John Sidney McCain III (August 29, 1936 - August 25, 2018) was an American politician and naval officer. He was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War for five and a half years. He served as a United States Senator from Arizona from 1987 until his death. He previously served two terms in the United States House of Representatives and was the Republican nominee for President of the United States in the 2008 election, which he lost to Barack Obama.

After being investigated and largely exonerated in a political influence scandal of the 1980s as a member of the Keating Five, he made campaign finance reform one of his signature concerns, which eventually resulted in passage of the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002. He was also known for his work in the 1990s to restore diplomatic relations with Vietnam, and for his belief that the Iraq War should have been fought to a successful conclusion.

While generally adhering to conservative principles, McCain also had a media reputation as a "maverick" for his willingness to disagree with his party on certain issues. He became a key figure in the Senate for his work in a number of bipartisan groups of senators and for negotiating deals on certain issues in an otherwise partisan environment. A strong patriot, McCain worked his whole life in service to his country, reducing his role in the Senate only after being diagnosed and treated for brain cancer which ultimately took his life.


John Sidney McCain III was born on August 29, 1936, at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone, to naval officer John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta (Wright) McCain. He had a younger brother named Joe and an elder sister named Sandy.1 At that time, the Panama Canal was under U.S. control.2

McCain's father and his paternal grandfather, John S. McCain Sr., were also Naval Academy graduates and both became four-star United States Navy admirals.3 The McCain family followed his father to various naval postings in the United States and the Pacific.

Photo of McCain's father and grandfather that appeared on the cover of his 1999 family memoir

In 1951, the family settled in Northern Virginia, and McCain attended Episcopal High School, a private preparatory boarding school in Alexandria. There, he excelled at wrestling, graduating in 1954.4 He referred to himself as an Episcopalian as recently as June 2007, after which date he said he came to identify as a Baptist.5

McCain at the Naval Academy, 1954

Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, McCain entered the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was a friend and informal leader there for many of his classmates,6 and sometimes stood up for targets of bullying.3 He also became a lightweight boxer.7

McCain graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1958 and followed his father and grandfather-both four-star admirals-into the United States Navy. He became a naval aviator and flew ground-attack aircraft from aircraft carriers.

At age 28 on July 3, 1965, McCain married Carol Shepp, a model from Philadelphia, and adopted her two young children, Douglas and Andrew.8 He and Carol then had a daughter named Sidney.

During the Vietnam War, he was almost killed in the 1967 USS Forrestal fire. Then, while on a bombing mission during Operation Rolling Thunder over Hanoi in October 1967, McCain was shot down, seriously injured, and captured by the North Vietnamese. He was a prisoner of war until 1973. McCain experienced episodes of torture and refused an out-of-sequence early repatriation offer. The wounds that he sustained during the war left him with lifelong physical disabilities.

McCain was reunited with his family when he returned to the United States. However, the marriage did not survive, and McCain admitted to having extramarital affairs. Regarding his first marriage, McCain wrote in his memoir Worth the Fighting For that he "had not shown the same determination to rebuild (his) personal life" as he had shown in his military career:

Sound marriages can be hard to recover after great time and distance have separated a husband and wife. We are different people when we reunite… But my marriage's collapse was attributable to my own selfishness and immaturity more than it was to Vietnam, and I cannot escape blame by pointing a finger at the war. The blame was entirely mine.9

McCain urged his wife Carol to grant him a divorce, which she did in February 1980; the uncontested divorce took effect in April 1980.4 The settlement included two houses, and financial support for ongoing medical treatments due to her 1969 car accident. They remained on good terms.10

In 1979, McCain met Cindy Lou Hensley, a teacher from Phoenix, Arizona.10 McCain and Hensley were married on May 17, 1980, with Senators William Cohen and Gary Hart attending as groomsmen.10 McCain's children did not attend, and several years would pass before they reconciled.11

In 1984, McCain and Cindy had their first child together, daughter Meghan, followed two years later by son John Sidney (Jack) IV, and in 1988 by son James (Jimmy). In 1991, Cindy McCain brought an abandoned three-month-old girl needing medical treatment to the U.S. from a Bangladeshi orphanage run by Mother Teresa.4 The McCains decided to adopt her and named her Bridget.

