Final chapter of McCain’s life cements his legacy as a fighter

John McCain

Final chapter of McCain’s life cements his legacy as a fighter

It was a classic maverick moment.

At 1:28 a.m., John McCain walked onto the Senate floor with his signature limp, bringing much of the bustling chamber to a halt as he faced the rostrum and raised his right arm.

For many lawmakers and aides in the room, who craned for a better view, the question lingered: Would the longtime Arizona senator buck his own party, which controlled Congress and the White House, and say “no” to a yearslong Republican promise?

Six seconds later, they had their answer. McCain’s thumb-down gesture was followed by audible gasps and Republican dismay to his “no” vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The theatrics secured a final image of defiance for a man who had long cultivated it. The 81-year-old was intent on sculpting his last chapter.

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Ten days earlier, on July 19, 2017, McCain revealed he was battling glioblastoma, a vicious form of brain cancer. A new, menacing scar above his left eye – from the removal of a 2-inch blood clot – joined visible injuries from enemies past.

Against his family’s wishes, the father of seven and grandfather of five took a flight to Washington risking a stroke or worse. He was greeted on the Senate floor with a standing ovation that he promptly followed with a blistering attack.

“Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle,” McCain scolded the Senate. “We’re getting nothing done, my friends. We are getting nothing done.”

That’s “just characteristic of John: grateful and yet wanting to make the moment count,” said longtime friend Joe Lieberman, a former senator. “He is a proud and loyal Republican, but he puts the country first.”

In the subsequent months, McCain — the 31-year senator, acclaimed war hero and defense hawk — would undertake a political tour de force. He railed against the deaths of U.S. servicemembers, a military readiness crisis and funding deficiencies, murky shifts in war strategy, nationalism, racism and neo-Nazis, attacks on the freedom of speech, hostile foreign powers run amok and Russian aggression.

“This is really my last fight,” Teddy Kunhardt, one of the filmmakers for the HBO documentary “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls,” recalled the senator saying. “We assumed he meant cancer. He said, ‘No, it’s bringing the country back together.’”

McCain as combatant is familiar territory. After all, he built an entire legacy fighting and surviving a long list of enemies, from his captors during his 5 1/2 years as a Vietnam prisoner of war to a series of political adversaries, including several U.S. presidents.

“I see now that I was part of something important that drew me along in its wake,” McCain said in accepting the National Constitution Center's 2017 Liberty Medal in October. “I was, knowingly or not, along for the ride as America made the future better than the past.”

John McCain is interviewed shortly after his release from a POW camp in 1973. Library of Congress

Dodging Death

John Sidney McCain III’s first of three plane crashes came as the 23-year-old naval officer flew over the waters of Corpus Christi, Texas.

McCain, according to naval records, lost track of his altitude and speed during the March 1960 training flight. He ejected and was knocked unconscious to awake in the Corpus Christi Bay in time to swim away from the cockpit of his AD-6 Skyraider.

In a second crash, McCain said he struck and dragged 10 feet of power lines over southern Spain in a feat of “daredevil clowning” back to the USS Intrepid in the Mediterranean Sea where he was based in the early 1960s.

“My early years as a naval officer were an even more colorful extension of my rowdy days at the academy,” McCain said in his 1999 tome “Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir.” “I did not enjoy the reputation of a serious pilot or an up-and-coming junior officer. I liked to fly, but not much more than I liked to have a good time.”

Military service was the family business. McCain’s father and grandfather were the first father-son duo to become Navy four-star admirals.

Like the McCains before him, the future senator did not excel at the U.S. Naval Academy. McCain Sr. graduated 79 out of 116, McCain Jr. 423 out of 441 and McCain III skimmed the bottom of his class at 894 out of 899.

“He tried to get thrown out, and failed at that,” McCain’s former congressional staffer Torie Clarke remembers with a laugh. “He’s very respectful and appreciative of important traditions and principles. … But if he thinks a rule is stupid, he’s not going to be tied down by that.”

By the mid-1960s, McCain was looking for an antidote to his topsy-turvy lifestyle. In 1965, he married Carol Shepp of Philadelphia, an acquaintance from the academy. He adopted Shepp’s two children, Douglas and Andrew, and the couple had their own daughter, Sidney.

As a father, he was “exciting, honorable and loving,” Sidney McCain said. And there was “never a dull moment.”

In December 1965, then-Lt. McCain was flying in a T-2 trainer jet from an Army-Navy football game on the East Coast when his engine failed, forcing him to eject over the Chesapeake Bay, landing on a beach as the plane crashed into a patch of trees.

McCain said the near-death crash strengthened his resolve to join the Vietnam War effort while he was still able. Newly promoted Lt. Cmdr. McCain began his short-lived career as a combat pilot when he received orders in late 1966 to join the war and the USS Forrestal.

