Sen. John McCain, American 'maverick' and political giant, dies at 81

John McCain, who endured more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam before becoming the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and serving Arizona for more than 30 years on Capitol Hill, died Saturday at age 81.

McCain died at 4:28 p.m. MST, his office announced. His wife and other family members were with him.

Destined to be remembered among the political giants of Arizona history, the six-term U.S. senator disclosed in July 2017 that he had been diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer called glioblastoma.

Meghan McCain, his TV commentator daughter, wrote Saturday on Twitter: "I love you forever - my beloved father."

McCain was a two-time presidential candidate, losing the GOP nomination in 2000 to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and the general election in 2008 to then-Sen. Barack Obama.

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The unsuccessful White House bids were spotlight moments in a long political career that began with his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982. After two terms, McCain ascended to the U.S. Senate in 1987, replacing legendary Republican U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, who in 1964 was the only other Arizonan to top the national ticket of a major U.S. political party. McCain was re-elected to the Senate in 1992, 1998, 2004, 2010 and 2016. He became Arizona’s senior senator in 1995 and chairman of the influential Armed Services Committee in 2015.

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Often called a maverick, McCain was a complicated personality and will be remembered as the most important political figure to emerge from Arizona in the past 50 years. 

He was ensnared by the “Keating Five” scandal of the late 1980s and was deemed by the Senate Ethics Committee to have demonstrated poor judgment by joining four Senate colleagues in meeting with federal thrift regulators on behalf of political benefactor Charles H. Keating Jr., a savings-and-loan tycoon and developer.

It was in the wake of that scandal, in the 1990s and early- to mid-2000s, McCain's "maverick" reputation began to take shape, as he led fights for campaign finance reform and comprehensive immigration reform and against Big Tobacco. During his 2000 presidential run, McCain famously decried leaders of the Religious Right as “agents of intolerance,” a gutsy fight to pick for a Republican.

The 'maverick'

In 2015, his own presidential ambitions in the past, McCain clashed with Republican Donald Trump in a public feud that extended into Trump’s time in the White House.

On July 28, 2017, McCain sided with two other GOP senators and all Democrats and cast a crucial vote — a literal thumbs-down on the Senate floor — that stalled Republican efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act, a top Trump priority.

Unlike many of Trump’s GOP punching bags, McCain had the stature to go nose-to-nose with the president.

At one point in the early 2000s, Democrats encouraged McCain to consider switching parties, and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry approached him about serving as his running mate. But later, McCain veered to the right, a source of frequent frustrating to his previous admirers on the other side of the aisle.

March 21: Slamming Putin call, McCain goes after Trump for 'congratulating dictators on winning sham elections'

March 18: Meghan McCain shares new photo of Sen. John McCain

Interactive: John McCain's American story

Although some on the right sneered at what they viewed as McCain’s coziness with the national media — for years after his presidential run, he was a mainstay on the Sunday television public-affairs shows — McCain often kept local media at arm’s length and once wrote in a book that his long relationship with The Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, could fairly be described as “antagonistic.” However, the relationship with The Republic and other local media improved in later years.

McCain also had a love-hate relationship with his media-promoted reputation as a maverick, relying on it or distancing himself from it as the political circumstances warranted.

“That was a label that was given to me a long time ago,” McCain told The Republic in 2010. “I don't decide on the labels that I am given. I said I have always acted in what I think is in the best interests of the state and the country, and that’s the way that I will always behave.”

Two presidential runs

McCain proved himself to be a thorn in the side of his GOP rival, Bush, at least early in the first term of Bush’s presidency. The McCain vs. Bush fight in 2000 had taken a bitter turn in the South Carolina primary, where McCain and his allies accused their conservative opponents of trying to smear him and his family.

However, he and Bush reconciled as McCain geared up for his second presidential run. A classic Senate hawk, McCain was a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and strongly supported Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. McCain also was a champion of the surge strategy that Bush employed in Iraq in 2007.

During the 2008 presidential race, McCain had to overcome the lingering distrust of many conservatives who resented his maverick record, which included votes against key Bush tax cuts as well as McCain’s successful push for bipartisan campaign-finance-reform legislation.

