answer that instantly became part of Arizona political lore. After explaining he had grown up in a Navy family that required frequent relocations as had his own Navy career, he observed,
“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.”
He won a narrow plurality in the Republican primary in August, and a much more convincing victory in the overwhelmingly Republican district in the general election that November.
He was elected president of the Republican freshman class of 1983, and given a coveted seat on the Interior committee, where he would be tutored by the committee’s Democratic chairman, the legendary Mo Udall. Mo taught him the ins and outs of issues vital to Arizonans, such as resource conservation, federal land management, and Native American affairs. In later years, McCain would consciously try to emulate Udall’s example of bipartisan comity and cooperation by offering to work with new Democratic members of the Senate on projects of mutual interest.
In his first year in office, McCain opposed a resolution authorizing the Reagan Administration’s deployment of Marines to Beirut, believing they lacked an unachievable mission, even though he had a personal connection and very high regard for Reagan. It was the first of many acts of independence that would advance McCain’s reputation as a political maverick, and a critic of presidents from both parties. When more than two hundred Marines were killed in a terrorist bombing later that year, it confirmed the soundness of his judgment to Washington observers and to himself, and he didn’t hesitate to demonstrate his independence in future disagreements with the administration. He was easily re-elected to a second term, and assigned a seat on the House Foreign Relations Committee in 1985, from where he pursued his avid interest in world affairs.
John and Cindy’s first child, their daughter Meghan, was born in 1984. Their son, John Sidney “Jack” McCain IV, followed two years later, and their third child, James Hensley McCain was born in 1988. The McCain’s adopted their daughter, Bridget, in 1991. Cindy had brought her to Arizona from Mother Theresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh so that she could receive medical treatment in the U.S.
In early 1985, conservative icon Senator Barry Goldwater announced he would retire from the Senate at the end of his term in 1986. McCain, who had long planned to run for the seat, declared his candidacy in March. Popular Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt was expected to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination, but announced he would not do so shortly before the McCain announcement. Other prominent Republicans considered contesting the primary, but McCain’s popularity and fundraising head start discouraged them. He faced Arizona legislator Richard Kimball in the general election. He maintained a healthy lead throughout the campaign even after he referred to the retirement community, Leisure World, as “Seizure World,” unfortunate humor that his opponent exploited at every opportunity. McCain attributed the remark to his “irremediable” impulse to be “a wiseass.”
The flap didn’t seriously hurt his prospects. He won the election handily, 60 percent to Kimball’s 40.
McCain was fifty years old when he was sworn in to his first Senate term. He was given seats on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, and, thanks in part to Barry Goldwater’s lobbying on his behalf, to the Armed Services Committee, an assignment that was the principal ambition of his political career.
Less than two years later, in 1988, the Washington press corps speculated that McCain was on Vice President George H.W. Bush’s short list for vice president. That honor went to McCain’s Indiana colleague Senator Dan Quayle. But McCain was asked to give a well-received, primetime speech at the Republican national convention, which introduced him to a national audience. In early 1989, he was the Senate’s principle defender of President Bush’s choice for Secretary of Defense, his friend, former Texas Senator John Tower, who had been a mentor to McCain, and whose embattled nomination was in doubt thanks to allegations of excessive drinking and womanizing. Tower’s nomination was ultimately defeated, a defeat that McCain confessed to resenting bitterly.
His rise to prominence took a negative turn that same year when Lincoln Savings and Loan declared bankruptcy and 23,000 investors suddenly held worthless junk bonds. Lincoln was a subsidiary of Phoenix based developer American Continental Corporation. Its CEO was McCain’s friend and early political benefactor, Charles Keating. In 1987, at Keating’s request, and despite harboring misgivings, McCain agreed to attend a meeting with Federal Home Loan Bank Board president Ed Gray, along with three other senators, Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), Alan Cranston (D-CA), and John Glenn, (D-OH). Their purpose was to discuss an investigation into Lincoln’s operations. Gray professed ignorance of the details of the investigation and agreed to set up a meeting with the regulators involved in it.
