McCain, John Sidney

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McCain, John Sidney

Senator John McCain spent 22 years in the U.S. Navy before becoming a Republican congressman, and then a senator, from Arizona. He did not have a typical military career, however. McCain endured five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He, nevertheless, prefers to be known for what he has accomplished as an elected official. In 1998, he won credit as an anti-tobacco crusader. McCain's name became synonymous with a drive to sharply decrease smoking in America by raising taxes and halting tobacco companies' ability to shield themselves from lawsuits. That bill eventually lost support, and the senator redirected his energy into other issues, such as campaign-finance reform and Telecommunications legislation.

John Sidney McCain was born on August 29, 1936, in the Panama Canal Zone, to John Sidney McCain Jr. and Roberta (Wright) McCain. He grew up on naval bases in the United States and overseas. The elder McCain was an admiral who served as commander of American forces in the Pacific during the Vietnam War. In fact, the family has a long lineage in the U.S. military. McCain's paternal grandfather, John S. McCain Sr. was also an admiral, as well as commander of all aircraft carriers in the Pacific during World War II. He and McCain's father were the first father-and-son admirals in the history of the U.S. Navy.

McCain graduated from Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1954 and then attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he took courses in electrical engineering. There, he was known as a rowdy and insubordinate student, whose demerits for his antics detracted from his otherwise respectable grades. He graduated in 1958, toward the bottom of his class (790 out of 795), but nevertheless was accepted to train as a naval aviator.

On October 26, 1967, the lieutenant commander lifted off from the carrier Oriskany in an A-4E Skyhawk on a mission over the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. Above the city, an anti-aircraft missile sliced off the plane's right wing, forcing McCain to eject. With both arms broken, a shattered knee, and a broken shoulder, he landed in a lake where a Vietnamese man extracted him. Subsequently, a crowd beat him, stabbed him with a bayonet, and took him into custody. He did not receive care for his wounds for nine days. When officials learned of his father's high rank, they admitted him to a hospital and later placed him with an American cell-mate, who helped to nurse him back to health. Because of his father's status, McCain was offered an early release after just seven months. He denied it, insisting on following the U.S. prisoner-of-war code of conduct, which holds that prisoners should only accept release in the order in which they were captured.

"Glory is not a conceit. It is not a decoration for valor. Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely and who rely on you in return."
—John Mccain

After five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain and the rest of the men in Hanoi were released on March 17, 1973. McCain was given a hero's welcome upon his return to the United States, meeting President richard nixon and California Governor ronald reagan and receiving the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, and Distinguished Flying Cross. He went to the National War College in Washington, D.C., in 1973 and 1974, but he missed flying. After returning to the skies as a training-squadron commander, he was promoted to the rank of captain in 1977.

In 1977, the Navy named McCain its liaison to the U.S. Senate, marking the beginning of his political aspirations. He retired from the Navy in 1981 and moved to Phoenix to work for his wife's father, a beer distributor. In 1982, despite his newcomer status in the state, he ran for the House of Representatives from Arizona's First Congressional District—a Republican-dominated area taking up much of Phoenix—and won. Unopposed in the 1984 primary, he was re-elected by a large majority over his Democratic opponent. His conservative voting record followed the party line rather faithfully during the Reagan years. He supported prayer in public schools, the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction bill, the use of lie-detector tests in certain forms of employment, and the reintroduction of certain handgun sales. He voted against the Equal Rights Amendment and against budgeting extra funds for the Clean Air Act. Understandably hawkish in his views on the military, he opposed the 1983 nuclear-freeze resolution and supported more funding for MX missile development and other programs.

McCain showed in many ways that he was not afraid to voice his own opinion. He approved of sanctions in the apartheid-era South Africa, voting to override President Reagan's Veto, and also spoke out against a maneuver to cut millions of dollars from a program that provided food to poor persons in order to give raises to administrators. He also stood against direct U.S. intervention in Central America.