But calamity stalked the young Naval aviator. A harrowing blaze broke out aboard the Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin in July 1967, claiming the lives of 134 sailors. The fire, ignited by an electrical failure, set off a rocket and a series of explosions near McCain’s A-4 Skyhawk. He jumped from his plane through the flames, suffering serious burns and shrapnel wounds.

“He barely got out,” said retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, a longtime friend and fellow Vietnam POW.

McCain was undeterred. A few weeks later, he was flying off the USS Oriskany.

Life as a POW

On Oct. 26, 1967 – nearly three months after the Forrestal fire – McCain lost his last plane during a bombing raid 4,500 feet over Hanoi, Vietnam.

It was his 23rd flight mission in the war when a missile tore off his Skyhawk’s right wing, ejecting McCain and breaking his arms and right leg. He parachuted into Truc Bach Lake, where an angry mob dragged him to land and brutally beat him.

McCain was taken to Hao Lo prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.” His father’s role in the war would dictate his survival.

An interrogator told him, “your father is a big admiral … we’re going to take you to the hospital,” he recalled in the HBO documentary.

A doctor haphazardly set McCain’s broken bones without anesthesia. He was placed in a body cast.

His condition worsened quickly. Near death, he was taken on a stretcher to a cell with Air Force Col. George Everette “Bud” Day and Maj. Norris Overly.

“Bud and Norris wouldn't let me die,” McCain recalled in an emotional Senate floor tribute to Day, who died in 2013. “They bathed me, fed me, nursed me, encouraged me and ordered me back to life.”

As he recovered, he refused an interrogator’s offer to be released early, because military code dictated POWs be freed in order of their capture.

“We all found out about this along the way,” said Ellis, who was shot down 11 days after McCain. “But he decided pretty much on his own he wasn’t going to accept early release. He was probably one of the most seriously wounded. And he was again beaten and tortured.”

McCain was left with new injuries, broken bones and imprisonment that lasted four more years. He spent 2 1/2 years in solitary confinement, starting many mornings with a new trouncing.

His injuries made it difficult to walk, caused by a severe limp that collapsed his body to one side, Ellis remembered.

“He was an informal leader, he was highly respected” by the POWs, said Ellis, who was in a cell about 40 yards from McCain. “He was willing to pay the price to do what he believed was his duty.”

On March 14, 1973, McCain, Ellis and several other POWs were released to return home. Some POWs disappeared from public life. Others, such as McCain and Ellis, launched careers fueled by their experiences in Vietnam.

McCain underwent physical therapy and rose to commanding officer of a training squadron at Naval Air Station Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla. In the late 1970s, he became Navy liaison to the Senate, a role that his father held 20 years earlier.

“When we came home, that kind of rang a bell in his mind. He had that legacy growing up in the shadow of the Capitol with senators and congressman,” Ellis said. “It was a natural thing. He saw what worked and didn’t work and thought, ‘I can do this and contribute.’”

The Senator From Arizona

As he rehabbed his body and career, McCain lost sight of rebuilding his estranged marriage with Carol, who had suffered her own ordeal in a serious car crash. He had extramarital affairs.

In 1979 met Cindy Lou Hensley, a teacher from a wealthy Arizona beer distribution family, during a stopover in Honolulu. The following year, he and Carol quickly divorced and he married Hensley.

“It caused quite a rift within the family” that healed over time, Sidney McCain recalled in her father’s documentary.

The new couple made Arizona home, he retired from the Navy and worked for his well-connected in-laws. In 1982, he made a successful run for Congress and won a seat in the House of Representatives.

“He wanted and did succeed in getting into every nook and cranny of that state,” Clarke recalled. “All the ‘experts’ would say to him, ‘Don’t spend your time and effort on the Native American tribes because … they vote Democratic.’ But he thought they had been badly mistreated, so he would go to every reservation multiple times. It was an example of his commitment to the entire state.”

This, as a new Arizona power couple grew their family: Daughter Meghan was born in 1984 followed by sons Jack and Jimmy and adopted daughter Bridget.

Clarke said staff could hardly keep up.

“He outworked all of us,” she said. “We were half his age even back then and he just outworked all of us.”

Quickly, McCain’s “maverick” reputation grew.

In September 1983, then-Congressman McCain aligned with Democrats and about two dozen Republicans against President Ronald Reagan’s plan to keep Marines in Beirut. In a speech, McCain reminded his new colleagues of the Vietnam War, warning the longer the United States stayed in Lebanon, the harder it would be to leave.

“That was a terrific sign of why John McCain was there, what kind of person he was and what people would see in the years to follow,” Clarke recalled.

