John McCain, a giant of the Senate who survived years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to become a leading actor on the political stage for decades, died Saturday at the age of 81.
In a statement, McCain’s office wrote that the Arizona senator died at 4:28 p.m., where he was accompanied by his wife, Cindy, and their family.
“At his death, he had served the United States of America faithfully for sixty years,” McCain’s office wrote.
The news prompted an outpouring of tribute and sympathy from Republicans and Democrats alike, a testament to the respect McCain built among colleagues in both parties despite his habit of calling them out during clashes over politics and policy.
For six terms in the Senate, McCain was full of surprises.
The senator challenged George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, burnishing his reputation as a friend of reporters on a campaign bus nicknamed the “Straight Talk Express.”
McCain lost the nomination, but discovered his political brand: party maverick.
He voted against the Bush tax cuts and backed campaign finance legislation opposed by many in his party.
He backed Bush on the Iraq War, and supported the “surge” of 20,000 U.S. troops in 2007 that brought some stability to the country.
As 2007 opened, McCain was the frontrunner for the GOP nomination to succeed Bush, but his campaign faltered and was all but finished by the summer. Remarkably, he made a comeback by the end of the year and won primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, eventually riding a strong showing on Super Tuesday to the GOP nomination.
In the campaign against Obama, McCain made the surprise choice of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) as his running mate, a move that initially energized Republicans but eventually appeared to hurt the ticket. Years later, some would point to that moment as an opening for the later Trump era.
With or without Palin, McCain faced a daunting task in defeating Obama — given the Iraq War and Bush’s unpopularity — and he lost the election in a landslide.
That returned McCain to the Senate, where for the next nine years he continued a career that would leave him as a legend of the chamber.
If he lost some of his maverick image in the partisan battles with Obama, he won back that identity again this year as he became one of Trump’s most forceful critics among Republicans on Capitol Hill.
McCain gave voice to concerns that many of his GOP colleagues held privately but often kept to themselves to avoid open battle with the president and his passionate base of supporters. Usually a loyal Republican, he was not afraid to go his own way when he thought principle demanded it.
When he did stray from the reservation, colleagues didn’t dare to criticize him publicly.
McCain saw his life’s purpose as duty to country.
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