BY JACK MORGENSTEIN
Senator John McCain died of a brain tumor at the age of 81 on August 25, 2018. Looking back on his life, many will recall a seasoned hero and Vietnam veteran who served our country for 23 years, or perhaps a six-term conservative “maverick” from Arizona. But the true John McCain was much more than that; he was a family man with a loving wife and seven children, a man whose passion for life earned him respect across party lines. To understand the international respect for McCain, one must look at the extraordinary life of a man who was deeply loyal to his country and beliefs. When John McCain followed in his four-star Admiral father and grandfather’s footsteps and enrolled at the Naval Academy in 1954, he never could have known the impact he would have on our country and the world throughout his long military and political career. At the Naval Academy John McCain earned the respect of his classmates, not through his stellar academics (he graduated 894th out of 899) or familial connections, but through his sense of duty and leadership.
After graduation, John McCain was commissioned by the Navy to be a naval aviator. Although McCain would eventually rise to the rank of captain, it wasn’t due to any natural talent passed on from his veteran father and grandfather; during his training as a pilot, he crashed two of his flight missions and collided with a power line during a third. An instructor rated him as “sub-par,” but McCain refused to let this get in his way; less than a year later he was marked as a “good flier.” In the Vietnam War McCain was assigned to Operation Rolling Thunder. (His deep-rooted sense of duty compelled him to specifically request a combat assignment.) During the infamous fire on the U.S.S. Forrestal, where McCain was stationed, he put himself in harm’s way and saved the lives of multiple fellow pilots.
On John McCain’s twenty-third bombing mission, he was shot down by North Vietnamese troops and placed in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous P.O.W. camp that became known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Even with a fractured arm, a bayonet wound, and a crushed left shoulder, he received no medical attention and was beaten and interrogated daily. John McCain’s patriotism (and quick-thinking) showed when, instead of telling the North Vietnamese the names of his fellow pilots, he gave the names of the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line. In 1968, a prison doctor told John that his wounds were fatal and that he had less than a week to live. He not only lived but helped other prisoners, even though this brought the risk of more beatings. In early 1969, when the Vietnamese learned his father was the commander of U.S. Vietnamese forces, John McCain was offered release, but he refused, requesting that every soldier before him be freed first. The torture inflicted on McCain would leave him unable to lift his arms above his head for the rest of his adult life. But actions like these, putting the lives of other Americans before his own, are what make John McCain an American hero. He embodied his belief that “it is your character, and your character alone that will make your life happy or unhappy.”
Despite an offer to be honorably discharged from the Navy, McCain continued to serve the military until 1981, when he decided he could do more good from the Senate. McCain’s military decorations and awards included the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Star Medals, two Purple Hearts, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals and the Prisoner of War Medal.
McCain’s first foray into public office was a race for the House of Representatives seat in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He narrowly won the seat and was reelected in 1984. With rising ambitions, McCain ran for and won a Senate seat in 1986. Although he suffered greatly as a prisoner in Vietnam, McCain visited multiple times, advocating for peaceful relations with Vietnam. In his own words, “no just cause is futile, even if it’s lost, it makes the future better than the past.” McCain was never afraid to speak his beliefs—even when it went against the party line, such as when he openly opposed the US’s military involvement in Lebanon in the mid 1980’s. This willingness to act on his beliefs and go against his party throughout the 90’s and beyond earned the nickname “maverick.” McCain had a deep desire to make the world a better place, which inspired him to run for President in both 2000 and 2008. Despite being political adversaries, McCain earned not only the respect, but the friendship of the these two eventual presidents due to his passionate, thoughtful nature.
John McCain went on to serve six consecutive terms in the Senate before his death. During that time, his bipartisan “Gang of 14” in Congress solved a crisis over judicial nominations, and he became chairman of the Senate’s Armed Service Committee. While his congressional accomplishments were incredible, it was his clear passion for life and willingness to stand up for his beliefs, no matter the cost, that earned him the respect of his fellow lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. At McCain’s funeral in 2018, former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama delivered eulogies, and former President Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, as well as numerous other public figures, were in attendance. John McCain was an American hero whose accomplishments weren’t measured in laws but in people he helped and lives he touched. Perhaps a quote from the dearly departed senator himself sums his life best: “courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears.”