Of the eight decades he spent on earth, fully six of them were dedicated to public service. That legacy of service is something the likes of which we may not see again. The passing of McCain provides the American body politic a moment to pause and reflect on the remarkable life of the Arizona Republican.
McCain has been part of collective national consciousness for the better part of the last five decades — ever since his capture and ultimate release five years later (in March 1973) from a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. The stories of his torture at the hands of the Vietnamese were — and are — excruciating. His unwillingness to use his status — his father was an admiral in the Navy — to gain early release from the camp exemplifies a selflessness and sacrifice most of us can’t even begin to imagine.
Less than a decade after he emerged gaunt and hobbled from that prison camp, McCain was in the US House. Four years after that — in 1986 — McCain was elected to the seat left behind by the retirement of Sen. Barry Goldwater.
His rapid rise in politics was slowed during the early 1990s when McCain was implicated in the “Keating 5” scandal in which he and four other senators were accused of exerting their influence on behalf of a wealthy campaign donor named Charles Keating. The Senate ethics committee ultimately found that McCain “exercised poor judgment in intervening with the regulators’ on Keating’s behalf” but added that the actions he undertook “were not improper nor attended with gross negligence.”
Slowly but surely, McCain began to build a national profile in the wake of that scandal — and heavily influenced by it. Having flown too close to the line between money and politics, McCain was reborn as a committed reformer, with campaign finance reform as his main priority.
Even so, McCain was largely ignored as a major player in the 2000 presidential race when he announced his candidacy in September 1999. Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush was considered the all-but-certain nominee and McCain wasn’t seen as one of the people who might even have a puncher’s chance against the scion of the first family of Republican politics.
But McCain caught lightning in a bottle in a way that can only happen in the swirl of a presidential primary campaign. Riding around New Hampshire in a bus dubbed the “Straight Talk Express,” McCain became the ringmaster of a compelling political circus — holding court for hours on end with reporters and aides about whatever topic anyone could think of.
It was a political campaign the likes of which seemed to only ever exist in the movies; an exuberant, upstart campaign that played free and loose because the candidate knew he had nothing to lose.
When McCain crushed Bush by 18 points in New Hampshire, he looked and sounded every bit the giant killer — the maverick who had beaten the Man. Reality hit back hard in the South Carolina primary, which is still seen as one of the nastiest races ever conducted. McCain’s loss to Bush there effectively ended his insurgent bid and left him deeply embittered toward Bush and the Republican Party that had rallied against him.