John McCain is a true American hero.
President Trump disputed it last year on the campaign trail — saying McCain was not a real hero because he was captured by the enemy during the Vietnam War.
But America knows his real story and no matter whether you agree with the Republican Senator from Arizona or disagree with him politically, he has earned the respect of this nation like few others.
McCain — the son and grandson of admirals — was a big catch for the Viet Cong when his plane went down in 1967 during a bombing mission over North Vietnam. The young navy pilot was held for five years in a brutal prison camp called the “Hanoi Hilton,” and was subject to all kinds of torture.
But McCain never broke and never betrayed his family or his country and when the war ended, he came home and continued his life of service in the U.S. Congress.
Our paths crossed in 2000, in the snows of New Hampshire. The first presidential primary election that year was just a few days away and McCain was making headlines as he criss-crossed the state, shaking hands and seeking votes.
He won the New Hampshire primary, but his attempt to wrest the party nomination from George W. Bush ultimately fell short. He tried again in 2008 and won the nomination, only to lose in a year that saw a yearning for change and the election of Democrat Barack Obama.
Throughout it all, McCain was what many of us would call a “class act” as he traveled the country on a bus labeled “the Straight Talk Express.” You need look no further than his 2008 concession speech:
“Tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama… I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”
In victory and defeat, McCain has always been true to his principles. And here in Washington, he has built a reputation over the years as a “maverick,” the kind of politician who would go his own way and build his own alliances when he felt it was the right thing — ethically, morally, and politically — to do.
To the dismay of some on the hard-right end of his party, one of his closest friends and partners across the partisan divide was the late Democratic Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy — a man who had experienced his own personal tragedies, and saw a quest for the presidency end in failure.
And now they share one thing more.
In mid-July, when McCain had surgery to remove a blood clot over his left eye, pathologists examining the tissue made a startling discovery: signs of a particularly lethal cancerous brain tumor called a glioblastoma. It is the same cancer that killed Ted Kennedy.
Days after the shocking diagnosis, McCain flew back to Washington for an important vote on health care, where he brought members of the Senate to their feet with an emotional speech in which he said the staunch partisanship of today serves neither the legislature nor the nation.
“Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn’t the most inspiring work. There’s greater satisfaction in respecting our differences but not letting them prevent agreements,” he said.
His appearance in the Senate chamber was a reminder that the toughness and courage he showed as a young pilot is still strong even into his 80’s. And there is no doubt he will continue to leave his mark on his country and the world — as the long-serving chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an advocate for American foreign policy — until he draws his last breath.
His friends say that may not come anytime soon. While the life expectancy for someone with an aggressive cancerous brain tumor is often measured in months, McCain has always been known as a man willing and eager to defy the odds.
Perhaps former President Obama put it best in a simple tweet, posted shortly after the diagnosis became public:
“John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”
Americans of all political stripes agree on one thing: Senator McCain will do just that.