Ten months ago, veteran U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sat down for a candid interview with veteran NBC newsman Tom Brokaw for a wide-ranging interview on his life and service to this nation not long after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
In it, the 1960s prisoner of war in Vietnam and 2008 Republican presidential standard-bearer was asked how he would like to be remembered. McCain did not skip a beat in responding, “I would like to be remembered as someone who served his country, and I hope we could add honorably.”
As Americans this week mourn the death of the irascible military hero and sage political statesman, few could quibble with the rock-solid legacy McCain has left behind – a legacy of distinguished service and, yes, John, high honor to the nation he so loved.
Above all else, McCain, who died at age 81 Saturday in Arizona not long after ceasing all medical treatment of his cancer, stood proudly as a man of principle and conviction. And unlike many of his contemporaries in both major political parties, McCain remained true to those principles without sacrificing them for personal or political gain.
FAMILY’S TRADITION OF SERVICE
John Sidney McCain III was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936 to to John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta Wright McCain (who survives at age 106), grew up in a military-centric family with his father and grandfather both revered Navy leaders.
It’s hardly surprising then that after graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1958, his passion for service would lead to a 25-year stint, including five years as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton after having been shot down by North Vietnamese in 1968. Throughout much of the ensuing 5 Ω years, he endured severe beatings every two hours by his captors.
But that torture did little to deflate the resilience, selflessness and commitment to fairness that defined McCain’s character. Those traits perhaps shined brightest when he declined an opportunity for release unless his comrades, too, were freed.
Those same traits followed him into a 35-year career in politics in Congress. There, those qualities and his strong independent thinking sealed his reputation as a political maverick. Indeed he often veered far outside the boundaries of tradition Republican Party dogma.
He allied himself with a most unlikely bedfellow, liberal Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, in pursuing immigration reform that included a path to full U.S. citizenship for all undocumented immigrants. McCain coincidentally died on the same date nine years later and from the same disease as Kennedy.
McCain also allied himself with Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold in crafting landmark campaign-finance reform legislation to slam the brakes on out-of-control payouts from political action committees. In recognition of that work, McCain deservedly received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
That same courageous and maverick spirit followed him into the latter years of his life. Many will poignantly recall his gentle chastising of a supporter at a 2008 presidential campaign rally who had attempted to defile his opponent, Barack Obama. And few can forget one of the boldest moves of his career 13 months ago when he cast a deciding vote against repeal of the Affordable Care Act, thereby bucking his party and his president.
That president and draft dodger, Donald J. Trump, established himself as an enemy of McCain’s during the presidential campaign when the New York City billionaire had the gall to say, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”
Trump’s foolish taunts aside, McCain embodied the essence of true heroism. In the immediate aftermath of the senator’s death, many of those who knew and loved the Arizonan best issued appropriate and heart-felt condolences. Among them:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “His ferocious tenacity for his country was unmatched. America has lost one of its greatest patriots.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden: ‘‘John McCain’s life is proof that some truths are timeless. Character. Courage. Integrity. Honor. A life lived embodying those truths casts a long, long shadow. John McCain will cast a long shadow.”
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.: John McCain was a giant of our time – not just for the things he achieved, but for who he was and what he fought for all his life. John put principle above politics. He put country before self. He was one of the most courageous men of the century.”