John Sidney McCain III was born in 1936 at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station in Panama. The careers of his father and grandfather, the first father-son pair to achieve four-star admiral rank, led McCain to spend much of his adolescent life moving between naval bases. After graduating from a private boarding school in Virginia, McCain attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He chose not to conform to the school’s rules, receiving over one hundred demerits, and graduated 5th from the bottom in class rank (894th out of 899). He later attended a flight school at Corpus Christi which he graduated in 1960.
On October 26, 1967, McCain was flying his twenty-third mission in Vietnam, an attempted raid against a thermal power plant. A Soviet anti-aircraft missile blew off one of his wings, causing his plane to plummet to the ground, where he was captured by Vietnamese troops.
McCain was taken to the Northern Vietnamese Hỏa Lò prison, where he traded hospital treatment for information, in violation with the military’s Code of Conduct (He later said he regretted this action). His captors learned he was a son of a high-ranking officer and offered to release him, but McCain refused, knowing that the Northern Vietnamese would use his release as propaganda. As a result, he spent over five years tortured in various prison camps, including over three years in solitary confinement. He was released from the prison with his prisoners of war after the Vietnam ceasefire went into effect.
After returning to the U.S., McCain was determined to begin flying again. He became the commanding officer of an army air group known as the “Hellrazors,” where he removed personnel he thought were ineffective and demanded respect for female officers arriving to the unit. The group had no accidents and received a Meritorious Unit Commendation.
In 1980, McCain decided to retire after having spent 22 years in the Navy. He told the Secretary of the Navy, who opposed his leaving, that he could have a greater impact in Congress.
He was elected to the Senate in 1987, and subsequently joined the Armed Services Committee, the Commerce Committee, and the Indian Affairs Committee. Three important bills he sponsored were:
- Climate Stewardship Acts: Aim was to introduce a cap and trade system for greenhouse gases to reduce pollution. This bill was overturned three times.
- Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act: Prohibited the use of soft money in campaign finance, i.e. using funds which were not subject to federal limits; preventing issue advocacy ads funded by corporations and issue organizations that mention a candidate, in effect thirty days before a caucus or 60 days before a general election. This was overturned in Citizens United.
- Detainee Treatment Act: Prohibited cruel punishment and interrogation of any prisoner of the U.S. government and expanded civil liberties given to those detained in Guantanamo Bay.
In the 1980s, he became embroiled in the Keating scandal, in which he was given lawful contributions in excess of $100,000 from Charles Keating and his associates at Lincoln Savings. Keating contacted him and four others to prevent the governmental seizure of Lincoln, and McCain met with regulators twice to discuss the investigation. McCain was cleared by the Ethics committee despite his actions.
He ran for President in 2000 and 2008. In 2000, he lost in the primaries against Bush, who had won the hearts of evangelical voters and had more money to spend than McCain. After Bush finished his two terms, McCain ran for election again with running mate Sarah Palin. His decision to choose Palin was criticized by the press and often overshadowed the rest of his campaign. McCain lost the election with 173 electoral votes compared to Obama’s 365.
Following the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, McCain withdrew his endorsement of Trump. In November 2016, he learned of the Steele dossier, and passed it on to James Comey in a 1-on-1 meeting. Additionally, in December 2016, he announced that the U.S. should increase sanctions on Russia, and he expressed that Russia was responsible for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He has often been considered a maverick Republican who sometimes differs in opinion from the GOP Establishment.
After his death, McCain received tributes and condolences from all formed U.S. presidents, as well as a number of foreign leaders. The Vietnamese Colonel who ran the prison in which McCain was held remarked, “At that time I liked him personally for his toughness and strong stance. Later on, when he became a US Senator, he and Senator John Kerry greatly contributed to promote [Vietnam]-US relations so I was very fond of him. When I learnt about his death early this morning, I feel very sad. I would like to send condolences to his family.” However, President Trump rejected the White House’s plans to release a statement praising McCain’s legacy, and reportedly felt that the media coverage of McCain’s death was “over the top.”
McCain will always be remembered for his influence in Congress and his actions in the Navy. He has been a great general who has often worked hard for the American people despite his criticisms.