John McCain, who began a lifetime in the service of America as a navy pilot, and ended it as a five-term Republican senator, has died of brain cancer at the age of eighty-one. The senator for Arizona ran for president twice, the second time against Barrack Obama in 2008, and became known as the ‘Maverick’ in the Senate for his commitment to a personal ideology that superseded Republican Party doctrine. He died at his home in Phoenix, Arizona, at 4.20 pm local time on Saturday 15, following a year of chemotherapy for a malignant glioblastoma. His funeral was attended by notorieties from Washington and the wider world, but President Donald Trump was not among the mourners, opting to threaten Canada on Twitter instead. Despite his condition, McCain returned to the Senate to vote against his own party’s drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act, widening the very public rift between the president and himself.
he always strove to serve
McCain became a household name in America after his jet was shot down over Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Coming from a distinguished military family, and as the son of the commander of US forces in the Pacific, his capture was highly publicised by North Vietnamese propagandists. His tempestuous character and powerful personal ideology led him to attempt suicide twice, rather than be wielded by America’s enemies against the Republic he always strove to serve. After repeatedly rejecting early release, he was eventually tortured into a ‘confession’. None thought it genuine. With ambitions of a long and prestigious career in the military terminated by his injuries, he won election to the House of Representatives for Arizona’s First District, as a Reagan Republican in 1982. He served two terms before moving to the Senate, where he ascended to the pinnacles of power over five consecutive terms.
McCain became renowned for his hawkish stance on foreign policy, but worked to reinstate diplomatic relations with Vietnam in the 1990s. Although his politics moved from right to left and back again throughout his career, he is regarded as an archetypal ‘neo-conservative’ by many, for his strong and sometimes strident support of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, following 9/11. He is closely associated with the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Bremer and Colin Powel, despite never holding an official position within the Bush administration, for his reliable support of military intervention. He consistently emphasised the importance of achieving an outright victory in Iraq and supported the 2007 troop surge. McCain had run against Bush in the Republican presidential primaries of 2000, but the attack on the Trade Centres shunted him – like so many – squarely behind the administration’s national security agenda.
McCain’s maverick attitude had gained him broad popularity throughout his career
Even during the congressional term that followed 9/11, when there was a fearful crescendo of Republican support in the country, McCain continued to work across the aisle on domestic issues, playing an integral role in the ‘Gang of 14’, which worked to avert deadlock and a Republican resort to the ‘nuclear option’ on judicial appointments. He became a true titan on Capitol Hill, and in 2008 successfully captured his party’s nomination for President of the United States. McCain’s maverick attitude had gained him broad popularity throughout his career, but he was somewhat tarnished by his support for the war in Iraq. His opponent could not have been more different; young, new to Washington and perhaps most significantly, black. McCain’s broad appeal was further diminished by the choice of Sarah Palin for Vice President, a move that made supporting the McCain ticket unattractive to many moderates. Although Obama only won by 52.9% to McCain’s 45.7%, Obama won heavily in the Electoral College, claiming 365 delegates to 173.
Following the election, McCain’s politics moved right, consistent with the broader Republican Party, and the rise of the Tea Party, which was gaining traction among conservative grass root organisations. This rightward tilt helped him fend off a challenge in the 2010 Arizona primary. In the Senate, he was a key figure in another bipartisan effort, the ‘Gang of Eight’, engaged with immigration reform, and became a hugely influential voice in Washington. “When Mr. McCain is with the president — on immigration and in brokering the recent deal to secure Senate approval of stalled Obama nominees — they can usually trump the political right,” said the New York Times in 2013. “When he is against him — sabotaging Mr. Obama’s plan last year to nominate Susan E. Rice as secretary of state — the White House rarely prevails.” In becoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services in 2015, he finally acquired a position that reflected his political clout.
McCain was one of the few high ranking Republicans to oppose Trump once he had won the presidential primaries, criticising Trump’s conduct towards the family of a Muslim American Soldier, hostile characterisation of immigrants, and his affinity with tyrants. McCain and Mitt Romney, (another Republican candidate for president), joined in condemnation of Trump’s ignorance of foreign policy. In response, Trump quipped that he liked “people who weren’t captured”, and claimed McCain was not a war hero. Despite this, McCain worked hard to help cement the new administration after the election, and to establish a working relationship between Congress and the Whitehouse.
Whether right or wrong, as a war hero and then a politician, McCain always did what he believed was in the best interests of the United States and the globe.
His departure from the Senate rendered it a less honest and cooperative institution, at a time when both honesty and cooperation are sparse commodities. Whether right or wrong, as a war hero and then a politician, McCain always did what he believed was in the best interests of the United States and the globe. One might reasonably fear that McCain’s passing embodies the death of an American era, built on the ideals of service, cooperation and global responsibility, that are so clearly lacking in US politics today.