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US Senator John McCain dies age 81 after battle with brain cancer

Robyn Beck, AFP | US Senator John McCain at a campaign event in Sterling Heights, Michigan on September 05, 2008

The senior Republican senator from Arizona and former nominee for president in the 2008 election, John Sidney McCain III, died Sunday after battling brain cancer for more than a year.


McCain suffered from glioblastoma, a rare and particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. It was announced on Friday that he had decided to stop treatment for his condition, a decision his family said he made “with his usual strength of will”.

McCain was surrounded by his wife Cindy and his family in Arizona during his final hours.

"He was a great fire who burned bright, and we lived in his light and warmth," said Meghan McCain, one of the late senator's seven children.

Born on August 29, 1936, in Panama – a US protectorate at the time – McCain hailed from a distinguished naval family. Both his father and grandfather, whom he was named after, were admirals in the US Navy.

Following in their footsteps, McCain enrolled in the United States Naval Academy, which he attended from 1954 until 1958. After graduation, he embarked on a career as a naval aviator, flying dozens of bombing missions during the Vietnam War.

Prisoner of war

On a raid over Hanoi on October 26, 1967, McCain’s plane was struck by a missile, forcing him to eject. Both his arms and a leg were broken in the incident. He was held by the North Vietnamese at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prisoner of war camp until 1973. More than two of those years were spent in solitary confinement.

VNA, AFP | John McCain receives care from a Vietnamese soldier in 1967 after being beaten by North Vietnamese fighters.

When offered a chance at early release, McCain refused to be repatriated before other American detainees who had been held longer than he, out of respect for the POW code of conduct. “Now, McCain, it will be very bad for you,” he recalled one of his captors saying in response to the decision.

His injuries sustained during the war left him with lifelong disabilities.

McCain retired from the Navy in 1981, moving to Arizona. Soon after entering politics in 1982, McCain was elected to the US House of Representatives, where he served two terms before setting his sights on the US Senate, which he joined in 1987 and to which he won easy re-election five times (most recently in 2016).

A Republican rebel

McCain first earned a reputation as a maverick in 2000, when he ran an insurgent campaign to become the Republican nominee for president. The little-known senator from Arizona’s compelling past as a POW and calls for political reform appealed to moderate and Independent voters. He ended his candidacy, however, after two major defeats in the primaries, paving the way for then Texas governor George W. Bush to win the White House.

Yet McCain had emerged as a powerful new Republican voice, one that wasn’t afraid of challenging his party. In 2005 he supported an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act in open defiance of the Bush administration that essentially banned the torture of prisoners in US custody, following the revelations of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

In 2008 he made a second attempt at the White House. During the campaign he made headlines for defending his opponent, Barack Obama, after a voter at a rally said she didn’t trust the Democratic candidate because “he’s an Arab”.

McCain quickly, but politely, corrected her error. “No ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”

McCain defends Obama at a campaign event

He ultimately lost to Obama, who expressed his gratitude for McCain’s service to his country in a tribute on Sunday.

"We are all in his debt," Obama said.

"We shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher – the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched and sacrificed."

McCain again diverged from his party in 2017 on the issue of health care. Shortly after his brain cancer diagnosis, McCain returned to Washington, DC, where he cast a crucial vote against a Republican-led effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act – one of Obama’s signature policy achievements.

John McCain and Barack Obama meet for the first time in November 2008, 13 days after Obama's first presidential victory.
John McCain and Barack Obama meet for the first time in November 2008, 13 days after Obama's first presidential victory. Jim Watson, AFP

The senior senator was also a vocal critic of President Donald Trump, warning against the president’s apparent admiration for his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and other autocratic leaders in his recent book, “The Restless Wave”.

Following Trump’s meeting with Putin in July – during which he accepted the Russian president’s denial of interference in the 2016 US presidential election – McCain issued a searing statement in which he described the incident as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”.

Although arrangements have yet to be finalised, McCain will lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC an honour reserved for the country’s “most eminent citzens”. He will also lie in state at the Arizona Capitol before being buried in Annapolis, Maryland. Former presidents Bush and Obama are both expected to deliver eulogies at his funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral. Trump has not been invited to attend, according to US media reports.

McCain is survived by his wife, Cindy, and his seven children: Doug, Andy and Sidney from his marriage to Carol McCain as well as Meghan, Jack, Jimmy and Bridget from his second marriage. McCain also leaves behind five grandchildren.

Alex Wong, AFP | One of the last photos of McCain, taken at the Capitol building in December 2017.

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