Arizona Salutes the Maverick

A reflection on the life of Senator John McCain with Former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl

Memorial outside of Senator John McCain’s Phoenix Office. (Photo by Alicia Gavin.)

“Serving a cause greater than yourself hurts,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, stated, holding back tears, on the floor of the United States Senate as he remembered his best friend and colleague, U.S. Senator John Sidney McCain.

On Saturday, August 25, 2018, America lost one of its greatest champions to brain cancer. John McCain represented the American people for over fifty years both in the military and in public office.

McCain was born to a Navy family in 1936 at a Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone. Destined to serve his country, he would go on to attend the United States Naval Academy and later become a fighter pilot.

Undated photo of John S. McCain III, lower right, during flight training. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of the Library of Congress/Released)

McCain requested a combat assignment after completion of flight school. He was stationed onboard the USS Oriskany off the coast of North Vietnam. In 1967, while on a raid of a thermal power plant, McCain’s plane was shot down by North Vietnamese forces. He ejected from the plane and barely survived, breaking both his arms and his leg.

He was captured, brought to Hanoi and forced to endure gruelling torture by the North Vietnamese. His captors learned that McCain was the son of a U.S. Navy Admiral and they attempted to use this knowledge as a bargaining tool against the United States. They offered McCain early release, but he refused. McCain received poor medical care, only enough to survive, and was placed into a cell with two other men. One of the men, Medal of Honor recipient, Major George “Bud” Day recalled, in an interview with the Arizona Republic, the physical state he found McCain in:

“He was in this great big white [cast], and his hair was snow white. He just looked like he was absolutely on the verge of death.”

In 1968, in an effort to break McCain, the North Vietnamese placed him in a device which broke his left arm again by torquing it with severe force. Four days of straight torture led McCain to sign a crime confession, a propaganda piece for the North Vietnamese. McCain was subjected to more beatings following the confession, and when he would not comply further with his captors, he was sent to solitary confinement for two years.

The Paris Peace Accords were signed in January of 1973, ending the Vietnam War, and in March of that same year, five-and-a-half years later, John McCain was released from captivity.

While recovering in the United States, McCain would go on to serve as a liaison between the Navy and the United States Senate, where his interest in politics began. When he realized he could no longer continue as a pilot, he retired from the Navy and moved to Arizona to be with his second wife, Cindy.

He would soon run for office, first in the United States House of Representatives, later in the Senate. McCain would immediately immerse himself in local issues working with Native Americans, water and energy companies, military bases, local businesses, and teachers.

Official photo taken for the United States Congress.

The majority of McCain’s term was served alongside fellow Arizona Republican, Senator Jon Kyl. In a recent interview for this article, Kyl fondly remembered their relationship:

“We worked together on many things — particularly things that related to Arizona…Most of the time we agreed with each other and supported each other. On Arizona issues, we almost always worked together and supported each other’s positions. It was a good relationship.”

McCain was known for his mentorship to younger congressmen. He wanted every new Representative and Senator to feel included by senior members. McCain was fervent about foreign relations. He traveled on many Congressional Delegations trips, often to countries we were at war with, to visit the American troops and improve diplomatic relations. In fact, most Thanksgivings, McCain would travel to bases across the world to have dinner with the deployed servicemen and women. Kyl continues:

John McCain (left) leads a Congressional Delegation at a school in Nawa, Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga/ Released)

“He would lead congressional delegation trips. It seemed like almost every weekend. We would go to Iraq or Afghanistan, most often relating to a place of concern for national security. We went to Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Tunisia, Bosnia, all over the world. Those were interesting trips because he would bring newer members of congress along to try and introduce them to leaders of other nations — both Democrat and Republican, House and Senate members. I think that was a good thing because for one thing, they could see how he was unique as an American leader abroad.”

McCain was passionate about foreign relations and national security. In the 1990s, he pushed for the restoration of diplomacy between the United States and Vietnam; in 2007 he was a prominent advocate of the Iraq War Troop Surge, and he served as the Chairman for the Senate Armed Services Committee. When asked if there will be a gap in the national security community, Kyl responded:

“I do believe there will be [a gap in National Security policy] because there is nobody quite like him who has the stature he did internationally and the commitment to a strong military. He understood the role of force as well as the role of diplomacy. He had very good instincts and he was very clear and pragmatic about it — not idealistic. He always joked that he ‘looked in Putin’s eyes and saw the letters KGB.’ He wasn’t about to be fooled by anybody. [One of the most important things] that he will be respected and remembered for, is how he helped us abroad and…how he would work with the troops.”

Despite his work with national security and international diplomacy, Senator John McCain’s heart was in Arizona. In Governor Doug Ducey’s remarks at the Arizona State Capitol memorial service, he recalled that prior to McCain’s service in the Senate, Barry Goldwater held the seat. “Where Barry Goldwater was born in Arizona; John McCain was Arizona’s favorite adopted son.” Ducey continued, “Imagining Arizona without John McCain is like picturing an Arizona without the Grand Canyon — it’s just not natural.”

Arizona Senators Jeff Flake (left) and John McCain (center) with Former Senator Jon Kyl (right) attend briefings for a state wildfire. (Kyl Staff Photo/Released)

McCain passed away at his family home in Cornville, Arizona, just outside of Sedona. Kyl spoke of McCain’s love for Arizona. “Arizona was his adopted state, but he loved it, he loved the environment here, he loved the rivers and the mountains.” Kyl said that when he and his wife Caryll would visit John and Cindy at their cabin, “there was an obligatory two hour march around the property where he would show you the hawk’s nest, then the place where the otters ate the fish out of the pond, even the spot where he killed the rattlesnake.” Kyl recalled that when McCain was there with his family and friends, he loosened up and would share great stories and tell funny jokes.

The legacy of John McCain will be written by the American people. Senator Kyl concluded the interview saying:

“It would be nice if we could put some of this partisan bickering behind us, be more cooperative, and work in the national interest. That is what John liked to do. He always promoted the rights of both Democrats as well as the Republicans…He had a profound belief that America was good, that what we stood for was right, and that we should not be apologetic for it, that we should promote it when it is appropriate, including promotion of democracy. If Americans had more confidence, faith, pride and optimism in their country because of the foundations both politically and economically, this would be a much happier country and we could put some of that division behind us. If people pay attention to what he said, there can be hope for progress.”

Senator John McCain was a man of principle. He stood up for what he believed in, regardless of its popularity. He tried to live according to the Navy Core Values of honor, courage, and commitment, but was honest when he failed to do so.

Until his death, McCain maintained that he was not a hero. To him, service was his job, a job that meant serving a cause greater than himself. “The great honour of my life,” he said “was to serve in the company of heroes. I’m not a hero.”

In his farewell address, delivered posthumously, McCain stressed the importance of putting political differences aside:

“We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than ever before. We always do.”

McCain concluded his farewell letter to the American people by echoing the words of his concession speech in 2008. “Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”

Senator McCain never quit, he never surrendered, he never hid from history “Like most people, I have regrets.” he said “But I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anyone else’s.” He was Arizona’s Senator; he was America’s Senator.

Fair winds and following seas, sir.