This week saw the death of Senator John McCain, a political maverick who represented the state of Arizona in Congress for over 35 years.
A distinguished military veteran, McCain served in the navy for 22 years. Whilst serving as a pilot in the Vietnam War he was captured and held as a Prisoner of War by the North Vietnamese after his plane was shot down. However, even after 2 years of torture and solitary confinement, McCain refused the offer of release whilst his fellow Prisoners of War would continue to be held. The result was 3 more years of torture and imprisonment until his eventual release in 1973.
His transition into politics was seen by many as unsurprising, but despite winning a reasonably safe Republican seat in 1982 his political career was almost over before it properly even took off. A corruption scandal in in the early 1990s saw him investigated (and later cleared) by the Senate Ethics Committee. McCain called it a ‘hell of a mess’ and friends say that he regretted his behaviour in the incident until his final day.
A champion of American exceptionalism, McCain the politician was admired for his candour and gentleman-like attitude. His first presidential campaign took place at a time when there was a desire for politicians seen as genuine, and as such it surprised many that he lost the battle for the Republican nomination of 2000 to George W Bush. Perhaps it was his refusal to ‘play dirty’ that hurt him, as while the Bush campaign fostered rumours of McCain, among other things, fathering an illegitimate child, the Arizonan refused to stoop to that level.
In 2008, despite this time winning the Republican nomination, the senator was hurt by the rather more aggressive force that was the rise against the so-called political establishment following the global financial crisis. Critics say that the rise of populism at home which climaxed with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 can be partially attributed to McCain himself. His choice of Sarah Palin, the then Governor of Alaska associated more with the right of the Republican Party than McCain’s more centrist Main Street faction, as running mate perhaps further unleashed the forces which would lead to the rise of the fiery Tea Party caucus. Palin was partially chosen to appeal to the evangelist wing of the GOP, who McCain struggled to understand. Indeed, the tide had begun to turn against the senator in 2000 after in South Carolina he called the confederate flag, which then still flew over the state’s capitol, a ‘symbol of racism and slavery’, and hit out at a Christian college also within the state which prohibited interracial dating.
McCain will be remembered for his extraordinary bravery whilst serving his country on the battlefield, as well as his unwavering commitment to his values in Congress. In what would be one of his final acts as Senator for Arizona, McCain flew to DC whilst receiving treatment for the brain tumour which would eventually claim his life in order to cast the deciding vote against the Trump-backed repeal of Obamacare.
It led to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling McCain ‘a hero. He’s a hero of mine’. Throughout his life, both within and outside of the world of politics, John McCain was a hero to many more.