All four senators, as well as Senate Banking Committee Chairman, Don Reigle (D-MI), attended the second meeting. McCain’s misgivings had grown even more pronounced, and had caused a breach in his friendship with Keating when McCain told him that he would not lobby the regulators for preferential treatment for Lincoln. He informed the regulators in the second meeting that he wasn’t there to ask special favors for Lincoln, and didn’t want any part of their discussion to be improper. He made no other comment. When one of the regulators informed the senators that they intended to make a criminal referral to the Justice Department, the meeting ended, as did McCain’s association with Keating.
News reports of the meetings gained more national notice after Lincoln’s failure, and resulted in a Senate Ethics Committee investigation of the five senators led by a special investigator, prominent Washington attorney Robert Bennett. In addition to the meetings, news accounts revealed that the McCains had traveled at Keating’s expense to his vacation home in the Bahamas, and had neglected to reimburse him for some of the flights until much later.
When his role in the scandal was revealed, McCain convened a press conference in Phoenix, and answered questions about his involvement. It lasted the better part of two hours as he remained until not one of the assembled reporters had another question.
After months of investigation, Bennett advised the committee to drop Senators McCain and Glenn from the probe on the grounds that they had given Lincoln no other assistance beyond attending the meetings in question. The committee declined the advice. In the end, McCain received a mild rebuke for exercising poor judgment by attending the meetings, a verdict McCain accepted, noting that his attendance had been a serious mistake, and would always “be an asterisk” in the record of his public life. He complained privately that the scandal’s effect on him was worse than the treatment he had received in prison. “No one questioned my honor in Vietnam,” he explained.
The Keating scandal had been expected to jeopardize McCain’s re-election in 1992, but due to the committee’s comparative leniency toward him, his willingness to candidly answer questions about his involvement, and to apologetically acknowledge his mistake, the damage to his prospects was limited. He faced two opponents in 1992, Democratic activist Claire Sargent and impeached Governor Ev Meacham, whose resignation McCain had called for, running as an independent. McCain won easily.
He resumed his rise to national prominence in his second term. He helped lead a special investigation with Senator John Kerry into the fate of POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War, which concluded that there wasn’t compelling evidence that Americans had been kept in captivity after the war, and which exposed the conspiracy peddling and fundraising frauds that had promulgated the idea, and raised false hopes among the families of the missing. The committee’s work helped make it possible for President Clinton to normalize relations with Vietnam, which McCain had privately and publicly urged, and prominently defended.
McCain assumed the chair of the Indian Affairs Committee in 1995, and held it until he became chairman of the Commerce Committee two years later. Also in 1995, he introduced with Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) the first of many iterations of legislation over a seven year period that would be known as McCain-Feingold, campaign finance reform legislation that sought to banish “soft money,” the unlimited corporate and labor union contributions to political parties.
He served as national chairman of his friend, Senator Phil Gramm’s presidential bid in 1996, and when Gramm left the race, became a prominent supporter of the eventual nominee, Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole. He was vetted by the Dole campaign as a vice presidential prospect, and Dole asked McCain to give his nominating speech at the Republican national convention in San Diego. He remained a close advisor to Dole for the remainder of the campaign.
In 1995, after the massacre at Srebrenica, he had co-sponsored with Senator Dole a resolution authorizing the Clinton Administration to use military force against the Bosnian Serb army, despite Senator Gramm’s opposition to the resolution.
As chairman of the Commerce Committee, McCain successfully moved sweeping anti-tobacco legislation through the committee with only one member opposing. Though liberal and conservative opponents combined to prevent its passage by the full senate, moving such a complicated and impactful piece of legislation through a committee whose members included tobacco state senators and harsh critics of the tobacco industry was considered a singular achievement.
McCain ran successfully for a third senate term in 1998, winning almost seventy percent of the vote in the general election.
