In the wake of his death from brain cancer at age 81, political figures of all stripes have praised the legacy of Arizona Sen. John McCain. He made his name as both a “maverick” and a figure of veneration over decades of service in both the House and Senate—but a few moments will define his memory.
Speaking Out Against U.S. Torture
Likely McCain’s clearest legacy is his consistent opposition to the use of torture by U.S. military and intelligence forces after 9/11, when nationwide fear sent America’s moral compass spinning. McCain, himself a victim of torture in Vietnam, was perhaps the most prominent critic of practices including waterboarding, which has remained a grim symbol of the George W. Bush era.
Despite occasional accusations of legalistic hair-splitting, McCain’s position remained broadly consistent. That included recent statements critical of Trump CIA Director Gina Haspel, who both ran a secret prison where suspects were tortured, and oversaw the destruction of records documenting torture.
Stumping for the Politics of Respect
During his 2008 campaign against then-Sen. Barack Obama, McCain repeatedly emphasized his respect for his opponent—and pushed back against a wave of racist conspiracy theories.
During a signature moment on the campaign trail, several Republican voters, perhaps influenced by “birther” conspiracy theories, said they were “afraid” of Obama and described him as “an Arab.” McCain clearly and swiftly refuted those sentiments, saying of Obama: “He’s a decent, family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
In debates over McCain’s legacy, some Monday-morning quarterbacks have pointed out that his response didn’t explicitly reject the notion that being “an Arab” is itself somehow disreputable. But as a heat-of-the-moment rebuttal, it seemed to reflect a deep unease with the racially charged attacks promoted by figures including President Donald Trump.
Less than a month before the 2008 election, McCain and Obama shared the dais at a charity dinner, where the rivals traded both barbed jokes and warm compliments. McCain described Obama as “an impressive fellow . . . I admire his great skill, energy, and determination.” That kind of mutual respect seems hard to remember just 10 years later, after two party primaries and a presidential election marked by vitriol and backroom maneuvering.
Of course, McCain in 2008 also chose a running mate—Sarah Palin—who many argue represented a shift in GOP politics.
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Opposing Obamacare Repeal
Though politically divisive, this was another moment where McCain put principle ahead of party. In July 2017, not long after being diagnosed with the brain cancer that would take his life, he joined Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins in opposing his party’s “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act. Though supporters of Obamacare say his vote saved health care for millions of Americans, McCain’s stated motive was that the legislative process behind the bill had been partisan and violated procedural norms.
After his July vote, McCain declared that “we must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of the aisle, heed the recommendations of the nation’s governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people.” He maintained that stance on another, more extreme repeal bill in September, effectively ending Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare.
Uncovering the Boeing-Air Force Scandal
As a longstanding member and sometime chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain was simultaneously a defender of military spending overall, and fiercely devoted to making sure that money wasn’t wasted. Perhaps the most famous of his anti-waste achievements was the scuttling of a corrupt deal between Boeing and the Air Force.
The proposed deal would have had the Air Force leasing refueling aircraft from Boeing instead of buying them. It could have cost taxpayers an extra $2 billion dollars compared to a straight sale of the planes—which the Air Force hadn’t demonstrated it needed anyway.
McCain helped uncover just why the bad deal was on the table—a stunning tangle of corruption. An Air Force buyer involved in negotiations was simultaneously angling for a cushy job with Boeing, and had also pressed the company to defend her daughter’s job there. She and a senior Boeing executive wound up with prison sentences, and Boeing paid a $615 million fine.