John McCain: Reflecting on the life of the ultimate bipartisan

remembers the career of one of Washington’s best dealmakers

Image: United States Congress

By the time John McCain passed away on the 25th August following an extended battle with cancer, he has secured a rare accolade: he was one of the few American politicians that would be remembered as a hero by both Republicans and Democrats alike. He had served as a naval aviator in Vietnam, contested for the United States Presidency, and built countless relationships in his 30+ years in the Senate, through his policy of mutual respect and bipartisanship.

Born in the Panama Canal Zone in Coco Solo Naval Air Station in August 1936, a career in the military was inevitable. Both his father and grandfather were four-star admirals by the end of their service. He followed them both in attending the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. There, his rebellious streak that earned him the nickname ‘McNasty’ in high school was cultivated, and McCain became known for his rugged sense of individualism and leadership. This was evident both in the classroom, and on epic nights out in town that often involved run-ins with the local police. He graduated 854th in his class, fifth from the bottom.

At flight school in Florida, McCain was not renowned for his skills in the air, but after flying successive missions in North Vietnam, he received a promotion to Lieutenant Commander. On October 26th, 1967, following a successful bombing run on a heavily defended power plant in Hanoi, his plane was struck by a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile. With both arms broken and his leg shattered, McCain was pulled to the bottom of a lake by 22kg of gear, only surviving by pulling the tab on his lifejacket with his teeth. He was set upon by a Vietnamese mob, whose distaste for American pilots, particularly bombers, was obvious. He was bayoneted in the groin, and had his shoulder smashed with a rifle butt. He would remain incarcerated in Hanoi for five and a half years until his release in 1973. When his father became Pacific Theater commander in 1968, McCain was immediately offered early repatriation. The elder Commander McCain refused, following the military code that prisoners were to be returned in the order they were taken.

Having endured torture with ropes, malnourishment, and solitary confinement for two years, McCain was eventually returned to the US, and set his sight on a congressional seat. He would spend two terms in the house, and six as a Senator for Arizona. He began his political career as a supporter of Reaganism, but moved to the left afterwards, earning a reputation as a staunch independent who defied his party’s leaders, and compromised with the other side. In the early 90s, he was embroiled in a corruption scandal with four other Democrats: he emerged from with his honour shamed, and spent the rest of his Senate career campaigning for stricter ethics laws and campaign finance regulation. In 2002, he worked with Democrat Russ Feingold to pass a bill regulating America’s loosely-controlled campaign finance laws. Feingold would later serve as McCain’s funeral pallbearer: their productive working relationship was symbolic of their dual passion for bipartisan legislation trumping more one-sided victories.

On foreign policy, McCain had a notoriously hawkish streak, likely influenced by his time in the military. He endorsed US intervention in Ukraine, Libya, Nigeria, and Syria among others. Following his ordeal in Vietnam, McCain also became a rare Republican opponent of torture of prisoners, despite his support for the Iraq war. His bill in 2005 limited interrogation techniques, and his proposal in 2008 to ban waterboarding passed in Congress, but was vetoed by President Bush. It is a testament to the length of McCain’s career that his Presidential bid in 2008 was not his defining political endeavour. He cited his decision to choose Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate as one of his greatest regrets. Palin was absent from his funeral. Also absent was President Donald Trump, who McCain heavily criticized, including voting down the President’s healthcare bill. McCain resisted the President on many fronts, saying the administration was in ‘disarray’. Despite this criticism, McCain eventually acquiesced on the Republicans’ 2017 tax bill, giving Trump his lone legislative triumph of the year.

The Senator exhibited great courage over his lifetime, but received criticism, especially for his activist vision for the US military. For his legislative service, he was given the honour of lying in State in his home-from-home: the US Capitol. McCain will be remembered as a rare man of principle in a political landscape where sticking to one’s convictions often went unrewarded.

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