John McCain, longtime Arizona senator, dead at 81
Maverick politician, established statesman, war hero & combative debater
U.S. Sen. John McCain, who outlived the odds time and again, died Saturday afternoon, a day after his family announced that he had halted treatment for aggressive brain cancer. "The progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict," his family said Friday morning.
Saturday, his office announced his death with a brief statement: "Sen. John Sidney McCain III died at 4:28pm on August 25, 2018. With the senator when he passed were his wife Cindy and their family. At his death, he had served the United States of America faithfully for 60 years."
The six-term Arizona senator, who went from defiant prisoner of war to straight-talking Republican presidential candidate and conservative ideologist, died Saturday little more than a year after doctors diagnosed him with brain cancer. He was 81.
McCain began his public life as an outsider, but he morphed into an Arizona icon with national and international reach by the end of his career, leaving behind a legacy of leadership.
He cultivated a reputation as a maverick, and he battled with President Donald Trump and the right-wing base over reforming health care and immigration and bolstering pro-business and property and land rights. McCain, the GOP’s nominee for president in 2008, believed in American involvement on foreign soil, robust health care for veterans and a pro-business approach to environmental rights.
McCain announced that he had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, last July after he had an operation to remove a two-inch tumor.
"In the year since, John has surpassed expectations for his survival," his family said Friday morning.
"With his usual strength of will, he has now chosen to discontinue medical treatment," the McCain family said in a statement released by his office Friday morning.
"Our family is immensely grateful for the support and kindness of all his caregivers over the last year, and for the continuing outpouring of concern and affection from John’s many friends and associates, and the many thousands of people who are keeping him in their prayers. God bless and thank you all."
"My family is deeply appreciative of all the love and generosity you have shown us during this past year," one of the senator's daughters, Meghan McCain, added in an Instagram post. "Thank you for all your continued support and prayers. We could not have made it this far without you — you've given us strength to carry on."
Arizona leaders and residents responded to news of McCain’s death with sorrow and tributes.
Trump, who often clashed with McCain, tweeted his condolences to the family.
And U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake called his longtime Republican colleague a hero.
Gov. Doug Ducey, who ordered flags at half-staff, will choose a temporary successor for McCain. He has not said who he will pick but said he will not select himself, the Arizona Republic reported.
The New York Times reported that McCain will lie in state at the Arizona Capitol and in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., and receive a full-dress funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral.
The 81-year-old Republican from Arizona — he was set to turn 82 on Wednesday — did not take a vote in the Senate this year, but issued a steady stream of statements on political issues. In addition to his usual backing of bolstered military spending, McCain kept up his criticisms of President Donald Trump, blasting what McCain has deemed a fawning relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
But this month, the pace of those statements slowed, even as Congress passed a major defense spending bill named after him. In the last few weeks, McCain spent time at his home near Sedona, receiving a stream of family and friends.
On Saturday evening, a contingent of Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers began a motorcade to carry the senator's body to Phoenix.
"My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!," President Trump tweeted Saturday, after McCain's death was announced.
"Words cannot express the sorrow I feel at John McCain’s passing. The world has lost a hero and a statesman. Cindy and the McCain family have lost a loving husband and father. I have lost a wonderful friend," fellow Arizona Republican Jeff Flake tweeted Saturday.
"John McCain is one American who will never be forgotten," Gov. Doug Ducey said after McCain's death was announced.
"He was a giant. An icon. An American hero. But here at home, we were most proud to call him a fellow Arizonan. Like so many of us, he was not born here, but his spirit, service and fierce independence shaped the state with which he became synonymous," Ducey said.
Ducey ordered flags in the state to be immediately lowered to half-staff, and to remain so until sunset on the day of McCain's internment.
"John McCain personifies service to our country," Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said Friday.
"John McCain's life has been one of service and sacrifice. His strength and resolve enabled him to endure 5.5 years as a prisoner of war, and to continue to serve his country for decades," said U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican running to fill Flake's seat.
"No man this century better exemplifies honor, patriotism, service, sacrifice, and country first than Senator John McCain. His heroism inspires, his life shapes our character. I am blessed and humbled by our friendship," former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Friday.
Neither Trump nor the White House had any comment on McCain's announcement Friday. Trump spent the morning raging at his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in a series of tweets.