McCain retired from the Navy as a captain in 1981 and moved to Arizona, where he entered politics. In 1982, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served two terms. He entered the U.S. Senate in 1987 and easily won reelection five times, the last time in 2016.

McCain entered the race for the Republican nomination for President in 2000, but lost a heated primary season contest to Governor George W. Bush of Texas. He secured the nomination in 2008, but was defeated by Democratic nominee Barack Obama in the general election.

In August 1999, McCain's memoir Faith of My Fathers, co-authored with Mark Salter, was published.12 The most successful of his writings, it received positive reviews, became a bestseller, and was later made into a TV film.13 The book traces McCain's family background and childhood, covers his time at Annapolis and his service before and during the Vietnam War, concluding with his release from captivity in 1973. According to one reviewer, it describes "the kind of challenges that most of us can barely imagine. It's a fascinating history of a remarkable military family."14

McCain underwent a minimally invasive craniotomy at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, on July 14, 2017, in order to remove a blood clot above his left eye. His absence prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to delay a vote on the Better Care Reconciliation Act.15 Five days later, Mayo Clinic doctors announced that the laboratory results from the surgery confirmed the presence of a glioblastoma, which is a very aggressive brain tumor.16 Standard treatment options for this tumor include chemotherapy and radiation. Average survival time is approximately 14 months. McCain was a survivor of 16

President Trump made a public statement wishing Senator McCain well, as did many others, including President Obama. On July 24, McCain announced that he would return to the United States Senate the following day.17 In December 2017 he returned to Arizona to undergo treatment.

McCain's family announced on August 24, 2018, that he would no longer receive treatment for his cancer.18 The next day on August 25, John McCain died with his wife and family beside him at his home in Cornville, Arizona, four days before his 82nd birthday.19

A quarter peal of Grandsire Caters in memory of McCain was rung by the bellringers of Washington National Cathedral the day following his death. Another memorial quarter peal was rung on September 6th on the Bells of Congress at the Old Post Office in Washington DC. Many governors, both Democratic and Republican, ordered flags in their states to fly at half-staff until interment.20

Prior to his death, McCain requested that former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama eulogize him at his funeral, and asked that President Donald Trump not attend.21 President Trump issued a statement on August 27 praising McCain's service to the country, and signed a proclamation ordering flags around Washington DC to be flown at half-staff until McCain's interment.22

McCain lay in state in the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix on August 29 (McCain's birthday), followed by a service at North Phoenix Baptist Church on August 30. His body traveled to Washington DC to lie in state in the rotunda of the United States Capitol on August 31, before a service at the Washington National Cathedral on September 1,23 followed by burial at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland, next to his Naval Academy classmate Admiral Charles R. Larson.24

Naval career

McCain began his early military career when he was commissioned as an ensign and started two and a half years of training at Pensacola to become a naval aviator. He completed flight school in 1960 and became a naval pilot of ground-attack aircraft; he was assigned to A-1 Skyraider squadrons aboard the aircraft carriers USS Intrepid and USS Enterprise8 in the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas.1

Lieutenant McCain (front right) with his squadron and T-2 Buckeye trainer, 1965

His combat duty began when he was 30 years old in mid-1967, when USS Forrestal was assigned to a bombing campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder, during the Vietnam War.12 On July 29, 1967, McCain was a lieutenant commander when he was near the epicenter of the USS Forrestal fire. He escaped from his burning jet and was trying to help another pilot escape when a bomb exploded;25 McCain was struck in the legs and chest by fragments.1 The ensuing fire killed 134 sailors and took 24 hours to control.12 With the Forrestal out of commission, McCain volunteered for assignment with the USS Oriskany, another aircraft carrier employed in Operation Rolling Thunder.1 Once there, he would be awarded the Navy Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star Medal for missions flown over North Vietnam.26