The following month, 241 Marines were killed when a truck bomb destroyed their barracks at the Beirut airport. Reagan withdrew the Marines four months later.

McCain’s reputation as an authority on foreign policy was set.

He served in the House for four years before his election to the Senate, taking over the retired seat of Barry Goldwater in 1987.

“He was one of the most important, substantive leaders for foreign policy on the Republican side in the Senate,” said Kurt Volker, a former State Department official who met McCain in the late 1990s.

Volker said McCain inspired him to let courage and integrity guide his career.

“He doesn’t look back,” said Volker, who runs Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. “What I got from that is just go do what you think you should do. Have courage and don’t worry about things.”

McCain’s first stumble as a lawmaker was one of his biggest, Clarke recalled. In the 1980s, he and four other U.S. lawmakers were accused of helping bank executive Charles Keating thwart a probe into the savings and loan crisis, which cost the U.S. government more than $100 billion.

Keating was accused of corrupt mismanagement of his Lincoln Savings and Loan Association and faced imprisonment. He donated $1.3 million to the lawmakers, who vouched in his favor with regulators.

Most of the lawmakers remained quiet after the “Keating Five” scandal. Not McCain.

“He told all of us on the staff, ‘No group too small, no reporter from too small a publication, I will talk to anyone because I want to say what I did, what I didn’t do and move on,’” Clarke said. “He did it in a very open, very transparent way. And you look at where the careers of Keating Five went after that? John did very, very well.”

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, arrive at a 2008 rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/AP

The Straight-Talk Express

In 2000, McCain challenged Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the Republican nomination for president. He brought his transparent approach, manic schedule along with Ellis, Clarke and newer friends such as then-U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina.

McCain won the New Hampshire Republican primary even as he was outspent by party favorite Bush. But the gain disappeared just as quickly in South Carolina, where McCain stumbled when he condoned the Confederate flag as a symbol of “heritage.” He later admitted he misled voters and stated the flag was offensive.

“I personally think it was a mistake,” said Clarke, who had appointed herself unofficial campaign adviser. “He was taking the political stand, not the John McCain stand, and I think that hurt him.”

Bush caught his stride in South Carolina as the race turned ugly, running away with the nomination and subsequently the presidency.

In 2008, McCain tried again. This time, his party was behind him.

“He really was the comeback kid that night,” Lieberman said, recalling the evening of McCain’s 2008 New Hampshire primary win. “From then on, he rode to the nomination.”

McCain had pushed for Lieberman to join him as a running mate for a bipartisan ticket.

“I was really surprised, flabbergasted,” said Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s Democratic running mate in the 2000 presidential election. “I was honored that my friend thought to actually consider me so seriously. That is how big a maverick he is and how much he believes in bipartisanship.”

But McCain buckled under party pressure, picking Republican Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska and setting off an irreversible media circus. In his 2018 book “The Restless Wave,” McCain admits he should have stuck with Lieberman.

“My gut told me to ignore it,” he wrote in his most recent memoir, which recounts his life since 2008. “And I wish I had.”

Against Barack Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois who was a fast-rising Democratic star and historical candidate, McCain soured on his chances to win.

“Even I was getting bored with the story,” McCain recalls in the book of one of his stump speeches. “The end came swiftly.”

McCain took time to rebuild. His friendship grew with Graham and Lieberman, known by some insiders as “The Three Amigos.” Gen. David Petraeus, who dubbed the group, said he later gifted the trio with a photo inscribed with the nickname during one of their many overseas visits with him.

“We always came to Iraq and Afghanistan to understand the war, and it stuck,” Graham recalled.

McCain, in the wake of his election loss, took the $9 million balance from his presidential campaign and launched the McCain Institute in a building near the White House.

“He has been on the wrong end of lots of things, from getting shot down, being a POW, getting beat up, the broken arms, losing runs for president twice, beat up by his own party on legislation,” Volker said. “And he just keeps going.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., at a hearing in January, 2015. Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes

The Defense Hawk

By 2005, the dark images of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had persisted for more than a year. In October, McCain introduced the Detainee Treatment Act to set new standards in the handling of POWs.

“Here is what we need to be doing as a country,” Volker recalled. But “it became a contest between the White House and Sen. McCain, which he ultimately won. His voice on the humane treatment of detainees – having been a prisoner of war himself – is irreplaceable.”

McCain’s fight with Bush was one of a series involving U.S. presidents, regardless of party. He railed against former President Bill Clinton and Obama on military funding concerns. But the relationships were also marked by mutual respect.