In September 1999, he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. Governor George W. Bush was the overwhelming favorite for the nomination, having secured the endorsements of most party leaders and raised record levels of financial support. McCain ran a bare-bones campaign mostly focused on two states primaries, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and used his accessibility with the press, taking all questions for hours a day in the back of a bus, his willingness to engage with all voters in scores of town hall style question-and-answer sessions, and the unexpected bestseller success of his first book, Faith of My Fathers, to establish himself as Governor Bush’s principal rival.
As expected, Bush won the first contest, the Iowa caucuses. But in New Hampshire, the traveling road show known as the Straight Talk Express was playing to bigger and bigger crowds drawing more and more reporters to the decidedly not luxurious confines of the aforementioned Straight Talk bus. McCain’s authenticity, candor and humor, his reform message, and the entertainment value of his town hall performances held great appeal for Granite State voters who prize a personal rapport with candidates. When New Hampshire’s votes were cast on February 1, 2000, McCain won a stunning victory, outpacing his nearest rival, Governor Bush, by nineteen points.
South Carolina proved a harder task as the Bush campaign went on the attack, and the McCain campaign responded with attacks of their own, abandoning McCain’s reform message, and trading blow for blow to the disgust of many voters. McCain was persuaded to take a position on a controversial local issue, whether the battle flag of the Confederacy, which flew over the South Carolina state capitol, should be taken down. McCain privately believed it should be taken down, but was persuaded by advisors to dismiss the question as a matter that should be settled by South Carolinians. He read a statement prepared by staff, and made a show of reading it to the press as if he were making a hostage tape. He was unhappy with the position, and, he later confessed, ashamed he had agreed to it. After the primaries, he returned to South Carolina to confess his bad faith, and apologize.
After a South Carolina mother speaking at town hall event described her son listening to a negative phone call, McCain ordered his aides to take off the air all attack ads the campaign was running. Bush won the February 19 primary by a margin of eleven points. McCain bounced back three days later, unexpectedly winning the Michigan primary and his own state of Arizona. But he lacked the resources and organizational reach to compete successfully in the Super Tuesday contests on March 7, when he lost nine of thirteen primaries and caucuses. He ended his candidacy the next day, and returned to the Senate.
The 108th Congress were some of McCain’s most productive years in the Senate. He authored with Senator Joe Lieberman legislation establish the 9/11 Commission and with Senator Fritz Hollings he sponsored legislation strengthening airport security in the wake of the attacks. And in early 2002, he and Russ Feingold finally celebrated the success of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, passed by both Republican-controlled houses of Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush on March 27.
McCain was a prominent supporter of the U.S. incursion into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. By August of that year, however, he had begun to worry about the direction of the war, fearing a full-fledged insurgency was forming. He began criticizing the decisions of civilian and military commanders in Iraq and tactics and strategy that he didn’t believe addressed the reality on the ground. He called for a counter-insurgency strategy that could protect the population and create the stability necessary for political development. His disagreement with administration officials, particularly Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and General George Casey, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, grew increasingly pointed and public. McCain believed they were refusing to recognize that the insurgency could in time result in a defeat for the U.S., and he allied himself with those voices in the national security community and military who advocated what would come to be called “the surge.”
At the same time, McCain was becoming an increasingly vocal critic of Bush Administration detainee policy, clashing repeatedly with senior officials in the C.I.A and the office of Vice President Cheney. In 2005, he sponsored the Detainee Treatment Act that forbade cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment of detainees. It passed the Senate 90-9. And in 2006, he prevented the administration from revising the Geneva Conventions’ Common Article Three, sponsoring the Military Commissions Act and adding language to the War Crimes Act that effectively banned waterboarding and some of the other harsh tactics that had been used on detainees.
McCain ran for a fourth term in 2004, and won 77% of the vote, his biggest Arizona victory, winning majorities of Democrats as well as Republicans, and over 70% of the Hispanic vote.
