John McCain, a Last Lion of the Senate

Senator John McCain died nine years to the day after the same virulent form of brain cancer claimed the life of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, his longtime friend.

WASHINGTON — John McCain was an essential element of the nation’s political conversation for half a century, an ever-present figure eager to challenge friend and foe through his singular temperament — sometimes angry, often funny, always ardent.

Now he is gone, leaving behind a storied life and a tear in America’s political fabric at a time when national unity — always a McCain theme and ultimate goal — seems especially elusive.

“We are losing someone who really, no matter who was the president, believed in the Senate’s role in checks and balances,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who was a frequent traveling companion of Mr. McCain on official overseas trips. “He truly was a giant in the Senate, a towering figure and someone who really made a difference not just on policy, but in asserting the Senate’s constitutional role.”

The capital has had some time to adjust to life without Mr. McCain given his absence since December for treatment of the brain cancer that finally took his life on Saturday. He weighed in from afar on a range of issues in the meantime, but the digital messages from Arizona lacked the power they might have had if delivered in his always self-certain style on the Senate floor. His death will be deeply felt.

[Read the obituary for John McCain, who endured five years of captivity in Vietnam and rose to the heights of power in Washington]

It seemed particularly fitting that Mr. McCain died nine years to the day after the same virulent form of brain cancer claimed the life of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, his longtime friend, occasional foil and legislative partner on big issues such as immigration. Both enjoyed a boisterous scrap on the Senate floor and could laugh about it afterward. Both were the type of larger-than-life characters who could command the attention of the Senate — and the nation — on the issues of the day. The struggling Senate is a smaller place without them.

Mr. McCain had real power, not just the kind that comes from seniority and being a committee chairman, but the kind that comes from rich — and sometimes shattering — life experiences that provide credibility and heft to positions. No one else could talk about the need to ban torture with the authority of Mr. McCain, who had been tortured during his more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And his crusade for better campaign finance laws arose from his own bitter experience as a member of the Keating Five, the group of senators exposed for interceding with bank regulators on behalf of a generous donor.

He was also an institutionalist, helping lead the bipartisan Gang of 14 that in 2005 struck a deal to preserve the filibuster against judicial nominees. It was a temporary reprieve, as it would turn out, but it showcased Mr. McCain as a creature of the Senate willing to put what he saw as the fate of the chamber above more partisan interests. Mr. McCain was of the era when senators saw themselves — and their branch of the government — as independent equals of the executive, not merely an extension of it.

John McCain was tremendously resilient. He endured grueling rehabilitation from his P.O.W. experience to return to the military and become naval liaison to the Senate, whetting an interest in politics that eventually took him to the House and then the Senate.



John McCain: The Making of a Maverick

A look at the formative times and turmoil that shaped a historic American figure, with Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent.

