McCain — a prisoner of war, 36-year veteran of Congress and onetime Republican nominee for president — was a force of nature in Washington whose likes will not be seen anytime soon. His global stature rivaled or even exceeded the standing of official congressional leaders.
McCain used his prominence to wage battles with congressional leaders and presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, perhaps none fought quite as forcefully as McCain’s clashes with President Trump in his last months before succumbing Saturday to brain cancer. He returned home to Arizona in mid-December and had not been back to Washington since.
“You’ve got someone who has really blazed an arc across the firmament of American history that will be rivaled, but rarely matched,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a frequent traveling partner when McCain led congressional delegations abroad, said in a recent interview. “A huge loss for the interest of liberty and rule of law and regular order and respect for the traditions of this institution.”
In the first half of 2017, McCain traveled more than 75,000 miles to more than 15 nations, meeting with longtime allies fearful of dramatic policy changes that Trump had suggested in sometimes offhand comments or gestures. His colleagues called it the reassurance tour, and in the fall of 2017 McCain delivered several speeches that did not mention Trump by name but told crowds that it was “time to wake up” and to “fight isolationism, protectionism and nativism.”
McCain’s death marks the final passing of a generation of senators who were major power brokers, but also a contingent whose first loyalty was to the institution and its place in history where great compromises were forged.
As the Navy’s liaison to the Senate in the late 1970s, Capt. John McCain fell in love with politics watching a Senate that boasted legends who came to power in committee rooms and oversight hearings — from Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), who rose to fame investigating Watergate, to Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who would become one of McCain’s closest friends.
McCain traveled the globe with those senators, planning their meetings with world leaders and often carrying on late into the night. On one trip to Athens, McCain stayed up for “after hours merriment” that included dancing on a tabletop with Jill Biden, the wife of then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).
He retired from the Navy in 1981 — the son and grandson of admirals abandoning his family calling. He moved to his second wife’s hometown, Phoenix, where his political career began in 1982 by winning a House seat. But the Senate was always his true calling. In 1986, with Republican Barry Goldwater’s retirement, McCain won the first of six Senate terms.
He went on to lead three committees that produced three different portraits: He was the conservative hawk on national security, chairing the Armed Services Committee; the bipartisan dealmaker on the Commerce Committee; the righteous investigator exposing corruption among fellow Republicans while chairing the Indian Affairs Committee.
With McCain gone, the Senate is almost entirely a top-down organization. Less than 20 years ago it was such a freewheeling place that McCain forced tobacco and campaign finance legislation onto the Senate floor for long debates even though GOP leaders opposed the bills. The bipartisan tobacco bill failed; the campaign bill succeeded, but each had its time in the spotlight despite leadership’s opposition.
Now, McConnell boasts that only he decides what comes up for debate — following the lead of his Democratic predecessor, Harry M. Reid — and the rank-and-file senators in both caucuses sit back and accept it, with only passive complaints.
No one hated today’s Senate more than McCain.
“What I am asking for is simple. If we’re going to stay here to work, then let’s get some work done. Let’s come in early and stay late,” McCain said in a July 2017 speech delivered to a mostly empty Senate chamber.
A week later, McCain’s doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix called with grave news. He had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, the same form of brain cancer that took Kennedy’s life in 2009.
A few days after McCain triumphantly returned to the Senate for a whirlwind week that in many ways defined his career, from a conquering hero for conservatives to a complete turncoat; from a hypocritical pariah to liberals, to a man of conscience.
All in less than 60 hours.
When he arrived on a Tuesday afternoon, he delivered a stirring speech about returning the Senate to its glory days, opening it up for debate and passing bipartisan legislation. “We’re getting nothing done,” he told his colleagues, many brought to tears knowing he had just received a death sentence.
He voted with McConnell to start debate on the GOP bill to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act, prompting liberals to decry McCain’s position given that Republicans were moving unilaterally with no Democratic support. Two days later, McConnell had not been able to craft a bill that had enough support, so he came up with a plan to pass a shell bill, and then try for negotiations with the House later.
As the clock ticked past midnight, into Friday morning, everyone knew McCain was the deciding vote. Despite a phone call from Trump and pleas from McConnell, McCain flashed a thumbs down and torpedoed the legislation — McConnell, standing a few feet away, did not move for 12 seconds.
For more than a year, Trump has used that moment to excoriate McCain at campaign-style rallies, never actually mentioning his name but making the thumbs-down gesture while angrily talking about the failed vote.
Some thought it was a hypocritical flip-flop, but his closest advisers said it was an easy vote on the merits: In his Tuesday speech he called for a full debate and promised to support the bill if the process was good and the policy turned out better. Instead, he thought the process was horrible and the policy a joke.
“He’s a unique individual. We’ve been together for 30 years, fighting vigorously for 10 of those years,” McConnell said in an interview a few months before McCain’s death. Their early clashes came over campaign finance restructuring, which McCain and McConnell battled over in very personal terms. But as they got older, particularly once McCain gave up the pursuit of the presidency, the two men grew closer and McConnell made McCain his de facto consigliere on national security issues.
“He’s one of those unique figures who come along not all that often, and nobody would have predicted this 10 or 15 years ago, but we have a great affection for each other,” McConnell said. He then wiped tears from his eyes.
McCain openly admitted he had his share of flaws. His quick temper served to alienate some potential allies, on both sides of the aisle, and his interest in campaign finance retooling came after an early ethics probe into questions about his ties to a major donor.
Last October, in his final visit to his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, McCain recalled the answer he gave in 2000 in support of flying the Confederate battle flag over the South Carolina State House, during the run-up to the crucial GOP presidential primary against George W. Bush.
“That was the wrong answer and I lost anyway,” he said.
On some issues McCain had a way of shading his views, particularly on immigration, if it was an election season and he was facing a conservative challenge. Some Democrats understood that was about political survival.
“You know, in a campaign, he may downplay it a little, but he never repeals what he’s saying, he never retracts it and just keeps fighting,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said. “To me, McCain’s legacy is you can pick core issues that you really care about — immigration, campaign finance reform — three or four major issues, he’s never given up.”
Udall’s uncle, the late Mo Udall, was in his last years in the House when McCain arrived in 1983 and took him under his wing, an old liberal and young conservative touring the Grand Canyon and Arizona’s tribal nations.
Years later, when Mo Udall fought Parkinson’s disease in a veteran’s hospital, McCain regularly visited and read Arizona political stories to the retired congressman, even when he clearly could not respond.
In early April, Tom Udall attended a Grand Canyon event honoring McCain and Mo Udall, connecting those early days at his uncle’s side to McCain’s maverick moments many years later.
“Mo Udall taught John McCain the value of consensus and bipartisanship, and in turn, John had the guts to buck his own party,” Tom Udall said.
In recent months McCain had received visitors that included longtime friends, such as McConnell and Biden, whose son, Beau, succumbed to the same type of brain cancer in 2015.
But visitors also included the more junior senators, Coons and Udall and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). That trio’s entire Senate experience combined adds up to a little more than 20 years, and they have never experienced anything of the Senate that Capt. McCain discovered as a naval officer.
And they were left to wonder whether the Senate will ever produce someone like John S. McCain III ever again.
“The success of the Senate is important to the continued success of America,” McCain said during his July 2017 speech. “This country — this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good and magnificent country — needs us to help it thrive.”