OBITUARY: John McCain, ‘A patriot of the highest order’


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Uday Sankar das Uday Sankar Das

After memorial services in his adopted state Arizona, then at the Capitol Hill rotunda and finally, at the National Cathedral in Washington, Senator John McCain, for many Americans an authentic national hero, was finally laid to rest at his chosen place at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland. It was this academy that he graduated from in 1958 and later became a decorated fighter pilot who was captured by North Vietnam in 1967.

One of the most influential US politicians in recent history who made two unsuccessful attempts to win the White House, the US Senator, a Republican, represented Arizona for nearly 35 years, died just a few days short of his 82nd birthday, after fighting an aggressive bout of brain cancer for a year.

John McCain’s death brought leaders from across the political aisle at his final memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington including former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama and their wives. Just a day earlier, his casket was placed in the rotunda under the vast dome of the US Capitol, a rare honour reserved for military personnel and elected officials. Only 30 persons were accorded this extraordinary distinction before John McCain.

Born at naval air station in Panama to Admiral John McCain Jr and Roberta McCain, he grew up in Washington D.C. in the shadow of admirals. His grandfather John Senior, a four-star admiral, commanded carrier operations in the Pacific during the Second World War. It was no wonder that young John would also take up a career in the navy. He was sent to the Naval Academy in Annapolis from where he graduated in 1958.

In October 1967, during his deployment in Vietnam, McCain’s plane was shot down and landed in a lake near Hanoi. He was seriously injured breaking both his arms and a leg. He was imprisoned in the notorious ‘Hanoi Hilton’ where he was tortured on a regular basis. But when the North Vietnamese came to know that he was the son of the commander-in-chief of the US Pacific command and the grandson of a US Admiral, McCain was offered to be released early but he refused, insisting that his fellow prisoners of war who were captured before him must be freed first. His fellow prisoners regarded him as the bravest of the brave.

After returning from Vietnam being released in 1973, he returned to naval service. He was sent to Washington as the navy’s chief lobbyist with the Senate and successful in making Congress agree to allocate funds for a new super-carrier for the US Navy. This experience most probably was an eye-opener to McCain to foray into politics.

His entry in to Congress came about in 1982 when he was elected to the House of Representatives from Arizona on a Republican ticket and four years later he filled the seat in the US Senate left vacant by Barry Goldwater who was heavily defeated in the presidential election in 1964, but was chiefly credited with reviving conservative politics in the United States.

McCain was regarded both a hawk and a dove in his political outlook; there is no doubt that he was a conservative. He voted against declaring a Martin Luther King national holiday and also opposed gun control and abortion. He supported the 2003 war against Iraq. But then he cited his personal conviction in his opposition to the norms of modern Republicanism and also sided with the Democrats in their policy of offering a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants.

He made two attempts to occupy the Oval office in the White House. In 2000, he lost to George W Bush in gaining the Republican ticket after a bitter and nasty campaign. He was accused of fathering a daughter by a black mistress when in fact the McCains had adopted a Bangladeshi girl, who they named Bridget, from one of Mother Teresa’s homes. He succeeded in gaining his party’s nomination for the 2008 election against Barack Obama. His selection of then Alaska governor Sarah Palin did not go down well with the voters and he was defeated. McCain later admitted that he had made a mistake and regretted not choosing his friend Joe Liebermann as his running mate in 2008.

John McCain appealed to his fellow Senators to advance bills with bipartisan measures by working through committees. In 2017, he came to the Senate floor to vote against President Trump’s attempt to repeal Obamacare. But months later he voted in favour of the Republican tax bill which was a partisan bill.

The McCains had an intimate connection with Bangladesh. During a visit to Bangladesh, John’s wife Cindy visited the Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa Children’s home, where nuns and foreign workers care for the children. It was from there that Cindy adopted Bridget who was then just 10 weeks old. John said later that it was entirely Cindy’s decision and Bridget soon got integrated with the McCain family. John said about Bridget in an interview, “She has enriched our lives. She’s a wonderful child, a complete part of our family and we love her.”

John McCain had arranged his funeral and memorial services himself before his death with minute details. He made it absolutely clear that President Trump was not to be invited and he asked for two of his political opponents, two former presidents, Barack Obama and George W Bush to eulogise at his funeral service.

Barack Obama in his eulogy said,John understood, as JFK understood, as Ronald Reagan understood, that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our bloodline, not on what we look like, ………but on adherence to a common creed: that all of us are created equal, endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Paying his respects to a fellow Republican, George W Bush said, “Some lives are so vivid, it is difficult to imagine them ended.  Some voices are so vibrant and distinctive; it is hard to think of them stilled. A man who seldom rested is laid to rest. And his absence is tangible, like the silence after a mighty roar…………The world is smaller for his departure. And we will remember him as he was: unwavering, undimmed, unequalled.”

John’s daughter Meghan however did not mince her words at the funeral and in a rebuke of President Trump, said,”America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because it was always great.” And there were President Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner standing at the funeral to swallow that bitter pill.

John McCain had his virtues and, no doubt, some political pitfalls, but throughout his life he worked tirelessly to promote a more inclusive conservatism, based on principles. That might be his true legacy.

And, as former President George W Bush said on hearing the Senator’s death, “John McCain was a man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order.”

The writer is a senior journalist, a political commentator and a sports analystHe is also a Contributing Columnist of Shottobani.

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