In 1986, McCain ran unopposed in the primary for the U.S. Senate seat that was to be vacated when Arizona's political icon barry goldwater retired. He won the general election and was appointed to the Armed Services Committee and its subcommittees on readiness, personnel, and seapower; the Indian Affairs Committee; and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. He also lobbied for the rights of veterans and pushed to normalize relations with Vietnam, a goal that he realized on July 11, 1995. His early record was punctuated by the passage of the line-item veto, a power that was given to the president in order to erase certain elements of a bill, usually inserted by representatives who were trying to add special-interest or narrow-constituent issues on to a larger, unrelated bill. Although the federal courts eventually struck down the line-item veto in 1997, McCain became known as the champion fighting against "pork-barrel politics," even hiring a staff member to sit in the Senate Gallery and to spot any instances of such dealings at all hours.

McCain also rankled fellow Republicans when he took up the issue of campaign-finance reform. Wanting to make sweeping changes to the way fund raising is handled, he joined forces with Democrat Russell Feingold around 1995. They sought to draft a bill that would limit private donations to campaigns for public office, as well as to even the balance between lavishly funded incumbents and their opponents. The unpopular measure was not taken seriously at first. "We were like the guys who introduced the metric system," McCain told Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine. Although Democrats have come out heavily in support of the idea, Lewis observed, "Their enthusiasm derives from their certainty that Republicans will find a way to kill it." The bill's most lofty intention was to close the loophole that allows parties to accept general donations and then reroute them to specific candidates; these funds are called "soft money." The House of Representatives passed a version of the bill in August 1998, but the Senate blocked it.

The lowest point in McCain's career was in 1989. He was counted as one of the notorious "Keating Five," along with Senators John Glenn, Donald Riegle, Dennis DeConcini, and Alan Cranston. They were implicated in a scandal to protect Charles Keating, the owner of Lincoln Savings and Loan. Keating gave generously to the senators and, in return, he expected them to shelter him from federal bank regulators after his dealings had ruined his financial institution and cost taxpayers more than $3 billion to bail out. The Senate Ethics Committee investigated the matter and found that although McCain had exercised "poor judgment," he was not guilty of any wrongdoing. The affair hurt his reputation in the short term, but not fatally, and he was reelected in 1992. McCain's later efforts, in addition to campaign-finance reform, included an attention-getting $516 billion proposed bill that made tobacco companies more vulnerable to lawsuits filed by smokers and their families. He further proposed to sharply increase taxes on the substance. The measure made headlines for much of the first half of 1998, until it was voted down, generally due to its emphasis on raising taxes for those who buy tobacco products. In addition, McCain was involved in a telecommunications reform measure, pushing to install Internet connections in schools, to cut satellite- and cable-television costs, and to introduce local telephone competition.

In 1999, McCain published his memoir Faith of My Fathers; the book hit the best-seller list and was in its 12th printing one year later. In 2000, McCain ran for president but lost the Republican nomination to george w. bush. That year, McCain underwent surgery to remove a cancerous lesion after a recurrence of the melanoma that he had experienced in 1993. McCain returned to the Senate, where he continued his maverick ways to the point where some analysts began to speculate that he might switch parties. McCain made it clear that he had no intention of leaving the Republican Party, taking as his model the "trust-busting" president Theodore Roosevelt who campaigned vigorously against corporate financial Fraud and misfeasance.

In the new millennium, McCain continued to take stands that left him at odds with his own party. He continued to fight for campaign-finance reform. He also voted against President Bush's tax cuts, and sponsored legislation to raise automobile-emissions standards. McCain also joined with Democrats to propose background checks for persons buying firearms at gun shows, a ban on college-sports gambling, and financial-statement disclosure for corporations that deduct executives' stock options.

Further readings

Birnbaum, Jeffery H. 2003."McCain's Mutiny." Fortune (February 17).

Drew, Elizabeth. 2002. Citizen McCain. New York: Simon & Schuster.

John McCain Senate site. Available online at <mccain.senate.gov> (accessed April 12, 2003).

Karaagac, John. 2000. John McCain. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

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