In 2015, Sen. John McCain told an interviewer he had chosen his own epitaph. His gravestone will read: “He served his country.”
That is exactly what the Arizona senator did, faithfully and imperfectly, passionately and stubbornly, lovingly and brashly, all his life.
McCain died of brain cancer Saturday at the age of 81.
He was a uniquely American character, most notable for his soldiering, Senate service and two unsuccessful runs for the presidency. His career and sensibilities spanned multiple eras and vast societal changes, and evolved with the times. His humor and irascible unpredictability kept McCain careening over a roller-coaster of popularity across the political spectrum, never more so than in the final chapter, his proper and principled opposition to President Donald Trump. After the president held a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, McCain said: “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
As a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War, McCain was shot down and captured. He served 5 1⁄2 years in a Hanoi prison, tortured brutally. Offered early release in deference to his father and grandfather, both admirals, McCain refused to leave before men imprisoned longer. That is part of his legend. But so is McCain’s record at the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated 894th of 899 students. His behavior as a midshipman, he gleefully admitted, wasn’t much better than his grades.
McCain’s mistakes were painful. His vote in the House of Representatives in 1983 against a national holiday recognizing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. haunted him for 25 years, until he admitted it was a terrible error. He was one of the “Keating Five,” senators implicated in the savings and loan scandals. The Senate Ethics Committee ruled that while he broke no laws, he showed bad judgment by stepping in with regulators on behalf of campaign contributor Charles Keating, a judgment McCain agreed with. His fight to reform campaign finance laws and stop the kind of bad behavior he had committed showed both growth and a unique humility.
In 2000, McCain took aim at the Republican presidential nomination on a bus called the “Straight Talk Express,” electrifying the nation, and his loss to establishment favorite George W. Bush seemed only to cement popular affection for him. But in 2008, as the GOP nominee, he could not stop the juggernaut of Barack Obama’s campaign. His selection of running mate Sarah Palin was a ghastly error, yet McCain never criticized her. In addition, his willingness to stand against his own supporters when they derided Obama, vouching for his opponent’s quality of character and love of country, was noble.
To the end, McCain infuriated both Republicans and Democrats. He rightly killed the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 mostly because he felt the process lacked proper debate and parliamentary procedure, infuriating the GOP. But he delighted Republicans when he wrongly supported a massive tax overhaul process with similar flaws.
John McCain served his country and his ideals as best he could, for as long as he could. He picked his epitaph, and he earned it.
— The editorial board