His decision to gamble on the untested and little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate was cheered by the conservative wing of the Republican Party but may have hurt the GOP ticket among independent voters.

However, McCain never had much of a chance of defeating Obama, given the political atmosphere of the time.

Voters were widely dissatisfied with Bush, whose approval numbers were bad, and war fatigue had set in. If that wasn’t bad enough, the U.S. economy melted down in September 2008, making it unlikely that another Republican would succeed Bush. The political-science models pointed to a Democratic victory.

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“You can't win with conditions this bad for the incumbent party,” Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said after the election. “And that's McCain's consolation: He did reasonably well under extremely difficult conditions. It was never meant to be.”

Looking back at the race in an August 2017 interview with The Republic, McCain largely concurred, though he stressed that Obama deserves the credit for his victory.

"One, Barack Obama was a very, very strong candidate and that's the most important thing," McCain said. "Second, when the stock market collapsed, it really sent us into a real drop. Third of all, I guess, Americans were ready for a change, too.

“But I'd like to emphasize the first thing I said: Barack Obama was an incredibly impressive candidate and he did a great job campaigning,” he added.

Taking on new foes

Two years after his White House defeat, the perception of McCain as an establishment moderate was still strong enough to attract a Senate primary challenger from the right: former six-term U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a professional broadcaster who was known as a fierce foe of illegal immigration.

In the year of the conservative “tea party” uprising, McCain took no chances and greatly outspent Hayworth, destroying him in the process with an unrelenting barrage of hard-hitting TV campaign commercials. In one memorable ad aimed at Hayworth’s conservative base, McCain rebranded himself as a border hard-liner by calling for the completion of “the danged fence” between the United States and Mexico. After dispatching Hayworth in the primary, McCain effortlessly clinched a fifth Senate term in the 2010 general election.

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Near the end of that term, McCain found himself feuding with celebrity-billionaire-turned-presidential-candidate Trump.

In a notorious July 18, 2015, jab at McCain, Trump said McCain was “a war hero because he was captured” and that he liked “people that weren’t captured.”

Trump also derided McCain as weak on immigration and border security. McCain returned the criticism on a number of issues, including Trump’s approach to foreign policy. In October 2016, McCain finally withdrew his endorsement of Trump after a 2005 recording surfaced of Trump talking about women in crude and vulgar ways.

Their duels may have helped McCain in that they made Democrats’ election-year efforts to tether McCain to Trump, who had made a series of inflammatory comments, all but impossible. McCain effortlessly defeated U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, and dramatically outperformed Trump, who also carried Arizona on Election Day but by a much slimmer margin.

A POW in North Vietnam

John Sidney McCain III was born Aug. 29, 1936, at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone. His father, John S. McCain Jr., and grandfather, John S. “Slew” McCain Sr., would become the only father-son team of four-star Navy admirals in U.S. history. During World War II, Slew McCain was in charge of aircraft carriers fighting the Japanese in the Pacific and had a destroyer named in his honor in 1953. The youngest McCain followed in the footsteps of his namesakes, attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and becoming a naval aviator.

In July 1967, during the Vietnam War, McCain survived a fiery maritime disaster on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal that killed 134 people and nearly sank the ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. McCain was getting ready to take off from the deck when another plane accidentally fired a Zuni missile and hit his plane or one next to it, spilling fuel. McCain was wounded by shrapnel and narrowly escaped death himself in the blaze that followed as bombs and planes began exploding.

“The crew’s heroics kept her afloat,” McCain recalled in his 1999 memoir "Faith of My Fathers." “They fought the inferno with a tenacity usually reserved for hand-to-hand combat. They fought it all day and well into the next, and they saved the Forrestal.”

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On the 40th anniversary of his getting shot down over Hanoi, North Vietnam, McCain told The Republic that the Forrestal disaster may have affected him more deeply in the long run.

“To be honest with you, the Forrestal fire seems to be a more impactful date I remember more than that of when I was shot down,” McCain said at the time.

Surviving the Forrestal crisis — the “Inferno at Sea” as the Aug. 11, 1967, cover of Life magazine dubbed it and the worst naval disaster since World War II — was just the beginning for McCain.