In the spring of 2005, McCain convened a bipartisan group of senators who were called the Gang of 14, and had agreed to oppose filibusters of judicial nominees except in “extraordinary circumstances” in exchange for opposing an effort by Republican leaders to change the filibuster rules. That same year, he sponsored with Senator Ted Kennedy the first of his three comprehensive immigration reform bills, which increased border security and created a conditional path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who had broken no other laws. It passed the Senate with a filibuster-proof majority, 62-36, but died in the House of Representatives. As chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, McCain led an investigation that helped expose the culprits in the Jack Abramoff Indian casino scandal, and ended in several successful prosecutions in federal court.
McCain announced his second campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in the spring of 2007. On account of his second-place finish in 2000, he was considered the early frontrunner. That same year, he and Ted Kennedy, with McCain’s Arizona colleague, Senator Jon Kyl and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, introduced a second immigration policy reform bill, which after extensive debate could not get cloture due to opposition from conservative and liberal opponents. McCain’s pro-immigration position was the subject of attacks from his rivals, which, with widespread opposition to his support for the Iraq war and his campaign’s early overspending and weaker than expected fundraising, put the campaign in a very precarious position in the summer of 2007. He considered dropping out, but after a July 4 trip to Iraq, he decided to stay in the race, to downsize the campaign, and to focus again on New Hampshire and South Carolina, making his advocacy of the surge the principal message of what the campaign named the “No Surrender Tour.” Playing to small, skeptical crowds at first, and to larger ones as he began to regain his footing and his flair for campaigning, he won the New Hampshire primary, beating his chief rival, Governor Mitt Romney, by five points.
He went on to win the South Carolina primary, narrowly edging out Governor Mike Huckabee, and the Florida primary, which gave him the most momentum going into Super Tuesday, when McCain won nine of the twenty-one contests, including California and New York, and a majority of the delegates. That success made him the presumptive nominee, and Romney dropped out of the race two weeks later.
The longer race for the Democratic nomination dominated the headlines until Senator Hillary Clinton ended her candidacy on June 7 after Senator Barack Obama accumulated enough delegates to be the presumptive nominee. Obama led McCain in most public polls throughout the summer months until the Republican national convention. Running in an environment where a substantial majority of voters were dissatisfied with the direction of the country and demanded change, McCain faced an uphill climb. Nevertheless, as he focused on his national security experience and his long record of service to the nation in uniform and in elected office, he closed the gap.
McCain had wanted to offer the vice-presidential nomination to his friend, Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, and run on something like a unity ticket. But he was persuaded by aides that the controversial choice would disrupt the national convention and might be rejected by the delegates. Fearing that a stagnant race favored his opponent, who had claimed the “hope and change” message, McCain turned to a relative newcomer to politics, the little-known Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. McCain hoped Palin’s record as a reformer who had taken on the local Republican establishment and the oil companies would offset her limited experience. Her convention speech seemed to do just that, winning over the audience and millions of voters.
The Republican ticket left the convention with a small lead in the polls that they maintained until the subprime mortgage crisis exploded with the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy announcement on September 15 and the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As the stock market plunged day after day in reaction to the credit crisis, McCain recognized that his prospects were sinking with it. On September 24, he announced he would suspend campaigning to help negotiate a financial rescue package, but resumed his campaign three days later after House Republicans voted against the package.
Despite the long odds he faced, McCain campaigned enthusiastically until the end. He also sought to address the growing personal hostility among some Republican voters for his opponent. One widely publicized incident occurred in a Minneapolis suburb on October 10, when McCain took the microphone from a supporter who had voiced her fear of Obama, and referred to him as “an Arab.” “No, ma’am,” McCain responded, he’s a decent family man and citizen, who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” He went on to assure the audience, to scattered boos, that they had nothing to fear from his opponent.
On Election Day, November 4, after a week of frenetic campaigning, McCain waited for the results with his family and aides at Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix. The decision came quickly, as Obama won most of the battleground states on his way to 53-46 victory. McCain conceded just after polls on the west coast had closed in a speech that was widely praised for its graciousness.
As he did after every setback in his life. McCain pressed on energetically, resuming his senate career as if he’d never left. He was a frequent critic of Obama administration policies. Like most of his Republican colleagues, he opposing the administration’s stimulus spending bill, and the new President’s biggest initiative, Obamacare.
