The fighter that was John McCain

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MOST Guyanese would remember United States Senator John McCain as the respected Vietnam-war hero who was beaten by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Senator McCain, who died of brain cancer on Saturday at age 81, will be remembered too, as the venerated military and political icon who always refused to give up in his fight for what is right.

John Sidney McCain was born on August 29, 1936. During his 60 years of public service, the Arizona republican was a United States Navy pilot, prisoner of war, senator, two-time presidential candidate, skin-cancer survivor, and brain-cancer fighter. Fighting defined his life. And he did it well, often being knocked down, but refusing to surrender, he always defeated stacked odds to get up and fight another day.

McCain graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1958. He then enlisted in the US Navy where he served as a naval aviator during the Vietnam War. He retired from the Navy in 1981 at the rank of captain, and entered politics in 1982.
It may be argued that McCain’s life as a fighter began when his aircraft was shot down over Hannoi in 1967 while on a bombing mission. The severely injured McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese, and held prisoner of war (POW) until 1973.

During his years in captivity, McCain was tortured. Yet, he refused to give up. McCain could have “pulled rank” and be released from the POW camp early (his father was an admiral), but he refused to do so. That act of courageous honour became a defining characteristic of the rest of his life.

Having regained some of the weight he lost as a POW, McCain was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. After serving two terms, he entered the U.S. Senate in 1987. His rise in politics was marred in the early 1990s, after he was among five senators implicated in a campaign finance scandal. Although he was found to have exercised poor judgment, McCain was cleared of improper conduct. He recovered from the setback, rallied on and was re-elected to the senate five times, the last time being in 2016.

The generally conservative McCain had a reputation of voting according to his conscience. Becoming known as a “maverick,” he would often express views contrary to those of the majority of other republican senators. He therefore stood out. And, often standing alone, he slowly built a reputation for honesty, integrity, and forthright independence.
As his national prominence increased, so did his commitment to reform. He successfully piloted the passage of the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002, which impacted campaign finance. He was instrumental in effecting changes in U.S. foreign policy, and cutting wasteful spending.

In 1999 he announced his candidacy for the 2000 presidential election. Although at first his candidacy was not taken seriously, he eventually emerged as a serious contender. He fought his way to the top of the republican list by grassroots campaigning from a bus which he called the Straight Talk Express. It was an unconventional, almost fairytale campaign. He beat the front-runner George Bush by 18 points in the New Hampshire Primary. But, alas, it was not to be; he eventually lost to George W bush.

He ran again for president in 2008, and although he started out as the front-runner, the poorly performing economy and the unique and elegant campaign of Barack Obama put an end to his presidential dream. But, that end was yet another beginning for McCain. McCain comfortably adopted the role of respected statesman.

In his final years, McCain became the conscience of the U.S. Senate, pronouncing on everything from foreign policy to military spending, and, finally, standing up and boldly opposing the more radical positions of President Donald Trump, even as his fellow republican senators remained silent.

In his final memoir titled, The Restless Wave, McCain wrote, “Before I leave I would like to see our policies return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations.” Arguably, John McCain did not get his final wish. But, as the maverick fighter may have said, there are others who can take up the fight.

As Guyanese join our American brothers and sisters in remembering the life of a remarkable man who never gave up; who always fought for what he knew to be right, we may reflect on our own lives and try to find in our hearts, the courage to stand up for truth, honesty, and integrity, even if we must often stand alone.