Prisoner of war

McCain was captured on October 26, 1967. He was flying his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam when his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down by a missile over Hanoi.2728 McCain fractured both arms and a leg when he ejected from the aircraft,29 and nearly drowned after he parachuted into Trúc Bạch Lake. Some North Vietnamese pulled him ashore, then others crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt and bayoneted him.27 McCain was then transported to Hanoi's main Hỏa Lò Prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton."28

Although McCain was seriously wounded and injured, his captors refused to treat him. They beat and interrogated him to get information, and he was given medical care only when the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was an admiral.28 His status as a prisoner of war (POW) made the front pages of major newspapers.30

McCain spent six weeks in the hospital, where he received marginal care. In December 1967, McCain was placed in a cell with two other Americans who did not expect him to live more than a week.4 In March 1968, McCain was placed into solitary confinement, where he would remain for two years.

In mid-1968, his father John S. McCain Jr. was named commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater, and the North Vietnamese offered McCain early release because they wanted to appear merciful for propaganda purposes and also to show other POWs that elite prisoners were willing to be treated preferentially.28 McCain refused repatriation unless every man taken in before him was also released. Such early release was prohibited by the military Code of Conduct; to prevent the enemy from using prisoners for propaganda, officers were to be released in the order in which they were captured.27

Beginning in August 1968, McCain was subjected to a program of severe torture.28 He was bound and beaten every two hours; this punishment occurred at the same time that he was suffering from dysentery. Eventually, McCain made an anti-U.S. propaganda "confession."27 He always felt that his statement was dishonorable, but as he later wrote, "I had learned what we all learned over there: every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine."131 McCain received two to three beatings weekly because of his continued refusal to sign additional statements.4

McCain was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five and a half years until his release on March 14, 1973.32 His wartime injuries left him permanently incapable of raising his arms above his head.33 After his release from the Hanoi Hilton, McCain returned to the site with his wife Cindy and family on a few occasions to come to grips with what happened to him there during his capture.34

Commanding officer, liaison to Senate

Lieutenant Commander McCain being interviewed after his return from Vietnam, April 1973Lieutenant Commander McCain greeting President Richard Nixon in May 1973

McCain underwent treatment for his injuries that included months of grueling physical therapy.11 He attended the National War College at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. during 1973-1974.4 McCain was rehabilitated by late 1974 and his flight status was reinstated. In 1976, he became commanding officer of a training squadron that was stationed in Florida. He improved the unit's flight readiness and safety records,35 and won the squadron its first-ever Meritorious Unit Commendation.

McCain served as the Navy's liaison to the U.S. Senate beginning in 1977.36 In retrospect, he said that this represented his "real entry into the world of politics and the beginning of my second career as a public servant."9 His key behind-the-scenes role gained congressional financing for a new supercarrier against the wishes of the Carter administration.111

McCain retired from the Navy on April 1, 1981,4 as a captain.26 He was designated as disabled and awarded a disability pension.37 Upon leaving the military, he moved to Arizona. His numerous military decorations and awards include the Silver Star, two Legion of Merits, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Star Medals, two Purple Hearts, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and Prisoner of War Medal.26

Political Career

U.S. Congressman

McCain set his sights on becoming a congressman because he was interested in current events, was ready for a new challenge, and had developed political ambitions during his time as Senate liaison.1 In Phoenix he went to work for Hensley & Co., his new father-in-law Jim Hensley's large Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship.10 As vice president of public relations at the distributorship, he gained political support among the local business community, meeting powerful figures such as banker Charles Keating Jr., real estate developer Fife Symington III (later Governor of Arizona), and newspaper publisher Darrow "Duke" Tully.36

In 1982, McCain ran as a Republican for an open seat in Arizona's 1st congressional district, which was being vacated by 30-year incumbent Republican John Jacob Rhodes. A newcomer to the state, McCain was hit with charges of being a carpetbagger. McCain responded to a voter making that charge with what a Phoenix Gazette columnist would later describe as "the most devastating response to a potentially troublesome political issue I've ever heard":1

Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.10

McCain won a highly contested primary election with the assistance of local political endorsements, his Washington connections, and money that his wife lent to his campaign. He then easily won the general election in the heavily Republican district.

