There are few people who can say they’ve spent a lifetime, more than 60 years, in service to the United States.
John McCain is one of them.
Like his father and grandfather, who were both admirals, McCain, 81, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, and then he went into combat during the Vietnam War. A decorated pilot, he flew bombing missions until the North Vietnamese shot down his plane over Hanoi.
For 5½ years, McCain was held captive under brutal conditions, and tortured. He was released in 1973. After retiring from the Navy because of permanent injuries from his imprisonment, McCain entered politics in 1982. He served two terms in the U.S. House before winning election in 1986 to the U.S. Senate, where he has served six terms representing Arizona. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 2000 and was the Republican Party’s nominee in 2008.
Last July, McCain announced that he had glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He has been in and out of the hospital undergoing treatment ever since. In an excerpt from an upcoming memoir, he announced this week that this will be his final term in the Senate.
Known for his sometimes-irascible demeanor and salty humor, McCain often bucked both Republican Party dogma and conventional political wisdom, earning him a reputation as a maverick. Though his independent streak could rub some people the wrong way, few have ever questioned his sacrifices and commitment to serving the nation.
The Gazette spoke with Harvard-affiliated analysts about the man they know, his longtime influence, and the legacy he will leave behind.
The McCain they knew
Chief political correspondent for The Washington Post; Institute of Politics 2017 fall fellow
I think he’s operated with a different compass than many politicians do. He’s always been willing to be outspoken, to work across party lines in ways that not everybody is these days. He has an independent streak; there’s no question about that. He had a very good working relationship with Ted Kennedy. They couldn’t have been more different, but he was motivated by a desire to get some problems solved rather than always scoring political points. He can be partisan, certainly, and he would be the first to say he’s not a saint, in terms of politics. He’s not afraid to offend people, sometimes to a fault. I suppose when you’ve lived the life he lived, particularly the years in the prison camp in North Vietnam, you come out of that with a different sense of how you’ll operate than somebody who might not have that experience. I think he probably realized that all your days are short and, if you’re in a place where you can accomplish things, you ought to do whatever you can to do that.
U.S. Secretary of Defense, 2015‒2017; co-director of the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)
I think he is regarded, certainly by me, but also by everybody else in the Defense Department I knew, as an authentic American hero and, second, as someone who has always put the institution of the Department of Defense and the U.S. military first. He holds it to high standards. He’s demanding, but integrity and accountability were important to him. There were times in which that stung, because when we made a mistake, he would be critical. But that was always fair. I have had a good personal relationship with him for many years. We had disagreements about what to do, but it was never personal. He was demanding because he thought the military of the United States of America ought to uphold up the highest standards, and he’s absolutely right.
E.J. DIONNE Jr. ’73
Author; columnist for The Washington Post; William H. Bloomberg Visiting Professor at Harvard Divinity School
The difference between a maverick and a disrupter like [President] Trump is McCain has actually wanted to drain the swamp. One of the consistencies that’s flowed through McCain’s career is a frustration with lobbying, with big money in politics — the major reform bill over the last 20 years, McCain-Feingold, bears his name for a reason. And so while some Trump officials might want to paint McCain as “establishment,” he’s actually in many ways a more authentically anti-establishment figure than they are.
Second, McCain has frustrated liberals over the years because he is essentially a very conservative man. Liberals have been frustrated with him over, for example, the war in Iraq and foreign policy. But no matter how frustrated liberals have ever been with him, there’s no one I know — other than Donald Trump — who downplays McCain’s heroism or the contributions he made to his country. In a deep way, I’m a McCain fan despite disagreements I’ve had with him over the years on certain issues, because he was authentic, and he is an authentic hero. The sacrifices he made are not a one-off; they reflect something that’s deep inside him. I’ve always liked McCain for how much the word “honor” matters to him.
DAVID GERGEN, L.L.B. ’67
Former aide to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton; director of the Center for Public Leadership at HKS
The John McCain story is ultimately one of inspiration, not legislation. He did, and has, in his later years, obviously become a figure of admiration because of the leadership he’s shown on health care and other issues.
He was here at the Kennedy School during the George W. Bush years. The students were curious about hearing him, but before that they just wanted to touch him. There was something that was magical about that presentation. And I think it was mostly about his heroism and the war. He was a POW, and there was the fact that the North Vietnamese knew who his father was and came to him early on to offer him a way to go home. And he said, “I’ll only go if my men go with me.”
Does he have a roustabout quality to him? Absolutely. Did he have some playboy qualities to him early on? Absolutely, although I don’t remember him ever treating women dishonorably … He was a guy’s guy there for a long time. He was a fun person to go out with. Hillary Clinton loved to go out and knock down a few drinks with him.