National | News | Obituaries

Sen. John McCain remembered as war hero, strong supporter of human rights and Israel

U.S. Sens. John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, right, place notes in the Western Wall in Jerusalem, March 19, 2008. (Brian Hendler/JTA)

Six-term Arizona Republican Sen. John Sydney McCain III, 81, died at the family ranch in Sedona, Arizona, Aug. 26, one day after declining further treatment for brain cancer. Today, he lies in state in the U.S. Capitol, where a formal ceremony will take place in the Capitol Rotunda at 8 a.m. MST to honor his life and 60 years of service to the nation.

On Saturday, at 7 a.m. MST, a national memorial service will take place at Washington National Cathedral. At McCain’s request, former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are expected to deliver eulogies. He will be buried at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland. His wife Cindy, seven children and five grandchildren survive him. 

“Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country,” said President Donald J. Trump on Monday, when he approved lowering the flags over the White House and across the nation to half-staff until McCain’s interment.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York on Monday gained Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s support to cosponsor a resolution renaming the Senate Russell Building in honor of McCain. Schumer and McCain were both members of the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight that sponsored the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.

McCain called himself a maverick. The hawkish, conservative senator was known for doing the right thing, even when it was not politically beneficial. He made human rights and Israel centerpieces of his advocacy for a robust U.S. influence around the globe. Prior to his 2008 winning bid for the Republican presidential nomination, McCain said, “I will continue to do what is right. I will continue to pursue torture, climate change. If that means I can’t get the Republican nomination, fine. I’ve had a happy life. The worst thing I can do is sell my soul to the devil.”

Like his grandfather and father before him, McCain graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. On his 23rd mission as a combat pilot flying missions over Vietnam, a missile strike to his aircraft forced him to eject, breaking both his arms and legs. He spent 1967-1973 in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison for American POWs, where he was tortured and where he famously refused release until all of his fellow prisoners were freed. Upon release in 1973, he remained in the Navy, becoming its liaison to the Senate. It was in that capacity that he first visited Israel in the late 1970s.

McCain left the Navy in 1981, won a race for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 and was elected to the Senate for the first time in 1986. Over the course of his career, McCain served as chair of the Senate committees on Indian Affairs; Commerce, Science and Transportation; and most recently, Armed Services.

Admirers from both sides of the aisle responded with tributes following his death.

“John McCain has played a major role in our nation’s and state’s histories. Many of us vividly remember his extended years in captivity — badly beaten and tortured by our enemies — and how he demonstrated courage and leadership by never breaking,” Felecia Rotellini, chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, said in a public statement. “His service and dedication to our state, his humor and love of sports will be missed. During his decades of holding public office, McCain has represented Arizona on a national and international level with sophistication, and even though we’ve often disagreed with him politically, Arizona Democrats have always respected his independent streak and willingness to fight for election reform, veterans’ rights and human rights.”

Sen. Flake said he had admired McCain his whole life. “It will be hard to imagine politics without John McCain . . . We may never see his like again, but it is his reflection of America that we need now more than ever.” Flake recently visited McCain in Sedona. “He spoke wistfully of those he admired and expressed optimism that such leaders would rise up in the future.”

Arizona’s U.S. Reps. Kysten Sinema, D-Dist. 9 and Martha McSally, R-Dist. 2, were among those who shared their views.

“John McCain’s legacy will continue for generations to come,” said Sinema. “His commitment to our country, to the pursuit of freedom and truth, and to the values we hold most dear as Americans, have been an inspiration to us all. . . .[his] mark on our country will never fade. Thank goodness.”

McSally said, “McCain was one of Arizona’s greatest senators, one of our country’s finest statesmen and an American hero who risked his life to defend this great nation. He loved this state, and he loved this country.”

McCain’s willingness to reach across the aisle extended to the Jewish community, where he worked with human rights activists. Emblematic of his dedication to bipartisanship was his close and long friendship with Joseph Lieberman, the Orthodox Jewish senator from Connecticut, who said, “America has lost one of the greatest patriots and public servants in our history. And I have lost a dear friend.”

In its statement mourning McCain, the Jewish Democratic Council of America noted that he “rose above politics and represented his values.”

“A passionate advocate for American global leadership, Sen. McCain rightly bemoaned those who favored a U.S. pullback from world affairs,” David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee called McCain “an extraordinarily courageous defender of liberty. Throughout his congressional career Senator McCain stood with Israel because throughout his life he stood up for America’s allies and our shared democratic values,” its statement said.

“He was a tireless champion of the issues and principles that he held dear, from reforming the broken campaign finance system, to the effort to bar the use of torture by U.S. authorities, to his pivotal vote just last year to save the Affordable Care Act,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “On those issues and others including combating climate change and strengthening U.S.-Israel relations, we were honored to work with him. And when we engaged him around areas of disagreement, Sen. McCain was always honest and straightforward.”

“He was loved by many and sometimes not,” said Republican National Committeeman of Arizona Bruce Ash of Tucson. “Service was in his family DNA. It was his life. He died with his boots on. I doubt he feared anyone or anything.”

McCain’s willingness to challenge his party’s line was evident in his outspokenness on torture, an issue where he found common cause with liberal Jews. He also joined with Jewish former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., in passing the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as the McCain-Feingold Act, limiting campaign giving. The Supreme Court in 2010 overturned regulation of political campaign spending by organizations.

McCain was forgiving to those who opposed the Vietnam War at home, and in the 1980s and 1990s, he joined then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., another Vietnam veteran, in leading the normalization of relations with Vietnam.

Spokesperson Rick Davis read aloud McCain’s final letter to America at a news conference Monday morning. In it, McCain reminded his fellow Americans, “We weaken our greatness…when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”

Compiled from reports by JTA and other news agencies.