McCain in 1983, during his first term in the House of Representatives

In 1983, McCain was elected to lead the incoming group of Republican representatives, and was assigned to the House Committee on Interior Affairs. At this point, McCain's politics were mainly in line with President Ronald Reagan, which included support for Reaganomics, and he was active on Indian Affairs bills. He supported most aspects of the foreign policy of the Reagan administration, including its hardline stance against the Soviet Union and policy towards Central American conflicts, such as backing the Contras in Nicaragua. 4

McCain won re-election to the House easily in 1984, and gained a spot on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

U.S. Senator

McCain served as a United States Senator from Arizona from 1987 until his death in 2018, winning re-election five times.

First two terms in U.S. Senate

McCain's Senate career began in January 1987, after he defeated his Democratic opponent, former state legislator Richard Kimball.36 He succeeded longtime American conservative icon and Arizona fixture Barry Goldwater upon the latter's retirement as U.S. senator from Arizona.38

President Ronald Reagan greets John McCain as First Lady Nancy Reagan looks on, March 1987

Senator McCain became a member of the Armed Services Committee, with which he had formerly done his Navy liaison work; he also joined the Commerce Committee and the Indian Affairs Committee. He continued to support the Native American agenda.39 As first a House member and then a senator-and as a lifelong gambler with close ties to the gambling industry40-McCain was one of the main authors of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act,41 which codified rules regarding Native American gambling enterprises.42

McCain soon gained national visibility. He delivered a well-received speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention, was mentioned by the press as a short list vice-presidential running mate for Republican nominee George H. W. Bush, and was named chairman of Veterans for Bush.38

The 1992 christening of USS John S. McCain at Bath Iron Works, with his mother Roberta, son Jack, daughter Meghan, and wife Cindy

McCain developed a reputation for independence during the 1990s. He took pride in challenging party leadership and establishment forces, becoming difficult to categorize politically. The term "maverick Republican" became a label frequently applied to McCain, and he also used it himself.39

As a member of the 1991-1993 Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, chaired by fellow Vietnam War veteran and Democrat, John Kerry, McCain investigated the Vietnam War POW/MIA issue to determine the fate of U.S. service personnel listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War. The committee's unanimous report stated there was "no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia."43 Helped by McCain's efforts, in 1995 the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations with Vietnam.44 McCain was vilified by some POW/MIA activists who, despite the committee's unanimous report, believed large numbers of Americans were still held against their will in Southeast Asia.45

In the 1996 presidential election, McCain was again on the short list of possible vice-presidential picks, this time for Republican nominee Bob Dole. The following year, Time magazine named McCain as one of the "25 Most Influential People in America."46

In 1997, McCain became chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee. He took on the tobacco industry in 1998, proposing legislation that would increase cigarette taxes in order to fund anti-smoking campaigns, discourage teenage smokers, increase money for health research studies, and help states pay for smoking-related health care costs. Supported by the Clinton administration but opposed by the industry and most Republicans, the bill failed to gain cloture.4

Third Senate term

In November 1998, McCain won re-election to a third Senate term; he prevailed in a landslide over his Democratic opponent, environmental lawyer Ed Ranger.47 In the February 1999 Senate trial following the impeachment of Bill Clinton, McCain voted to convict the president on both the perjury and obstruction of justice counts, saying Clinton had violated his sworn oath of office.1

Following his failure to win the Republican Presidential nomination, McCain began 2001 by breaking with the new George W. Bush administration on a number of matters, including HMO reform, climate change, and gun legislation. In May 2001, McCain was one of only two Senate Republicans to vote against the Bush tax cuts.48 McCain used political capital gained from his presidential run, as well as improved legislative skills and relationships with other members, to become one of the Senate's most influential members.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, McCain supported Bush and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.48 He and Democratic senator Joe Lieberman wrote the legislation that created the 9/11 Commission,49 while he and Democratic senator Fritz Hollings co-sponsored the Aviation and Transportation Security Act that federalized airport security.50

