Honoring the life of an American hero and political maverick: a tribute to John McCain

Christopher J. Schaefer, MA

August 29th 2018

“I have often observed that I am the luckiest person on Earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I have loved my life, all of it…Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history, we make history.” With those heartfelt, poetic words, Arizona senator John McCain bid farewell to a nation he loved and served for more than sixty years. Senator McCain succumbed to glioblastoma, an aggressive, malignant brain tumor, after a lengthy and courageous battle, on Saturday, August 25, 2018, nine years to the day that Senator Ted Kennedy, himself a larger than life figure in the nation’s most deliberative body, died as a result of the same form of brain cancer.

The son and grandson of Navy admirals and himself a Navy captain and Prisoner of War during Vietnam—McCain was shot down over Vietnam, resulting in shattering a leg, two broken bones, and two years of solitary confinement—was an American hero who commands admiration and respect from every God-fearing American. Despite serving more than thirty-five years in Congress, John McCain made it his foremost priority to place country ahead of party; a trait that endeared him to Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated voters. Perhaps no elected official in today’s hyper-partisan political environment, one in which vitriol and polemics have replaced civility and policy disagreements, was more revered than Senator John McCain.

A former member of the United States House of Representatives, Senate, and two-time presidential candidate, John Sidney McCain III dedicated his life to a service greater than himself: The United States of America. During his storied political career, McCain championed campaign finance reform, comprehensive immigration reform, bipartisanship, civility, and most importantly, an interventionist foreign policy based on primacy, preemption, prevention, and nation-building. Like his conservative brethren, McCain believed in spreading American values abroad by toppling dictatorial regimes and replacing them with allies of the United States. In fact, amidst the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression, the 2008 financial crisis, McCain remained steadfast in his support for the Global War on Terror, even advocating for a surge of American troops; the war was immensely unpopular and a losing issue for Republican candidates. Senator McCain’s decision to make victory in the Global War on Terrorism at a time when Americans were losing their homes, banks were collapsing, and the economic was dwindling on the precipice of collapse, the crux of his long-shot campaign, was a colossal blunder that contributed to his landslide defeat in the 2008 presidential election. The decision, however, was quintessential McCain: daring, bold, and the handiwork of a political maverick who placed duty, honor, and country ahead of all else.

McFadden (2018) in his epithet to the Arizona senator wrote of McCain’s presidential campaign, “In 2008, against the backdrop of a growing financial crisis, Mr. McCain made the most daring move of his political career, seeking the presidency against the first major-party African American nominee, Barack Obama. With national name recognition, a record for campaign finance reform and a reputation for candor—his campaign bus was called the Straight Talk Express—Mr. McCain won a series of primary elections and captured the Republican nomination” (p. 3). In June 2007, just two months after announcing his candidacy for the nation’s highest office, it appeared that McCain’s presidential ambitions would be halted in a Republican primary; his campaign was hemorrhaging cash, campaign manager and chief strategist resigned, and he had slipped to third or fourth place in primary polls. Political pundits and Republican officials had written off McCain, believing the aforementioned factors were impossible for the seventy-two-year-old senator to overcome; McCain, the eternal optimist and shrewd political operative, recognized that he could capture the Republican nomination and achieve his lifelong dream of becoming the nation’s commander in chief if he eschewed traditional campaigning and instead, employed the old-style tactics that he made famous during his 2000 Republican primary campaign: town hall meetings, bus tours, and debates. Akin to Donald Trump in 2016, John McCain relied on free media to rejuvenate his floundering presidential campaign and capture the Republican nomination.

