John McCain: 1936-2018

Sen. John McCain, long-time Republican Senator from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, died on Aug. 25, 2018. Photo courtesy of Arizona Governor's Office.

John S. McCain, Republican presidential candidate in 2008, six-time Senator and two-time Representative from Arizona, prisoner of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and naval aviator, died Aug. 25 after a long battle with brain cancer. He died just days before his 82nd birthday.

McCain styled himself a “maverick” in politics, frequently touting his “straight talk.” He was known for being alternately doctrinaire and willing to work with and compromise with Democratic colleagues, sponsoring bipartisan legislation such as the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

McCain, who long served as a member, and eventually chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, frequently tussled with the Air Force. He derailed the service’s early 2000s attempt to replace the KC-135 tanker with lease-to-own KC-767 tankers, insisting the concept was a “sweetheart deal for Boeing.” He later refused to lift a hold on the nomination of then-Air Force Secretary James Roche to be Army Secretary. Roche had championed the tanker lease as an innovative and quick solution to an aging aircraft problem; he eventually withdrew his name from the Army nomination. After two competitions, Boeing was selected to build a 767 variant tanker, now known as the KC-46.

In 2015, McCain became chairman of the SASC.

In 2016, during budget hearings, McCain tore into former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh when USAF wanted to retire the A-10 “Warthog,” saying the service was being dishonest in its portrayal of the aircraft’s effectiveness. McCain’s state, Arizona, hosts Davis-Monthan AFB, which is an A-10 base and performs some depot maintenance on the A-10 fleet. McCain also criticized service leaders in those hearings for supporting a defense budget request that McCain considered inadequate and which he claimed “unfairly balanced the budget on the backs of airmen.”

Last year, McCain took Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein to task, complaining that there is too much secrecy about the B-21 bomber program, and that while protecting its secrets is important, too much information is being withheld about its costs and contracting methods.

In the early 2000s, McCain organized communities around Luke AFB, also in Arizona, to buy up land adjacent to the base, so it would not be threatened by encroachment and be targeted for closure in the base realignment process. McCain used his influence to steer F-35 pilot training to Luke, which now also serves as the training base for all international students who fly the F-35A version.

McCain organized congressional support for the 2007 military “surge” in the Iraq war, arguing that a push with a greater number of troops would reverse the chaos overtaking that country after four years of American occupation. Sometimes called “the McCain Doctrine,” the surge proved effective in reducing ethnic violence and stabilizing the fledgling Iraqi government. In 2010, he argued for a similar increase of troops and operating tempo in Afghanistan.

McCain came to prominence in 1967 when he was shot down flying his Navy A-4 over North Vietnam. An Annapolis graduate and the son and grandson of Navy admirals, he was soon offered the chance to be individually repatriated by the North Vietnamese, but refused to be released unless the other POWs were, as well, and ultimately was held prisoner more than five years. During that time, he was tortured repeatedly and brutally. After his release, due to his injuries in captivity, McCain was never again able to lift his arms over his head.

Insisting that torture is an immoral and ultimately ineffective means of obtaining information, McCain loudly protested the George W. Bush administration’s decision to use techniques such as waterboarding in its interrogation of prisoners. Earlier this year, he urged his colleagues not to confirm the appointment of Gina Haspel as CIA chief because of her unwillingness to condemn “enhanced interrogation” techniques and her earlier supervision of such activity.

Despite the abuse he endured at the hands of the communist regime in Hanoi, McCain was an early champion of restoring diplomatic relations with Vietnam. In 1995, he supported President Clinton’s initiatives to do so, saying an open dialog would help improve Vietnam’s record on human rights and help build effective opposition to growing Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region.

McCain Navy Photo

Sen. John McCain, a former US Navy aviator (shown at lower right), appears in an undated photo taken during flight traini?ng. Navy photo courtesy of the Library of Congress/Released.

McCain was accurately portrayed as a Senate “hawk,” urging direct military action in eight countries during the presidency of Barack Obama, who defeated McCain in the 2008 presidential election. He also complained in 2017 that President Trump’s plans to raise defense spending some $50 billion was only half the amount actually required.

Trump famously feuded with McCain, saying he preferred heroes “who weren’t captured.” In signing the 2019 John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act—so named by Capitol Hill colleagues to honor McCain, whose struggle with cancer had kept him from the Senate for months—Trump did not mention the senator or offer any wishes of recovery. McCain had also been direct in his criticism of Trump, expressing shock that Trump had congratulated Russian president Vladimir Putin on his last electoral victory. McCain said, “An American President does not lead the world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.”

Trump offered “deepest” condolences and “prayers” to the McCain family in a Twitter message after the Senator’s death.

McCain will lie in state in the Arizona capitol, and then in the US Capitol rotunda, at the insistence of a bipartisan group of congressmen and Senators. The last lawmaker to be afforded this honor was the late Senator from Hawaii, Daniel Inouye, in 2012.

Senate Minority leader Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would introduce legislation to rename the Sen. Richard Russell Senate Office Building in honor of McCain.

In July, the Navy announced that the USS McCain guided missile destroyer, named for the Senator’s father and grandfather, would now be considered named in honor of all three men.

McCain’s Senate term was to have ended in 2020. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is expected to appoint a Republican to fill out McCain’s term.