The death of Republican Sen. John McCain on Aug. 25 brought an end to a long and distinguished career of public service.
McCain’s father and grandfather were career officers in the U.S. Navy, with both achieving the rank of admiral. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, McCain became a Navy pilot, and he was shot down and captured during the Vietnam War. McCain’s captivity began on Oct. 23, 1967, and he was held as a POW for over five years.
McCain was brought to public attention about eight months after his capture when his father was named commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam. Because of his father’s new command, the North Vietnamese offered McCain early release as they wanted to appear merciful for propaganda purposes and show other POWs that elite prisoners were willing to be treated preferentially. McCain refused release unless every man taken before him was released as well.
Because of McCain’s refusal to be released without other POWs, his North Vietnamese captors increased the frequency and brutality of the torture McCain had experienced daily since he was captured. His fellow POWs often thought he was near death, but McCain endured. When he was finally released on March 14, 1973, his injuries left him permanently incapable of raising his arms above his head.
When McCain returned home, he underwent months of treatment and therapy. In 1976, he became commander of a training squadron that was stationed in Florida and served as Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate beginning in 1977. Years later, he said that this represented his “real entry into the world of politics and the beginning of my second career as a public servant.”
McCain had decided to leave the Navy as he was doubtful that he would ever be promoted to the rank of admiral. He had already made plans to run for Congress and said he could “do more good there.” McCain retired as a captain from the Navy on April 1, 1981. His numerous military decorations and awards include the Silver Star, two Legion of Merits, the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and the Prisoner of War Medal.
In 1982 John McCain was elected as one of Arizona’s congressmen and was then elected as a U.S senator from Arizona in 1987, a position he held until his death. McCain was steadfast in his Republican principles of fiscal conservation and support for the military, but he had close friends on both sides of the aisles of Congress. He was respected by both Republicans and Democrats for his expert knowledge of military warfare and Russia and for his unwavering patriotism and honesty.
One of McCain’s most iconic moments came during his campaign for president in 2008 when he was the Republican nominee competing against Democratic nominee Barack Obama. During a campaign rally in Minnesota, a McCain supporter told him she did not trust Obama because “he’s an Arab”. McCain replied, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” McCain’s response was considered one of the finer moments of any campaign and is still viewed as a marker for civility in American politics.
That kind of decency and honesty is why many people were so excited about the prospect of President John McCain in 2008. It was commonly believed that Obama had little chance of beating McCain, who had large poll leads.
But on Aug. 29, 2008, McCain revealed Sarah Palin as his surprise choice for running mate. The campaign’s introduction of Palin to the national media went poorly, and voter reactions to Palin grew increasingly negative, especially among voters concerned about her qualifications. The choice of Palin was widely criticized and made voters question McCain’s judgment. Many years later McCain said that he regretted not choosing Sen. Joe Lieberman as his VP candidate.
Although I disagreed with McCain about most things politically, I always respected him and admired his service to our country. I always believed that he and I wanted the same things for America and just had different ideas about the best ways to get them. There was never a moment that I doubted his loyalty and devotion to America.
So I felt a great loss at his death, despite the fact that it was well known that his life was close to an end. He departed this life at almost the exact time my own Mom did. At 94 she was nearly as tough as John McCain, and had also been in bad health for the last several months.
I like to think that my Mom and John McCain arrived in heaven at the same time, their suffering finally ended. But as my daughter said, “If John McCain got between Nana and the pearly gates, she would elbow him right out of her way.”
Rest in peace, Maverick. And please look out for my Mom.
Patsy Sheppard, a St. Pauls resident, is a retired educator and active locally in the Democratic Party.