Old-style campaign tactics coupled with an inability by the other Republican candidates to make a compelling case as to why they were the best candidate to defeat the Democratic nominee in November, allowed McCain to capture the Republican nomination. Leadership, judgment, and foreign policy expertise served as the loadstars for McCain’s campaign during the preconvention stage of the campaign; the Democratic party had yet to select a candidate, a situation McCain took advantage of. Senator McCain believed that stressing these virtues during the preconvention stage of his campaign would prove beneficial and convince voters that he was uniquely qualified to serve as President of the United States. Two monumental events upended McCain’s presidential ambitions, however, rendering that strategy ineffectual: collapse of the United States financial system and the Democratic party’s nomination of Barack Obama, a charismatic, telegenic first-term senator from Illinois whose “Hope and Change” slogan resonated with an electorate longing for a repudiation of the status quo. In keeping with his “maverick” reputation and to infuse energy into a campaign that failed to gain traction with conservatives, McCain selected little-known Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Governor Palin, an avowed social conservative and self-proclaimed “maverick,” who championed traditional values, energy independence, gun rights and fiscal restraint, helped assuage concerns conservative voters had about McCain’s penchant for bipartisanship and ideological orthodoxy. Ultimately, McCain was defeated by Senator Obama fifty-three percent to forty-six percent, losing states such as Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Colorado and Virginia, all of which, up to that point, had reliably supported Republican candidates in presidential elections, and 376-173 in the Electoral College.

Following his defeat, McCain returned to the United States Senate where he spent the next decade championing comprehensive immigration reform, his efforts resulted in the Senate’s passage of the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013; improved health care for veterans; and a restructuring of the Department of Defense and Armed Services Committee. Most of all, however, McCain relished his role as the chief critic of fellow Republican Donald Trump. McCain believed Trump’s comments, actions, and approach to governing was unbecoming of a president, causing an irreparable rift between the two men. Senator McCain’s vote against the Trump-administration backed “skinny” repeal of Obamacare, in dramatic fashion—McCain entered the Senate chamber after all of his colleagues had already voted—raised his hand and gave the Senate clerk a thumbs down, signifying his opposition to the proposal—was the final salvo in a perfervid imbroglio between two larger than life personalities.

Contemporary American politics is dominated by character assassinations, vitriol, petty squabbling over character and past transgressions, and untruths. John McCain stood above the pettiness and divisive rhetoric; he believed in working with his colleagues on all sides of the spectrum to advance legislation designed to improve the quality of life for every American. Senator McCain teamed up with Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act and joined forces with Connecticut Democrat-turned-independent and his best friend, Joe Lieberman, to ensure American service members possessed the tools and resources necessary to prevail in twenty-first-century military conflicts. Country was more important to McCain than party affiliation and ideology.

While this author had innumerable disagreements with Senator McCain he respected the Arizona senator’s unorthodoxy and unwillingness to compromise his time-honored principles, despite polling showing that many of them, particularly the Iraq War and troop surge were unpopular with large swaths of the electorate. McCain was correct in his farewell letter that America is a nation of decency, humility, and serves as a force for good in the world. John McCain was a statesman in the model of Adams, Washington, and Madison, a man whose decency, humility and commitment to service will forever be cemented in the annals of American history. Elected officials can learn a great deal from John McCain, particularly the virtues of respect, humility, and placing the interests of the nation ahead of career advancement or ideology. If America intends to remain the greatest beacon of hope and freedom our world has ever known, it is imperative that lawmakers place country above ideology and self-interest.

Christopher Schaefer, a presidential historian and political consultant, resides in Madison, Wisconsin, and is the author of four books: The Great President: The Policies that Shaped the Bush Legacy; 41 vs. 43: The Reluctant Realism of George H.W. Bush, the Primacy of George W. Bush, and the War in Iraq; The Presidential Simulation: A Student’s Guide to Understanding the American Presidency; and Project Mastodon: Building a Twenty-First Century Republican Party (2 vols.). Schaefer received his BA in Politics and Government from Ripon College and MA in Political Management from the George Washington University.


McFadden, R.D. (2018, August 25). John McCain, war hero, senator, presidential contender, dies at 81. The New York Times. Retrieved from  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/25/obituaries/john-McCain-dead.html