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(CNN)Whenever America was in a fight during his long lifetime, John McCain was in the thickof it.
McCain, who has died at the age of 81, was a naval bomber pilot, prisoner of war, conservative maverick, giant of the Senate, twice-defeated presidential candidate and an abrasive American hero with a twinkle in his eye.
The Arizonan warrior politician, who survived plane crashes, several bouts of skin cancer and brushes with political oblivion, often seemed to be perpetually waging a race against time and his own mortality while striving to ensure that his five-and-a-half years as a Vietnam prisoner of war did not stand as the defining experience of his life.
He spent his last few months out of the public eye in his adopted home state of Arizona, reflecting on the meaning of his life and accepting visits from a stream of friends and old political combatants.
In a memoir published in May, McCain wrote that he hated to leave the world, but had no complaints.
“It’s been quite a ride. I’ve known great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war, and helped make peace,” McCain wrote. “I’ve lived very well and I’ve been deprived of all comforts. I’ve been as lonely as a person can be and I’ve enjoyed the company of heroes. I’ve suffered the deepest despair and experienced the highest exultation.
“I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.”
McCain had not been in Washington since December, leaving a vacuum in the corridors of the Senate and the television news studios he roamed for decades.
In recent months, he was not completely quiet, however, blasting President Donald Trump in a series of tweets and statements that showed that while he was ailing he had lost none of his appetite for the political fight.
The Arizona Senator repeatedly made clear that he saw Trump and his America First ideology as a departure from the values and traditions of global leadership that he saw epitomized in the United States.
McCain had been planning his funeral services over the last year and his family made clear that Trump is not invited, a position that has not changed, two family friends said Saturday. Former rivals and Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush were asked to give eulogies, people close to both former presidents and a source close to the senator told CNN earlier this year.
McCain’s two losing presidential campaigns meant he fell short of the ultimate political prize, one his story once seemed to promise after he came home from Vietnam and caught the political bug. In the end, he became a scourge of presidents rather than President himself.
At the time of his death, he was largely an anomaly in his own party — as one of the few Republicans willing to criticize Trump and a believer in the idealized “shining city on a hill” brand of conservatism exemplified by his hero Ronald Reagan that has been dislodged by the nativist and polarizing instincts of the current President. He was also a throwback to an earlier era when political leaders, without betraying their own ideology, were willing on occasion to cross partisan lines.
In a Washington career that spanned 40 years, first as a Navy Senate liaison, then as a member of the House and finally as the occupant of the Senate seat he took over from Barry Goldwater, McCain was a conservative and a foreign policy hawk. But he was not always a reliable Republican vote, and sometimes in a career that stretched into a sixth Senate term, he confounded party leaders with his maverick stands. He defied party orthodoxy to embrace campaign finance reform, and excoriated President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, for not taking enough troops to Iraq.
After Obama ended McCain’s second White House race in 2008, the senator blasted the new President’s troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, causing critics to carp that he had not yet reconciled the bitterness he felt in defeat. McCain had supported the invasion of Iraq carried out by the Bush administration in 2003, but admitted in his memoir “The Restless Wave” that the rationale, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was wrong.
“The war, with its cost in lives and treasure and security, can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it,” he wrote.
More recently, as death approached, he became a strident critic of Trump, who had once said he didn’t consider the Arizona senator a war hero because he had been captured.
McCain questioned why Trump was solicitous of Vladimir Putin, whom he regarded as an unreformed KGB apparatchik.
In one of his final public acts, he blasted Trump’s cozy summit with the Russian President in July, blasting it as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake,” he said in a statement.
In July 2017, McCain returned from brain surgery to the Senate floor to lambaste “bombastic loudmouths” on the television, radio and internet and plead for a return to a more civilized political age, when compromise and regular order forged bipartisan solutions.
Then, in September, in a poignant speech that seemed designed to echo down the ages after he was gone, McCain reminded his colleagues they were a check on executive power: “We are not the President’s subordinates,” he said. “We are his equals.”
In a final act of defiant independence, McCain, with a dramatic thumbs-down gesture on the Senate floor in September, cast the vote that scuttled the GOP’s effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, causing fury within his party — a move that prompted Trump, to the fury of McCain’s family to repeatedly single him out in campaign rallies.
When the President signed McCain’s last legislative triumph in August, the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, he did not even mention the Arizona senator.
‘I wasn’t my own man anymore; I was my country’s’
John Sidney McCain III, the son and grandson of Navy admirals, entered the world on August 29, 1936, in the Panama Canal Zone, a birthplace that years later would cause a brief campaign kerfuffle over whether he was a natural born citizen and thus eligible to be elected president.
His habit of insubordination despite his military pedigree emerged at the Naval Academy, where he graduated fifth from the bottom of his class.
“My superiors didn’t hold me in very high esteem in those days. Their disapproval was measured in the hundreds of miles of extra duty I marched in my time here,” McCain told graduates at Annapolis in October of last year.
By 1967, McCain was in the Pacific and escaped death in a massive fire aboard the USS Forrestal aircraft carrier. Months later, he was shot down in his Skyhawk jet over North Vietnam and parachuted into a lake near Hanoi, breaking both arms and a leg, and was captured by communist soldiers. In captivity, McCain was tortured and beaten, an experience that left him with lifelong injuries, including severely restricted movement of his arms. He kept himself sane by tapping on a wall to communicate with a fellow prisoner in a neighboring cell. Later, he refused the offer of a preferential release, made because his father was an admiral, until his comrades could also come home, eventually returning in 1973 to a nation politically torn by the war.
His period in captivity set the course of his life.
“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s,” McCain said in his 2008 Republican National Convention speech.
“I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again; I wasn’t my own man anymore; I was my country’s.”
After turning to politics, McCain served in the House from 1983, won an Arizona US Senate seat in 1986 and established himself as a down-the-line conservative in the age of Ronald Reagan. But his political career almost fizzled before it began when he was among the Keating Five group of senators accused of interfering with regulators in a campaign finance case. He was cleared of wrongdoing, but the Senate Ethics Committee reprimanded him for poor judgment, an experience that led to him becoming a pioneer of campaign finance reform.
He didn’t forget his time in Vietnam.
In an act of reconciliation, McCain joined Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a fellow decorated Vietnam War veteran, to help end the US trade embargo on its former southeast Asian enemy in a process that led to the eventual reopening of diplomatic relations.
By 2000, McCain set his sights on the White House and ran as a maverick Republican, holding court for hours in candid back-and-forth sessions with reporters on his campaign bus, dubbed the “Straight Talk Express.” In years to come, he would joke that his adoring press pack was his “base.”
After skipping Iowa over his long opposition to ethanol subsidies, McCain forged a victory over establishment favorite and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in New Hampshire after a string of town hall meetings with voters.
But his effort hit a brick wall in South Carolina, where the campaign turned negative and McCain’s independent streak hurt him in a state with more core conservatives and fewer independents. Bush got back on track with a primary win that set him on the road to the nomination.
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