Politics

McCain Remembered as He Wished: One Who Served Honorably

Members of both parties praised the late Arizona senator

A slightly frayed flag flies at the Capitol in Washington fly at half staff on Sunday morning, after Sen. John McCain died on Saturday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In September 2017, Sen. John McCain was asked how he would be like to be remembered.

He said he wanted to be remembered as someone who served his country. “I hope we could add, honorably,” he told CNN at the time.

And that is precisely how he was remembered by friends and former foes Saturday night after news broke that the longtime Arizona Republican senator had passed away after battling brain cancer.

Following the news, members of both parties praised McCain — a Vietnam War combat veteran and prisoner of war, and his party’s 2008 presidential nominee — as a true patriot.

While President Donald Trump, who had a tense history with McCain, issued a short statement on Twitter, other lawmakers and former presidents issued lengthy statements praising the late senator for his service. All, including the GOP leaders in Congress, applauded his lifetime of service to the United States. 

“In an era filled with cynicism about national unity and public service, John McCain’s life shone as a bright example,” Senate Majority Leader McConnell said. “He showed us that boundless patriotism and self-sacrifice are not outdated concepts or clichés, but the building blocks of an extraordinary American life.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan in a statement called McCain “a giant of our time.”

Personal stories

A flood of statements poured in from senators. McCain, who was first elected to the Senate in 1986, left a lasting impression on the institution.

GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona’s junior senator, remembered his colleague in an op-ed in The Washington Post. He said McCain taught him “the value of standing alone to do what is right.”

Flake recalled an instance when he was serving in the House and taking heat from local officials and columnists, when McCain approached him.

“He stuck his finger in my chest and demanded: ‘Don’t. Back. Down! You’re in the right, they’ll come around,’” Flake wrote. “It was all that I needed.”

South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of McCain’s closest friends in the Senate, tweeted, “America and Freedom have lost one of her greatest champions … And I’ve lost one of my dearest friends and mentors.”

Graham, McCain and Connecticut Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman were known as the “three amigos” during their time together in the Senate. And they traveled the world together.

Sen. Ben Sasse remembered his own trips abroad with the late Senate Armed Services chairman in a tweet Saturday night.

“I’ve been in multiple war zones with this man, and I never ceased to be amazed & moved at young servicemen/women delaying their promotion ceremonies until John McCain arrived to preside over their formal oath-takings,” the Nebraska Republican tweeted.

Sen. Chris Coons also recalled traveling to a dozen countries with McCain, including to the hotel in Hanoi where McCain was tortured as a POW. The Delaware Democrat tweeted that those travels “taught me about America’s roles and responsibilities in the world.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy recalled on Twitter how McCain detailed his time as a POW to the entire Senate “in spellbinding detail.” Murphy said McCain detailed how he developed a way to communicate with fellow prisoners by tapping, since they would be tortured if they spoke to one another.

Murphy recalled California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asking McCain if he remembered the tapping system.

“He just started a rhythmic, staccato tapping on the podium,” Murphy said. “‘I just tapped out, ‘Yes, Diane, I still can,’ [McCain] whispered into the mic.”

Sen. James M. Inhofe, who is in line to succeed McCain as Senate Armed Service chairman, remembered how the late senator was there for him when he was first running for Senate. The Oklahoma Republican has been managing many of the committee’s activities under McCain’s direction since the Arizonan’s cancer diagnosis.

“I’ll never forget how he was one of three senators [who] came to campaign for me in 1994 when no one else thought I had a chance of getting elected,” Inhofe said.

Final conversations

Other colleagues recalled conversations with McCain shortly before his death.

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement that he had recently spoken with McCain.

“John and I both ended our final call a few weeks ago by telling each other, ‘I love you,’ and that was how we felt about one another,” the Nevada Democrat said. “There will never be another John McCain.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she and her husband had visited McCain in the past month.

“He pointed to a sentence in his new book and told me, ‘That’s all that matters.’” the Minnesota Democrat recalled Saturday. “The sentence was this: ‘Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself.’”

Flake also recalled spending an hour or two with McCain a few months ago, reminiscing about the past and discussing the future.

Flake said McCain remarked to him as Flake got up to leave: “The doctors tell me I’m halfway there. The more I see this end coming, the more I am grateful for what I have.”

Bipartisan praise

McCain was his party’s standard bearer in 2008, but he was also known for working across the aisle. One of his final actions in the Senate included breaking with his party to cast a “no” vote on the Republican effort to repeal much of the 2010 health care law.

Democrats — even those who had faced off against him — joined in remembering McCain’s service.

Former President Barack Obama, who defeated McCain in 2008, said in a statement that he and the late senator “saw our political battles, even, as a privilege, something noble, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those high ideals at home, and to advance them around the world.”

“We saw this country as a place where anything is possible — and citizenship as our patriotic obligation to ensure it forever remains that way,” Obama said.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. lost his son Beau to the same form of brain cancer that afflicted McCain.

“America will miss John McCain. The world will miss John McCain. And I will miss him dearly,” Biden said in a statement.

Watch: A Life in the Public Eye: A Look Back at McCain’s Congressional Career

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