I didn’t always agree with his politics, but, in my opinion, John McCain was a true American hero. Although he made some mistakes in his life (as we all do), I believe that, for the most part, he acted sincerely and in what he thought was in the best interests of the country.
John Sidney McCain III was born on August 29, 1936 at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father was stationed at the time, and which was considered part of the US at the time. He was the middle of three children, with an older sister and a younger brother.
McCain came from a military family with deep roots in America. Both his father and paternal grandfather were four-star Admirals, and an ancestor of his actually fought in the Continental Army under George Washington.
Like a lot of boys, McCain was an indifferent student. He applied himself to subjects that interested him, such as literature and history, but barely scraped by in those that did not, such as math. He did not always obey all the rules. He liked to party. At the Naval Academy, for example, he apparently did just enough to get by, graduating with a rank of 894 out of 899.
Somehow, he got into flight school, but he did not exactly distinguish himself there either. He developed a reputation as a subpar pilot who liked to “push the envelope.” At times, he could be careless, or even reckless. For example, on two occasions he crashed and on a third he collided with a power line. Miraculously, he was not hurt seriously any of those times. Although his piloting skills improved over time and he graduated, quite possibly, he benefitted from whom his family connections.
In any event, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier, USS Forrestal, in the Gulf of Tonkin. During his time there the ship suffered a serious fire that killed 134 sailors and took 36 hours to put out. McCain escaped from his burning jet and while helping another pilot he was injured, but not seriously. Around that time McCain was one of a group of pilots who chafed under what they considered “micromanagement” of civilian policymakers from Washington labelling them “complete idiots who didn’t have the least notion of what it took to win the war.” Strong words, but as things turned out, prescient.
In October 1967 while on a routine bombing run over Hanoi McCain’s plane was shot down by a missile. He managed to parachute into a lake, but he was badly injured. Both arms and one leg were fractured, and he was badly beaten by the North Vietnamese who recovered him.
Eventually, the NV took him to the so-called “Hanoi Hilton,” where he was beaten and tortured repeatedly. Moreover, his wounds were not treated properly. Safe to say, the Geneva Convention protocols were not followed in the least.
At some point, the NV ascertained his father’s rank and importance and broadcast his bed-bound picture all over the world. Then, they offered to release him. McCain famously refused, for two reasons. Firstly, he correctly surmised such a release would have been solely for propaganda purposes. Secondly, the US military Code of Conduct stipulated that prisoners were only to be released in the order in which they had been captured. As accountants like to say – FIFO, or first in, first out. McCain remained a prisoner for some 5 1/2 years. He was finally released on March 14, 1973. His injuries never healed fully. For example, he was never again able to lift his arms over his head.
During his incarceration his wife, Carol, had suffered serious injury in an automobile accident. Soon after his return and while separated from his wife McCain began a relationship with Cindy Lou Hensley, a Phoenix school teacher whose father was a very wealthy and influential Anheuser-Busch beer distributor. He petitioned Carol for a divorce, which was granted in February 1980. John and Cindy married that April. John and Cindy had three children, one of which is Meghan McCain, a political commentator of some note.
Soon after his return McCain had retired from the Navy. In 1982 he decided to run for Congress as a Republican, and he won. He served in the House until 1986 when he ran for and won a seat in the Senate. He served six terms in the Senate, for the most part with great distinction. His forte was military matters and he rose to the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee. During his career McCain became known affectionately as a “maverick.” That is, on occasion he did not “toe” the party line. He seemed to relish the occasional prospect of challenging the GOP leadership. For example, he led the fight to reform what he saw as the corrupting influence of large campaign contributions by wealthy and influential donors, especially so-called “soft money.” Along with Democratic Senator Ross Feingold he co-sponsored a bill to place limits on these contributions. Additionally, he broke with the party leadership over gun legislation, climate control, HMO reform, and the Bush tax cuts.
McCain probably had two reasonably good chances to become President. In 2000 he was a serious challenger to George Bush. He won the New Hampshire primary handily over Bush, 49%-30%, aided, in large part by independents who were able to vote in the primary. His campaign suffered a fatal blow in South Carolina, however, a significantly more conservative state with a sizeable evangelical constituency. Bush beat him 53%-42%, and that was that.
Then, in 2008 he won the GOP nomination and ran against Barack Obama. In the early stages the race was close and McCain had a reasonable chance to win. After all, he was a war hero and had a huge edge in experience with a reputation for being able to “reach across the aisle” to get things done. In the minds of many, including me, his fatal error was selecting little-known Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. Her introduction to the media and the public was severely mishandled. Furthermore, it became obvious that her vetting had been inadequate. Palin demonstrated an alarming lack of knowledge of the issues and committed several “gaffes” in interviews. Also, McCain’s health was an issue, and to many, the prospect of Palin ascending to the presidency was too scary to contemplate. McCain lost and returned to the Senate, where he remained until his death.
To be fair and balanced, I feel compelled to denote the following four negative events in which he was involved:
1. His involvement with Charles Keating in the Savings and Loan scandal in the late 1980s. Keating, who was at the epicenter of the multi-billion dollar S & L scandals, was a large donor of McCain’s. Eventually, McCain was cleared of any illegality, but cited for exercising “poor judgment.”
2. His inexplicable choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, which, as I said, I believe sunk his campaign. To me, that showed very poor judgment and a lack of control over his own campaign.
3. Despite his promise to support the 2016 GOP nominee, whoever it was, he did not support Donald Trump. In fact, he tried to undermine him at every opportunity both during the campaign and after his election.
4. He left a hospital bed to cast the deciding vote to kill the bill that would have reformed the ACA for no reason I can discern except spite.
That said, as I stated above McCain was a legitimate war hero. How he was able to withstand 5+ years of physical, emotional and mental torture by the NV I will never know. Most of us cannot conceive of what he went through. Moreover, he served in the Congress for some 36 years with great distinction. He deserves all the accolades that have come pouring in during the last few days.
In July he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Last week, he and his family directed doctors to cease treatment. After that, it was just a matter of days.
John McCain passed away on August 25. Rest in peace John. You were truly an American hero and you will be sorely missed.