On Oct. 26, 1967, McCain was piloting an A-4 Skyhawk attack bomber that had taken off from the USS Oriskany when a missile blew off one of its wings. Seriously wounded, he was captured and would spend more than five brutal years as a POW.

He refused early release, which was offered to him because he was the son of a Navy admiral and would have served North Vietnamese propaganda purposes. While in custody, McCain was routinely beaten and at one point confessed that he was a “black criminal” and an “air pirate,” which he would remember as a low point of his life.

McCain finally was released, along with other POWs, in 1973.

In 1977, McCain became the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate, setting into motion his future career path as a politician.

After returning to the United States, McCain’s first marriage to the former Carol Shepp fell apart, and the couple eventually divorced in 1980. He later married Cindy Hensley, daughter of a wealthy Arizona beer distributor. The two met in Hawaii. She was 17 years younger than he was. McCain retired from the Navy in 1981, and his new marriage brought him to the Phoenix area.

The POW backstory was ready-made for a politician.

Political success – and scandal

In 1982, McCain ran for and won the seat being vacated by the retiring former U.S. House Minority Leader John Rhodes, R-Ariz. Though McCain was called a carpetbagger, he prevailed in a tough four-way GOP primary. He faced no serious competition in the general election.

McCain pushed back on the charge that he was a political opportunist with no roots in Arizona. He said his Navy family was forced to move often.

“As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi,” McCain said.

McCain was somewhat lucky in his first U.S. Senate race in 1986. Veteran U.S. Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz., declined to run on the Republican side. Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a popular Democrat with presidential ambitions, also decided not to try for the retiring Goldwater’s seat. A self-inflicted political wound briefly made things interesting — McCain had made an ill-advised reference to Phoenix-area retirement community Leisure World as “Seizure World,” a place where 97 percent of the people voted and “the other 3 percent were in intensive care” — but he still wound up easily defeating Democratic opponent Richard Kimball.

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“Occasionally, my sense of humor is ill-considered or ill-timed, and that can be a problem," McCain later conceded in his 2002 book, "Worth the Fighting For."

Early in his first Senate term, McCain and fellow U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., and three other senators participated in two April 1987 meetings with federal thrift regulators who were investigating California-based Lincoln Savings & Loan. The troubled business was part of Charles H. Keating Jr.'s financial empire.

Keating had donated and helped raise money for both Arizona senators. The McCain family even vacationed with Keating in the Bahamas. Once the meetings were made public, McCain and DeConcini found themselves at the heart of a major national scandal that resulted in 23 days of Senate ethics hearings.

“I was judged eventually, after three years, of using, quote, poor judgment, and I agree with that assessment,” McCain would later say.

The federal government seized Lincoln Savings & Loan in April 1989 and prosecuted Keating for fraud.

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Though DeConcini, who was determined to have acted inappropriately, would not run for a fourth term in 1994, McCain sought a second Senate term in 1992 and was able to overcome the Keating Five stigma. The controversy also didn’t do much to hinder his presidential runs in 2000 and 2008 and was largely forgotten during his later years in the Senate.

"It's ancient history," Bruce Merrill, the late Arizona State University professor emeritus and longtime political pollster, said of the scandal upon Keating’s death in 2014. "It's amazing he (McCain) survived that, and I guess one could argue that his political skills brought him through that.”

McCain had seven children, including television commentator and author Meghan McCain. His family lived in the central Phoenix area for years.

Follow Dan Nowicki on Twitter: @dannowicki

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Oct. 20: John McCain memoir, 'The Restless Wave,' coming in April

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Oct. 17: Trump warns McCain. 'At some point, I fight back. And it won't be pretty'

Oct. 16: Emotional Sen. John McCain blasts 'half-baked, spurious nationalism'

Sept. 27: Meghan McCain calls report Trump mocked her dad 'abhorrent'

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Aug. 3, 2017: McCain aims to revive immigration reform when he returns to Congress

July 30, 2017: McCain's type of brain cancer vexes doctors, but emerging therapies are on the horizon

July 28, 2017: John McCain will begin treatment for brain tumor Monday

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