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Obituary: Maverick McCain Went From War Hero To Political Icon

Senator John McCain smiles upon receiving the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in October 2017.

U.S. Senator John McCain, a six-term Republican senator from Arizona and war hero who endured almost six years of torture and captivity in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, has died. He was 81.

Known for his combativeness throughout his decades-long stint in the Senate and two failed U.S. presidential bids, McCain continued to battle brain cancer and the debilitating side effects of his aggressive treatment before succumbing to the illness on August 25.

With his time running out, in recent months McCain had surrounded himself with family and friends at his Arizona ranch and published what would turn out to be his last book, The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, And Other Appreciations.

In his book, McCain admitted he had no idea how much time he had left to live, though that didn't stop him from taking swipes at current President Donald Trump, voicing regrets for choosing former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign, and worrying about the country's international reputation over a tall glass of Absolut Elyx vodka on ice.

A longtime chairman of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, McCain was considered an expert on defense and foreign policy issues.

McCain was born at the U.S.'s Coco Solo Naval Station in Panama on August 29, 1936, into a family with a deep military history.

Family Footsteps

Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both four-star admirals, he graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1958.

Less than a decade later, he was deployed to Vietnam, where his plane was shot down over Hanoi and his legend was born.

Despite two broken arms, a broken knee, routine torture, and lengthy stretches in solitary confinement, McCain refused offers of early release from captivity, saying he'd only leave when the last U.S. prisoner was heading out the door as well.

John McCain waves to well wishers after arriving at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida following his release from Vietnamese captivity in March 1973
John McCain waves to well wishers after arriving at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida following his release from Vietnamese captivity in March 1973

"I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's [country]," he said in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination in the 2008 presidential race.

"I loved [the United States] for its decency, for its faith in the wisdom, justice, and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again; I wasn't my own man anymore; I was my country's."

His words belied his actions. Make no mistake about it, John McCain was still his own man.

As a senator he challenged presidents regardless of party affiliation if he felt their policies weren't in line with his views. In the eyes of the public, he went from war hero to political icon, earning a reputation as a maverick.

During his first term in Congress, he stood up to President Ronald Reagan, a revered Republican to this day, over Reagan's decision to station peacekeeping Marines in Beirut with limited defensive capabilities.

McCain's concerns proved right after a suicide bomber drove straight into the barracks, killing 241 Marines in the October 1983 attack.

John McCain addresses the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in August 1988.
John McCain addresses the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in August 1988.

His legend only grew as he consistently confronted another Republican president, George W. Bush, over tax cuts, torture allegations, and U.S. strategy in Iraq.

McCain was just as hard on leaders of the Democratic Party.

He was one of President Barack Obama's fiercest foreign-policy critics, sharply questioning a decision to pull troops from Iraq and his refusal to enforce his "red line" on Syria after President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.

Antagonist In Chief

Things changed little when Republican Donald Trump took over in the White House in 2017.

McCain was cast in the unlikely role of the president's chief antagonist. The two often clashed publicly over foreign policy, especially with regard to Syria, Russia, and China.

Trump, who routinely denigrates Republicans and Democrats who cross him, has called McCain "incompetent." As a presidential candidate, Trump famously mocked McCain for being "a war hero because he was captured," while Trump, who never served in the military, said he liked "people that weren't captured."

But McCain was also accused of waffling on many key issues during his career such as immigration policy, abortion, and tax cuts as his views sometimes evolved over time.

He supported the Iraq War and was ridiculed for choosing the little-known Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election that he lost by a substantial margin to Obama.

John McCain (left) stands with his controversial running mate Sarah Palin on the presidential campaign trail in August 2008.
John McCain (left) stands with his controversial running mate Sarah Palin on the presidential campaign trail in August 2008.

On the international stage, McCain was known for his straight talk -- which rubbed some people the wrong way -- and his folksy language that often made difficult political issues easier to understand.

He was a strong advocate for Eastern European nations joining NATO.

In April 2017, McCain visited Montenegro and said the tiny Adriatic nation's accession to the western security alliance -- attained several weeks later -- was vital for regional stability and the joint effort of the Western allies to resist a resurgent Russia.

'Old World' Views

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview excerpt released on June 8, 2017, that McCain, his longtime critic who once said Putin was a bigger threat to the world than the extremist Islamic State group, was living in the "Old World."

McCain also famously referred to Russia as "a gas station masquerading as a country."

Nonetheless, Putin added that he admired the former Republican presidential candidate's patriotism.

Putin likened McCain to the ancient Roman senator Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, who always finished his speeches using the same words: "Carthage must be destroyed."

"People with such convictions like the senator you mentioned [McCain], they still live in the Old World. And they're reluctant to look into the future, they are unwilling to recognize how fast the world is changing," Putin said.

"I like Senator McCain to a certain extent. And I'm not joking. I like him because of his patriotism, and I can relate to his consistency in fighting for the interests of his own country," the Russian leader added.

McCain is survived by his wife of 38 years, Cindy, and five children. He also has two stepchildren from a previous marriage.

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