John McCain Dies At 81

Aug 26, 2018
Originally published on August 26, 2018 8:17 am
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

John McCain is being remembered as a man of great courage and character. The Republican senator from Arizona died yesterday at age 81. He suffered from an aggressive form of brain cancer. McCain was a six-term U.S. senator and ran for president twice. But before all of that, he endured years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. NPR's Don Gonyea has this look at McCain's life and political career.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This is Senator John McCain at one of his most difficult moments. Humbled by a defeat at the polls, he had just conceded the 2008 election to Barack Obama.

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JOHN MCCAIN: Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much, and tonight I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone, and I thank the people of Arizona for it.

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GONYEA: But this was hardly the single defining moment for this politician. It's one milestone in a life marked by success and failure, pain and determination, setbacks and comebacks. When a teenage John McCain entered the U.S. Naval Academy, he was carrying on the traditions and expectations of a decorated military family. His father was a four-star admiral in the Navy - same for his grandfather.

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GONYEA: But John McCain III was hardly a great student. He was often reprimanded, ultimately finishing near the bottom of his class. Still, he became a pilot, eventually flying missions over Vietnam, where, in 1967, he was shot down while on a bombing run over Hanoi. He ejected from the wreckage. This is from a McCain campaign film.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Quickly, an angry mob gathered, seeking retribution for the rain of bombs. Dragging him from the lake, they broke his shoulder with a rifle butt and bayoneted him repeatedly.

GONYEA: Five years in a prison complex dubbed the Hanoi Hilton followed. McCain was beaten and tortured and was often in solitary confinement. Years later, he reflected on what it took to survive.

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MCCAIN: First is faith in God. The other is faith in one's fellow prisoner. You have to have faith that your fellow prisoners were doing - working just as hard as you were to resist. And faith in one's country.

GONYEA: Nine years after his release, he chose a path not dictated by family history - politics. In 1982, he won a seat in Congress from Arizona. Four years later, he was elected to the Senate. But then a stumble.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Today, in the Senate Ethics Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill, there was an extraordinary event. Two United States senators were cross-examined in a trial-like setting.

GONYEA: McCain was among a group of senators accused of improperly pressuring regulators investigating a big campaign donor, savings and loan executive Charles Keating. Nicknamed the Keating Five, they'd eventually be cleared of wrongdoing, but the stain of scandal embarrassed McCain, who would go on to make fighting for campaign finance reform his signature issue. In doing so, he bucked his own party, describing himself as a maverick. That label became his brand when he took this step in the year 2000.

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MCCAIN: It is because I owe America more than she has ever owed me that I am a candidate for president of the United States.

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GONYEA: He was taking on the establishment favorite, Texas Governor George W. Bush. McCain ran an unusual campaign. He'd hold long, rolling press conferences aboard a campaign bus called the Straight Talk Express. A heavy underdog, he won an upset in the New Hampshire primary. Then came South Carolina, where he was a victim of political dirty tricks - most notably, a planted rumor that wrongly implied he'd fathered a daughter who was African-American. McCain lost the state and spoke to supporters that night.

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MCCAIN: I will not take the low road to the highest office in this land.

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GONYEA: A sometimes contentious rivalry persisted with George W. Bush in the White House. McCain challenged Bush on the treatment of prisoners captured in Iraq and Afghanistan. The White House labeled it enhanced interrogation. McCain called it torture. Here he is on Fox News in '07.

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MCCAIN: We cannot torture people and maintain our moral superiority in the world.

GONYEA: In 2008, another McCain White House run. This time, he was the nominee but lost badly to Barack Obama, who would make history as the first African-American president. McCain's campaign often struggled with message and organization, but a memorable and telling moment did come when a woman at a town hall said this about Obama.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I can't trust Obama. I have read about him, and he's not - he's an Arab. He's not...

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MCCAIN: No, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No?

MCCAIN: No, ma'am. No, ma'am. No, ma'am. He's a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that's what this campaign is all about. He's not. Thank you.

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MCCAIN: Now to 2016. McCain was not a candidate but briefly became topic No. 1 because of an out-of-the-blue attack by candidate Donald Trump.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's not a war hero.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: He's a hero.

TRUMP: He's a war hero...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Five and a half years...

TRUMP: He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK? I hate to tell you.

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GONYEA: It was more proof of how much U.S. politics had changed that Trump could level such an attack and suffer no consequences with Republican voters. In the summer of 2017, McCain, then 80 years old, was hospitalized for surgery to remove a blood clot near his eye. It turned out to be brain cancer. The dire news came as the Senate was proceeding on the GOP pledge to replace the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare. The deep scar from his surgery visible, McCain made a dramatic return to D.C. and lamented the ugly partisanship of today's Senate.

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MCCAIN: I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other.

GONYEA: Then, an admonition.

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MCCAIN: Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them.

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GONYEA: Then McCain broke with his party and the president. He voted no. It was the deciding vote and one last iconic moment in an iconic public life.

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MCCAIN: Thank you, fellow senators. Mr. President, I yield the floor.

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GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.