In March 2002, McCain-Feingold, officially known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, passed in both Houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Bush. Seven years in the making, it was McCain's greatest legislative achievement.48

U.S. President George W. Bush with Senator McCain, December 4, 2004

Meanwhile, in discussions over proposed U.S. action against Iraq, McCain was a strong supporter of the Bush administration's position. stating that Iraq was "a clear and present danger to the United States of America," and voted accordingly for the Iraq War Resolution in October 2002.48 He predicted that U.S. forces would be treated as liberators by a large number of the Iraqi people.51

In the 2004 U.S. presidential election campaign, McCain was once again frequently mentioned for the vice-presidential slot, only this time as part of the Democratic ticket under nominee John Kerry.52 McCain said that while he and Kerry were close friends, Kerry had never formally offered him the position and that he would not have accepted it if he had.53 At the 2004 Republican National Convention, McCain supported Bush for re-election, praising Bush's management of the War on Terror since the September 11 attacks.54 At the same time, he defended Kerry's Vietnam War record.55

Fourth Senate term

In May 2005, McCain led the so-called Gang of 14 in the Senate, which established a compromise that preserved the ability of senators to filibuster judicial nominees, but only in "extraordinary circumstances."56 The compromise took the steam out of the filibuster movement, but some Republicans remained disappointed that the compromise did not eliminate filibusters of judicial nominees in all circumstances.57 McCain subsequently cast Supreme Court confirmation votes in favor of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, calling them "two of the finest justices ever appointed to the United States Supreme Court."58

By the middle of the 2000s (decade), the increased Indian gaming that McCain had helped bring about was a multi-billion dollar industry. He was twice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, in 1995-1997 and 2005-2007, and his Committee helped expose the Jack Abramoff Indian lobbying scandal.59 By 2005 and 2006, McCain was pushing for amendments to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that would limit creation of off-reservation casinos, as well as limiting the movement of tribes across state lines to build casinos.60

General David Petraeus and McCain in Baghdad, November 2007

Owing to his time as a POW, McCain was recognized for his sensitivity to the detention and interrogation of detainees in the War on Terror. An opponent of the Bush administration's use of torture and detention without trial at Guantánamo Bay (declaring that "even Adolf Eichmann got a trial"61), in October 2005, McCain introduced the McCain Detainee Amendment prohibiting inhumane treatment of prisoners to the Defense Appropriations bill for 2005. Although Bush had threatened to veto the bill if McCain's amendment was included, the President announced in December 2005 that he accepted McCain's terms and would "make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture, whether it be here at home or abroad".62 This stance, among others, led to McCain being named by Time magazine in 2006 as one of America's 10 Best Senators.63

Following his defeat in the presidential election in 2008, McCain returned to the Senate amid varying views about what role he might play there. In mid-November 2008 he met with President-elect Obama, and the two discussed issues they had commonality on.64 As the inauguration neared, Obama consulted with McCain on a variety of matters, to an extent rarely seen between a president-elect and his defeated rival.65

U.S. President Barack Obama and McCain at a press conference in March 2009

Nevertheless, McCain emerged as a leader of the Republican opposition to the Obama economic stimulus package of 2009, saying it had too much spending for too little stimulative effect.66 McCain also voted against Obama's Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and by August 2009 was siding more often with his Republican Party on closely divided votes than ever before in his senatorial career.

When the health care plan, now called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, passed Congress and became law in March 2010, McCain strongly opposed the landmark legislation not only on its merits but also on the way it had been handled in Congress. As a consequence, he warned that congressional Republicans would not be working with Democrats on anything else: "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year. They have poisoned the well in what they've done and how they've done it."67

Fifth Senate term

As the Arab Spring took center stage in late 2010, McCain urged that the embattled Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, step down and thought the U.S. should push for democratic reforms in the region despite the associated risks of religious extremists gaining power.

He became one of the most vocal critics of the Obama administration's handling of the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, saying it was a "debacle" that featured either "a massive cover-up or incompetence that is not acceptable" and that it was worse than the Watergate scandal.68 As part of this, he and a few other senators were successful in blocking the plann