McCain died on the same day of the year, from the same cancer, that killed his longtime friend, senatorial colleague and political sparring partner, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy. Kennedy died from glioblastoma Aug. 25, 2009. The Massachusetts Democrat had been diagnosed in 2008 after a seizure.
In October, McCain accepted the Liberty Medal to cap six decades of public service.
As he accepted the medal – previously given to the Dalai Lama, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Muhammad Ali – the senator delivered remarks about a moral responsibility to international leadership and ideals. Some considered them as a formal rebuke of Trump’s U.S. focus. But for most of McCain’s remarks, he expressed gratitude for the ability to serve, pride in the nation and its citizens and awe at his life's journey.
“We are living in the land of the free,” he said, “the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, the land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.”
After McCain’s diagnosis, Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who has served as Arizona governor and head of Homeland Security, said his legacy will include his willingness to stand against the tide.
“He is one of the most interesting people in modern American politics because of his personal history, his unpredictability and because he didn’t necessarily toe the party line on things,” she said in an interview.
McCain had a form of cancer that is the most aggressive type that begins in the brain, with early symptoms that may include personality changes, headaches, and symptoms similar to those of a stroke.
Related: What to know about glioblastoma
Glioblastomas generally recur, despite surgery and cancer treatments, and most patients live 12-15 months after diagnosis. Less than 3-5 percent live longer than five years, with those patients who are not treated dying within three months.
McCain had less-aggressive cancers before. He had surgery to remove Stage IIa melanoma in 2000, including removing the lymph nodes on the left side of his neck. He had four operations to remove skin cancers since 1993, and at least one non-cancerous mole removed as a precaution, in 2008.
McCain had a two-inch blood clot removed from his brain above his left eye last July. Surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix performed the operation, which required a craniotomy near his eyebrow.
Pathology "revealed that a primary brain tumor known as a glioblastoma was associated with the blood clot."
McCain announced his diagnosis on July 19, 2017, less than a week after he had been hospitalized for removal of a suspicious blood clot over his left eye. The Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, where McCain underwent the blood-clot surgery, said at the time that McCain’s underlying health was excellent and his office said he was in good spirits.
But the Mayo Clinic website also said that glioblastoma is an “aggressive type of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord,” and that it can “be very difficult to treat and a cure is often not possible.”
According to the American Cancer Society, glioblastoma tumors are a fast-growing category of brain tumors that begin in the glial cells, which surround the central nervous system. It is the same type of cancer that killed Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, in 2009 and killed former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, in 2015.
Biden consoled Meghan McCain about her father’s health on ABC’s “The View” last December, months after the senator's diagnosis.
Although glioblastoma was “about as bad as it gets,” Biden said, they had hope for new medical treatments.
“If anybody can make it, (it’s) your dad,” Biden said. “Her dad is one of my best friends.”
McCain's last big vote: Thumb down on repealing Obamacare & a snub of Trump
McCain returned to the Capitol in late July 2017 when he cast a critical early-morning vote that salvaged Obamacare, dramatically appearing on the floor of the Senate to indicate his vote with a thumb rotated down toward the floor — a defeat for a signature campaign promise of President Trump.
He remained in Washington through the fall, and was honored in October with the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal in Philadelphia.
At that event, McCain made an emotional appeal for the U.S. to rediscover its values and to reject the “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems” – an apparent reference to President Donald Trump, with whom he often sparred.
It was one of many awards, and several calls to action by McCain after his diagnosis. But by the time he was being honored this spring at his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, the senator was back in Arizona receiving treatment and too ill to travel.
The Naval Academy honor was accepted on McCain’s behalf by Biden, a longtime Senate friend, who said the Arizona senator and Navy veteran had lived a “life of honor, decency, duty and devotion to his country like none other in modern American history.”
“Like my Beau, John has never bent, never bowed and never, ever yielded,” Biden said. “And he has never given up hope.”
The news of McCain’s diagnosis last summer brought an outpouring of support from friends and political foes alike.
Fellow Arizona Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake, said of McCain at the time, “Tough diagnosis, but even tougher man.” Former President Barack Obama tweeted: “John McCain is an American hero and one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”
McCain’s daughter, Meghan, called her dad “a warrior at dusk, one of the greatest Americans of our age, and the worthy heir to his father’s and grandfather’s name.”
