PHOENIX (CN) – U.S. Sen. John McCain, the senior Republican senator from Arizona and two-time presidential candidate who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, died Saturday. He was 81.
McCain had been in failing health for more than a year as he battled glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. The cancer was discovered in 2017 following a procedure to remove a blood clot above his left eye.
He died at 4:28 p.m. Saturday surrounded by family, his office confirmed.
“My father’s passing comes with sorrow and grief for me, for my mother, for my brothers, and for my sisters. He was a great fire who burned bright, and we lived in his light and warmth for so very long,” McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain said in a statement. “We know that his flame lives on, in each of us. The days and years to come will not be the same without my dad – but they will be good days, filled with life and love, because of the example he lived for us.”
McCain, the son and grandson of two four-star admirals, followed his family’s military footsteps into the Naval Academy.
He graduated from the academy in 1958, where he graduated 894 of 899 in his class – a fact that he often made light of.
“My superiors didn’t hold me in very high esteem in those days,” McCain said in a speech at the academy in 2007. “To be honest, I wasn’t too thrilled to be here back then, and I was as relieved to graduate – fifth from the bottom of my class – as the Naval Academy was to see me go.”
He shipped out to Vietnam in 1967, and on Oct. 26, 1967, his plane was shot down over North Vietnam. He was captured, imprisoned and tortured for 5 ½ years, and his treatment while in captivity left him unable to lift his arms above his head.
McCain began his political career in his adopted state of Arizona in 1982, winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, and served 31 years as one of the most well-known Republicans in the Senate.
While he usually voted along party lines, he departed on a number of key issues often enough to earn him the nickname “maverick.”
Under President Ronald Reagan, McCain opposed the deployment of Marines to Beirut. In 2001, he voted against tax cuts under President George W. Bush and later disagreed with him over strategy in the Iraq War.
He worked hand-in-hand with Sen. Ten Kennedy, a liberal stalwart, on immigration and health care measures.
Kennedy died exactly nine years before McCain on Aug. 25 2009, after a battle with the same brain cancer that afflicted McCain.
McCain first ran for president in 2000 against the heavily favored Texas governor George W. Bush, and his surprisingly good performance then set up his second run which garnered him the Republican nomination in 2008.
An economic recession – and the lackluster performance by his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – ended in his loss to a rising star in the Democratic Party, then-Sen. Barack Obama.
Despite the loss, McCain maintained a cordial relationship with Obama and a strong friendship with Obama’s vice president Joe Biden.
“Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means,” Obama said in a statement.
Of McCain, Biden said: “John was many things – a proud graduate of the Naval Academy, a Senate colleague, a political opponent. But, to me, more than anything, John was a friend. America will miss John McCain. The world will miss John McCain. And I will miss him dearly.”
McCain had not been to the Capitol since July 2017, when he placed a key vote against a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act. After the vote he remained in Arizona, often traveling between his family’s Hidden Valley Ranch in Cornville and doctor appointments in Phoenix.
Despite his distance from Washington, McCain remained a vocal participant in the political process as he regularly blasted the actions of President Donald Trump, who he feared was moving the Republican Party from a position of free trade to one clouded by nativism.
In his last book “The Restless Wave,” McCain took Trump to task for his tolerance of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who once said McCain was driven mad by being “kept in a pit” in Vietnam.
“He seems uninterested in the moral character of world leaders and their regimes,” McCain wrote. “The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values. Flattery secures his friendship, criticism him enmity.”
Trump tweeted his condolences to the McCain family shortly after news broke of his death.
“My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Sen. John McCain,” Trump wrote. “Our hearts and prayers are with you!”
McCain leaves behind his wife Cindy and seven children.
In “The Restless Wave,” McCain wrote that he found solace from his impending death in the words of Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
In the novel, protagonist Robert Jordan lies wounded on a battlefield, knowing that the battle will end in his death.
“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it,” Jordan says in the novel.
“And I do too,” McCain wrote of the passage. “I hate to leave it. But I don’t have a complaint. Not one. It’s been quite a ride.
“I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.”