McCain was re-elected to his fifth term in 2010, handily defeating a Tea Party backed primary opponent, and winning the general election by a wide margin. McCain led another bipartisan effort to reform the nation’s immigration laws in 2013. The so-called “Gang of 8” legislation passed the Senate with 68 votes, only to face the same fate as McCain’s earlier immigration efforts. Republican leaders in the House refused to bring it up for debate and a vote.
As ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and later as chairman, McCain worked closely with his Democratic counterparts, first Senator Carl Levin and after Levin’s retirement, Senator Jack Reed to reform the Defense Department procurement policies and to write and pass the committee’s annual defense authorization bill.
In the last ten years of his Senate career, McCain was regarded internationally as the pre-eminent statesman in Congress. He traveled overseas frequently and had established relations with heads of state, opposition leaders, military leaders, and political activists the world over. From Burma to Belorussia, he was a tireless champion of the oppressed. His dedication to the global advance of American values and to the maintenance of strong, visionary U.S. leadership of the liberal internal order often brought him into sharp conflict with Obama Administration policies. McCain was perhaps the leading critic of the administration’s reaction to protests movements in the Middle East, from Libya to Iran. He faulted the administration’s proposed “reset” with Russia as a naïve and costly attempt to placate Vladimir Putin, whom McCain denounced regularly as an implacable foe of the West. He argued strenuously that the West should provide lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine to defend itself from Russian invaders. His most strenuous objections were to the Obama Administration’s ineffective policy regarding the Syrian civil war, and its tolerance of the humanitarian catastrophe caused by Bashir Assad’s murderous regime and its allies, Iran and Russia.
McCain was re-elected to his sixth term in 2016, easily defeating another Tea Party backed primary opponent, and a respectable Democratic challenger, Representative Anne Kirkpatrick, in the general election. He continued the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee in 2017, and guided the annual defense bill to a unanimous vote in the committee. He continued his international travel, taking several far flung trips to consult with and reassure allies worried about Trump administration policies. He was a leading critic of some of those policies, especially the new president’s apparent disinterest in the responsibilities of international leadership and the defense of human rights.
After a routine physical and MRI revealed a mass in the Senator’s frontal lobe, Phoenix Mayo Hospital surgeons removed it on July 14, 2017. At his insistence, McCain left the hospital the following day. On July 19, biopsy results confirmed that the mass was a glioblastoma tumor, a particularly aggressive brain cancer. Despite his physicians’ misgivings, the Senator insisted on returning to Washington on July 25 to cast an important vote allowing debate to continue on a replacement to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). He was warmly received by his colleagues. After casting the deciding vote, McCain addressed the Senate. All senators were present, having remained in the chamber to hear him urge the body to return to regular order and cooperate as Americans first and partisans second in good faith efforts to address the country’s problems. Two days later, he cast a deciding vote against a Republican health care bill that would have repealed Obamacare but not replaced it, which would have cost millions of people their health care.
He returned to the Senate again after the August recess, and continued his work as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, managing the floor debate on the defense bill. A second tumor was found and successfully treated with radiation. McCain remained in the Senate until December, when he developed pneumonia and the effects of continued radiation and chemotherapy had weakened him to the point that he returned home to his beloved Hidden Valley Ranch in Cornville, Arizona to recuperate and undergo physical therapy. He remained engaged in the Senate with daily conference calls directing the work of his personal office and committee staff.
His last book, The Restless Wave, was published on May 22. In it, he expressed his contentment at the end of his life. “I hate to leave it,” he wrote. “But I don’t have a complaint.”
“Not one. It’s been quite a ride. I’ve known great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war, and helped make a peace. I’ve lived very well and I’ve been deprived of all comforts. I’ve been as lonely as a person can be and I’ve enjoyed the company of heroes. I’ve suffered the deepest despair and experienced the highest exultation. I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.”
Senator John S. McCain III died from complications related to his brain cancer on August 25, 2018. At his death, he had served his country faithfully for sixty years.