“But to me he is something more. He is my strength, my example, my refuge, my confidante, my teacher, my rock, my hero – my dad,” she wrote.
Born into military life
McCain was born Aug. 29, 1936, at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in Panama to John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta McCain.
Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, he entered the Naval Academy in 1954, just one year before U.S. military involvement in Vietnam began. He graduated – near the bottom of his class – after three years of flight school and volunteered for combat duty in Southeast Asia.
On one of his bombing missions, a missile hit McCain’s A-4E Skyhawk jet, forcing him to eject, according to his first-person account in U.S. News & World Report and his memoir. He landed on enemy territory in Hanoi.
North Vietnamese troops captured the battered McCain but refused to treat his injuries until they discovered his father was a high-ranking admiral, according to news media reports. As a prisoner of war, he was routinely tortured and kept in joint or solitary confinement. He was offered release as a political ruse but declined, requesting that other prisoners be sent home before him, according to his book, “Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir.”
After nearly six years, McCain was released when the Paris Peace Accords were signed to mark the end of the Vietnam War. He was welcomed as a war hero upon his return to the U.S. in March 1973. He received a Silver Star for “extreme mental and physical cruelties” and the Purple Heart, among others awards, for his bravery in Vietnam.
McCain launched his first foray into politics as the Navy’s liaison to the Senate. He retired from the Navy in 1981 as a captain.
Arizona, and a new life, loomed on the horizon.
During his stint as liaison, McCain met Cindy Hensley, daughter of wealthy beer distributor Jim Hensley, at a military reception in Hawaii. The father of three, he was in a troubled marriage at the time, but after a year, he divorced and married Hensley. After he retired, the newlyweds moved in 1981 to Cindy McCain’s home city of Phoenix, where John went to work for his father-in-law and started to make key connections with Republicans across the state.
A political newcomer on the rise
When he first ran for office, critics saw him as a “carpetbagger,” according to Newsweek and other news media accounts. But his war hero status eventually helped overcome the label, winning him his first election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served two terms.
Voters elected McCain into the U.S. Senate in 1986, securing the position from retiring Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater.
“He stands alone with Barry Goldwater as two of the greatest politicians and advocates for Arizona and the military,” Arizona resident Steven Isham said of McCain in 2017. “He has served with distinction in every environment of his life.”
Years later, in 1998, McCain would write a Goldwater eulogy, saying, “In all the histories of American politics, he will remain a chapter unto himself. The rest of us will have to make do as footnotes.”
McCain’s campaigns led to easy victories to keep his Senate seat, but he faced two ultimately disappointing runs to become the nation’s president. After campaigning on the Straight Talk Express, so-called because of McCain’s unusual candor and reputation as a maverick, he ceded the Republican nomination to George Bush in 2000.
He later rose to capture the party nomination in 2008 and brought an unknown Alaska politician, Sarah Palin, into the national conservative fold as his running mate to battle Barack Obama for the presidency.
Palin, then a political neophyte on the national stage who became beloved by conservatives and a magnet for critics for her lack of experience, bolstered McCain’s image as a “conservative crusader.” Palin was anti-abortion, leaned far right on environmental issues and disagreed with McCain’s support of gay marriage.
Obama and McCain disagreed about most major issues, most notably foreign policy. Throughout the election, McCain often criticized Obama’s proposed strategies for Iraq and Iran.
But after voters elected Obama as the nation’s first African-American president, McCain congratulated the nation.
“Tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama,” McCain said in his concession speech.
McCain, who had a record of coasting to victory as an Arizona senator, faced a tough reelection battle on his final run for office in 2016. He won with 53 percent of votes against Democrat opponent Ann Kirkpatrick.
Land rights, veterans support and foreign policy
McCain built his political reputation as a conservative with bipartisan reach, a man with a temper and the rare elected official to speak without a political filter.
“He’s someone who will be viewed as an independent actor, as someone who on some issues worked across the aisle,” former Gov. Napolitano said.
A fervent opponent of Obamacare, McCain returned to the Capitol days after his glioblastoma diagnosis to cast the deciding vote against a proposed Senate bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. The senator said the issue needed more time and proper discussion. When the vote came, McCain dramatically signaled thumbs down.