“We’re getting nothing done, my friends. We’re getting nothing done.” It was a few days before the historic Obamacare repeal vote, and Republicans desperately needed John McCain. “It was a dramatic and consequential return for John McCain to the Senate floor.” “What a dramatic morning this is turning out to be, with John McCain making that surprise return to Washington.” “And McCain’s vote is going to give leadership a lot more breathing room.” But the maverick of the Senate had just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and he was playing hard to get. “We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues, because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.” But would he vote with his party, or would he defect? “I will not vote for this bill as it is today.” This was the kind of moment that John McCain lives for. He is going to be the deciding vote, and he’s got control of a major piece of legislation in his hand. “You heard John McCain. A really historic moment. Trying to set a new tone when it comes to fixing our health care system.” When you go against the grain in Washington, you get a lot of attention. “Shutting down the government injured the people of my state. Why? Why would we want to do that?” John McCain had a big ego, and he liked the attention. But also, I do think that the maverick aspect to McCain was real. He saw a lot of the things that went on in Washington as semi-idiotic, or corrupt. “I think the Congress of the United States — both Republicans and Democrats — should be ashamed of themselves. These may be worthy projects. They may be. Generally they aren’t. How many more lawmakers, staffers, government officials, and contractors have to go to jail before we actually fix this process?” He liked challenging authority. It may be part of that is just growing up in a military family and having all that military experience, where you’re subject to so much authority. “I have trouble with this. More than two-syllable words —” In the political phase of his life, he was willing to step up, take a chance, and shake up the system. “Eleven million people live in the shadows, and they live here in de facto amnesty, and, by God, they are being exploited every single day.” Of course, he switched back and forth when it suited his politics. “We will secure the borders first when I am president of the United States. I am proud that Republicans are the party of lower taxes. I cannot in good conscience vote in favor of tax cuts.” There have been so many John McCains over the years. He came to Congress as this exalted war hero who’d already had a national reputation because of his time as a P.O.W. in Vietnam. McCain was shot down, held for years in terrible conditions in the Hanoi Hilton. He had a high profile because of his father. “The commander in chief of our Pacific forces, Admiral John S. McCain Jr.” “As you know, we are living in a troubled world —” They knew that they had something of a celebrity prisoner there. He was tortured, subjected to really unthinkable experiences. He resisted and resisted, but ultimately did make a confession. That really haunted him through the rest of his life. He felt that he had caved and betrayed his country. When he returned from Vietnam, to much acclaim, he was an ambitious guy, and he quickly turned to politics. “John McCain, a name Arizonans are talking about.” He ran for the House. Came in as a pretty conventional conservative — somebody who wanted to get on board the Reagan Revolution. “Speaker, like a poor fellow who brought his horse to water but could not make it drink, Walter Mondale proposes to throw more tax money at the deficit with little chance of making it shrink.” But there was a watershed moment coming for John McCain — “— a major congressional scandal —” The Keating Five Scandal. “Charles Keating, a millionaire banker who has come to embody the savings and loan scandal —” A group of senators — a bipartisan group — had interceded on behalf of a big businessman, and they tried to help him out of a regulatory problem. It was a big scandal at the moment, because the S&L crisis was huge back then. “Do you swear under oath to this committee you were unaware of that at the time?” McCain was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. “But I understand why the committee made the arrangements they did.” He thought it be besmirched his honor, which is probably the most important thing to John McCain besides his family, is his honor. This was a searing experience for McCain, and it really helped shape his later image as a maverick, because he immediately became someone, I think, who wanted to shake up the system and rein in the influence of money and politics. “There’s too much money washing around, and this money makes good people do bad things, and bad people do worse things.” John McCain was ready to do that. His party really wasn’t. They liked the campaign system the way it was, particularly Mitch McConnell. “To effectively discuss issues in this country, one must have access to money.” He was the leading foe of John McCain. “Who do you want to be the next president of these United States? McCain! That’s right.” So McCain had presidential ambitions. 2000 seemed like a good opportunity for him. This was the year of the famous Straight Talk Express. He was really letting it hang out in a lot of ways. “If I were a tree, I would be a —” “If I were a tree, I would be a root. What does that mean? I’d be glad to tell you —” But he ran into a real buzzsaw with the Bush family and Karl Rove. “Let me finish. Let me finish.” “All right, then.” The Bush campaign did some really tough negative advertising. “McCain’s campaign is crawling with lobbyists.” “His conservative hometown paper warns — It’s time the rest of the nation learns about the McCain we know.” McCain was stung when he came back to the Senate, you could tell. “Gentlemen —” “Senator John McCain, the Republican, and Senator Barack Obama, the —” In 2008, this was really John McCain’s last opportunity. He took the nomination, but he was really in trouble from the start. Obama, the celebrity candidate, the economic collapse — “The fundamentals of our economy are strong —” — picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. “This is absolutely overwhelming.” People really questioned John McCain’s judgment on that. Even at the end, McCain was still fighting the leaders of his party. “Yesterday, I received a call from President Putin of Russia —” Being cozy with the Russians, pulling back in Asia. To John McCain, this was anathema. He wouldn’t mention Trump by name, but he would talk about failures of American foreign policy and the conduct. “— refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” This was amped up more after the diagnosis of brain cancer. I think that was also part of his vote on the health care repeal. At the climactic moment, he walked out onto the floor, turned thumbs down, and killed the repeal effort. It was one of his last big acts as a U.S. senator. “Making news in the 11th hour —” “The resistance to President Trump had its biggest victory yet.” “This is a major defeat.” “You could look at this one moment like a Renaissance painting.” “It was unbelievable.” McCain wasn’t going to go quietly.

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A look at the formative times and turmoil that shaped a historic American figure, with Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent.CreditCredit...Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

As a first-term senator in 1987, he met with federal regulators on behalf of a donor and savings-and-loan chairman. The ensuing Keating Five scandal, which stretched from 1989 to 1991, was a public humiliation for Mr. McCain, a real blow to someone who lived by a stringent honor code.

The only Republican implicated, he also received the most lenient finding by the ethics committee, which found him guilty of poor judgment. The televised hearings essentially ended the political careers of several of the other senators involved. But that searing experience drove Mr. McCain to become a more independent lawmaker as well as a champion of campaign finance changes intended to reduce the influence of big money in politics, and he eventually became his party’s presidential nominee in 2008, after a failed bid in 2000.

The loss to Barack Obama that followed rocked Mr. McCain, and he returned to the Senate unhappy and somewhat at a loss. But he eventually recovered his footing and remained an outspoken force on immigration and the military — and an outspoken opponent of the Obama administration on a variety of domestic and foreign affairs issues.

Few in the Senate escaped Mr. McCain’s outbursts of temper, and he could be extremely cutting and dismissive to those he saw as standing in his way or offering what he considered unfounded views. During his presidential run in 2008, some of his colleagues whispered concerns that his temper was potentially disqualifying. But the episodes often quickly passed, and Mr. McCain would offer apologies.

For a man who built his public reputation through close ties to journalists, he could also be up and down with the news media. But even when angry, he had a hard time keeping himself away and thoroughly enjoyed jousting with the reporters who frequented the Capitol hallways.

When he first returned to Washington in July 2017 after his devastating diagnosis, reporters were encouraged to stay far away from him to avoid passing on any illness, given his weakened immune system. That lasted about a day, and soon Mr. McCain was striding through the Senate hallways as usual, trading barbs and bits of information with journalists and colleagues who were aware that their moments with him were drawing to a close.

The final elections of his career marked a turn to the right for Mr. McCain as he sought to fight off the Tea Party movement, a groundswell he helped accelerate with his selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential nominee in 2008. But in one of his last acts, he defied the far right — and President Trump, the man who had ridiculed his capture in Vietnam — by helping to derail the Republican drive to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Much of Mr. McCain’s signature campaign finance overhaul has been undone by the courts. The nation’s immigration problems remain unresolved and seem to defy legislative solutions despite his best efforts. And the famous deal to preserve the judicial filibuster has long since dissolved.

But his impact on the Senate, his influence on his colleagues, and the force of his will won’t be forgotten.

“The lions are gone,” Ms. Collins said. “The lions of the Senate are gone. It is very sad.”

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