“For me and for other presidents, John has been a respected adviser on a broad range of issues. During my term, John was particularly helpful on the POW-MIA issue — helping America’s military families get the answers and closure they deserve,” former President George H.W. Bush said in an email interview. “John has always been a forceful advocate for a strong U.S. military capable of defending our nation and allies, while also protecting our values in an uncertain and often dangerous world.”

In the fall, McCain held more than a dozen hearings on military matters, such as the deadly ship collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain, named for his father and grandfather.

“He has articulated a role for the military in the country that is insisting on the respect due to the military, holding them accountable for their responsibilities, and insisting we provide them with resources and political strategy commensurate with what we ask of them,” Volker said.

Clinton, who had not served in the military, faced controversy when he wanted to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a new president in 1993. McCain volunteered to go with him.

“His relationships with all presidents is deeply rooted in his respect of the office of the presidency. He can disagree with you but he’ll still admire and respect you,” Clarke said. “He can have a fight with you and then get over that and move on.”

That isn’t as clear with President Donald Trump.

In 2015, the presidential candidate turned on a defiant McCain, who had refused to publicly back him. Trump said McCain wasn’t a war hero, because he likes people “who weren’t captured.”

The tension between the two men continued into Trump's presidency. McCain attacked Trump’s relationship with Russia, his “America First” ideology, his dismissal of traditional democratic values and his fawning over world dictators.

With each new McCain rebuke, Trump and his cronies responded with insults publicly and behind closed doors.

But McCain never wavered.

“I’m not sure what to make of President Trump’s convictions,” McCain wrote in “The Restless Wave.” “His lack of empathy for refugees, innocent, persecuted, desperate men, women and children, is disturbing.”

A Last Stand

In the fall, McCain continued to rage against perceived political sins. But the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee began to visibly deteriorate.

By November, McCain struggled to stand on his own, resorted to a walking boot, cane and, eventually, a wheelchair.

Days before a Republican tax reform vote in December, McCain was treated for a viral infection at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and returned home to Arizona.

As the weeks wore into spring, McCain’s return to Washington turned doubtful. On April 15, he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix for surgery to treat an intestinal infection.

In the final months, he welcomed visits at his home near Sedona, Ariz., from a long list of well-wishers, including Lieberman, Graham, former Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and outgoing Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.

“He had briefing books on this lap,” Flake, who visited after the April surgery, said with a laugh. “And he was still driving his staff crazy.”

Lieberman said the two grew closer as McCain found a new strength during one of the most painful chapters of his life.

I saw “another side of him. Not that it was a shocking side,” Lieberman said. He was “confronting his own mortality.”

Richard Fontaine, McCain’s national security adviser in the mid- to late 2000s who visited in March, saw a similar calm as they talked about everything from the senator’s beloved Hidden Valley Road property to the Battle of Borodino during the Napoleonic Wars.

“The thing that struck me is that McCain himself is the most sanguine one about it all,” said Fontaine, now president of the Washington think tank Center for New American Security. “Everybody is quite obviously worried. And McCain just strikes me as just very peaceful about the whole thing.”

McCain became a role model on how to die, Lieberman said.

“He looks at what he’s been able to achieve, his family, his children and he has a lot of gratitude,” Lieberman reflected. “I said to him, ‘In your response to this challenge, you are teaching people again about an important life lesson.’”

McCain has faced cancer before in the form of melanoma in the mid-1990s. And while some medical experts said previous cancer treatment might have aided McCain, glioblastoma is a cruel opponent. Life expectancies are estimated at 14 months, with 5 to 10 percent of patients going on to live five years or more.

Still, McCain stayed the course in his final months on Capitol Hill, helping shepherd through a massive $700 billion defense bill as he worked on parting messages to the American people in his “The Restless Wave” book and the HBO film, both released in May.

From Arizona, McCain issued statements pushing for U.S. diplomacy in Myanmar to protect the Rohingya Muslims and lauding Mike Pompeo’s appointment to Secretary of State. He also co-sponsored several bipartisan bills, including a compromise immigration effort, the expansion of the Amber Alert system to Native American reservations and targeting pork barrel spending, among others. Trump signed the Amber Alert legislation into law in April.

“John has risen to become one of the nation’s most respected voices on issues of critical importance to our people and common future,” Bush said. “He is true to his conservative principles, but is independent-minded enough to put the country ahead of party and politics when needed.”

In the end, McCain said he wanted to make clear that he was grateful and fortunate to live a full life.

“I’ve been given more years than many, and had enough narrow escapes along the way to make me appreciate them not just in memory but while I live them,” McCain said in “The Restless Wave.” “Many an old geezer like me reaches his last years wishing he had lived more in the moment, had savored his last days as they happen. Not me, friends. Not me. I have loved my life. All of it.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in January, 2017.


By STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 25, 2018