McCain left some of his strongest marks on land rights, foreign policy and veterans issues.
Beginning in the early 1980s and ‘90s, McCain was outspoken on issues of foreign policy, first attacking Ronald Reagan’s decision to invade Lebanon – a critique that would later be vindicated after more than 200 U.S. Marines died in a truck bombing. McCain also voiced his distaste for Bush’s Iraq policy, urging the president for years to send more troops, the Washington Post reported.
In 2014, he spearheaded bipartisan efforts with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to investigate delayed and denied care at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. Together they wrote the Veterans’ Access to Care Through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act. The act allowed veterans to choose alternate local health care providers that could provide quick and affordable care and called for the VA to hire more doctors and nurses.
McCain usually showed a Republican bent on issues such as the environment and gun control. He opposed a proposal to add 1.7 million acres as a national monument surrounding the Grand Canyon National Monument, calling it a land grab. He countered moves by Obama on gun control, saying drastic changes would cost businesses and consumers dearly.
In 2016, McCain released a statement against Obama’s executive action on gun control, saying, “Obama has once again ignored the separation of powers and disregarded the rule of law. Regardless of merit, this is a classic abuse of executive power.”
In October 2017, McCain applauded the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to withdraw from the Clean Power Plan, a decision made under Trump-appointed Republican administrator Scott Pruitt. McCain released a statement saying, “This onerous rule would have created millions in compliance costs for Arizona utilities, which would have been forced to pass on costs to Arizona consumers.”
But McCain never shied from taking a more liberal stance on key issues, often to the surprise of his political partners.
McCain would eventually buck his own party – as well as his tendencies on environmental issues – in 2017, calling for common sense solutions to changes in the climate, which he called “unprecedented” in recent years.
He became a stark contrast to most conservative opinions on campaign finance reform. Most notably, McCain spearheaded the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 alongside his Democratic colleague and friend, Russ Feingold. The law brought attention to unregulated “soft money” – contributions to a political party that go toward things such as “party building” activities.
Bumping into Trump
The McCain-Trump relationship soured further during the 2016 presidential campaign after Trump, referring to McCain’s POW experience, said, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
McCain didn’t reply directly to the remarks, but he criticized Trump.
In Oct. 8, 2016, according to the Arizona Republic, McCain officially withdrew his support for Trump after recorded evidence surfaced of Trump speaking of women in a sexually demeaning manner.
“When Mr. Trump attacks women and demeans the women in our nation and in our society, that is a point where I just have to part company,” he said, referring to the Access Hollywood tape.
Trump replied to McCain’s decision in a tweet, defending the comments as “locker room remarks.”
During a rally in Phoenix, Trump lashed out at McCain, calling him an “incompetent politician,” according to azcentral.com.
Earlier this year, CNN reported that McCain stymied efforts by the GOP to overhaul the Affordable Care Act, a decision he acknowledged was a tough one. “I take no pleasure in announcing my opposition. Far from it,” McCain said in a statement.
“His thumbs-down vote to gut Obamacare was quintessential McCain,” Napolitano said. “He was voting independently and set up the moment for maximum dramatic effect.”
McCain cast the dramatic “no” vote despite the fact that Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of McCain’s closest friends, was a primary backer of the bill. Graham took to Twitter to assure the public that McCain’s vote wouldn’t hinder their friendship:
But the vote came as a disappointment to Trump, who had tweeted before the voting his desire for an all-Republicans-on-board strategy for the bill.
The McCain family
McCain leaves his wife, Cindy McCain, and seven children: Douglas, Andrew, Sidney, Meghan, John, James and Bridget. He has five grandchildren, and his mother, Roberta McCain, is still alive at 106.
Cindy McCain was at the Grand Canyon in April as a plaque dedicated to her husband and the late Rep. Morris Udall was unveiled.
Cindy McCain, who spoke at the ceremony unveiling the plaque’s design, said she was moved by the tribute. “It’s heartwarming, and it’s such an honor,” she said.
Meghan McCain, who rose to become a notable public figure during her father’s 2008 presidential campaign, later became a Fox News host and joined the daytime television talk show “The View.”
Cronkite News reporter Alexis Egeland contributed to this story.