Foreign Affairs

John McCain: Why He Has Earnt Our Respect

On the two-month anniversary of his death, Alex McKenzie looks back on the life of US Senator John McCain and discusses why the "maverick" Republican from Arizona won the respect of so many.

This article was first published in our 2018 print edition.

It was November 4th, 2008. In front of thousands of people, close to midnight in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, US Senator John McCain conceded the Presidential election to fellow senator Barack Obama. In the face of his passionate supporters booing the new President-elect, he assertively held his hands up to settle the crowd and clearly exclaimed his pride in the fact that America had just elected its first African-American President. He implored his supporters to recognise the significance of Obama’s election, and how this reinforces the greatness of America10.

John McCain passed away on August 25th this year. If you’re reading this article, it’s unlikely that you missed this event. There was no shortage of praise for the former naval aviator, Vietnam War veteran, two-time presidential candidate and revered US Senator. Former Presidents, foreign heads-of-state, sitting politicians from each major party and commentators from both sides of politics highly praised the late McCain. What made him so revered and admired? What earnt him near-universal praise and respect? Why was this infamous “maverick” such a prime example of the term itself?

This day and age of fierce political rivalry is seemingly characterised by a contagious refusal to compromise and the proliferation of ideological nonsense. The existence of a man with the stature, goodwill and common-sense of John McCain almost seems to be out of place. What really stood McCain out was his steadfast will to support what he believed was right, no matter the cost or consequences. McCain was not a conformist.

So what exactly were those values, ideas and character traits which he so exquisitely exemplified?

Courage. The first is undoubtedly courage. It can unfortunately seem like a cliché to discuss McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. However, one simply cannot do justice to the man without acknowledging this unfathomably testing part of his life. In 1963, McCain was shot down over Vietnam during a combat mission1.Taken to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison, he was only treated for his severe injuries when his captors realised that his father was an admiral. When his father was appointed the commander of all US military forces in Vietnam, McCain was offered an early release. Famously, McCain refused. He said he would only accept an early release if all Americans who had been captured before him were released as well, citing the military code of conduct6.This bold courage is emblematic of a great man. I, for one, have absolutely no idea about how I would handle the physical and psychological torture experienced by McCain. My reluctance to even consider the idea infers that I, like everyone, would undoubtedly struggle. For someone under immense and seemingly eternal pain and pressure, to stay true to their values, even if those values meant they would remain indefinitely in hellish conditions, is an incredible display of perseverance. It is a lesson we can all learn from and can all be inspired to take into our own lives; a sense of courage and perseverance, characterised by an unbreakable commitment to the values we hold dear.

Patriotism. McCain was also characterised by unwavering patriotism. Importantly, this patriotism should not be confused with a blind idolisation of America. Rather, he firmly believed that America was the greatest nation in the world because of the values upon which it was founded, the things for which it stood and the quality of the people that called it home. He valued his nation and fellow countrymen more than any individual issue or matter of policy. As mentioned earlier, throughout the 2008 Presidential election campaign McCain had vociferous debates with then senator Obama on matters such as policy and experience, but John McCain never doubted the citizenship, decency or patriotism of Barack Obama. He frequently defended his political rival as an equal citizen.

McCain’s patriotism also extended to the critique of individuals who he believed were not representative of American values or presented challenges to the advancement of America’s interests. Donald Trump and John McCain have clashed at times throughout the past several years. Famously, in 1999, Trump said he wasn’t sure if McCain was a true hero because “he was captured”11. McCain dropped all support for Trump after the ‘Access Hollywood’ video was leaked. He was then one of the most vocal Republican critics of Trump’s Presidency, labelling his politics as “spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems” 11. At the 2017 Liberty Medal Award Ceremony, McCain spoke eloquently about America. I’ve decided to quote at length some of what he had to say, because I feel as though paraphrasing it will detract from its fluency.

“[We should not] fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century. We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to…America made the future better than the past” 8.

Pragmatism. Pragmatism can occasionally carry negative connotations. However, the ability to fight strenuously for what you believe in, yet ultimately be willing to compromise in order to get the job done, is a crucial skill for lawmakers to possess if they are to be part of an effective government. McCain maintained a reputation for being able to make deals with his political opponents and meet them halfway. His political pragmatism combined with unabashed patriotism saw him develop key friendships across the aisle, including with former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden said of McCain that “he is a good and decent man…a genuine patriot who puts our country before himself. It has been a great privilege to call him my friend” 6.

Cooperation. “…who puts our country before himself...”. Another way of saying this is essentially that John McCain did what he believed to be the right thing for the best interests of America, no matter how controversial, difficult or unpopular that may have been. This is most evidently exemplified in the now infamous moment where he boldly voted ‘no’ to the skinny repeal of Obamacare (otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act). Against the wishes of the Republican party, and despite being heavily influenced by Vice-President Pence, McCain refused to tow the party line on the issue of healthcare. He dramatically voted no to the Republican proposal as he believed in a bipartisan approach to the issue7. It may seem almost self-evident that in a competitive political system, cooperation across the aisle and the willingness to compromise is essential in order to govern effectively. For too long American politics has been stifled with the incorrect assumption held by lawmakers that, ‘it’s my way or the highway’. In a country founded on the principle of free speech and by extension freedom of political opinion, people will forever continue to differ in their approach to solving problems. John McCain was one of the few prominent politicians who knew this through and through. Pragmatism & cooperation were the tools of his trade.

Relationships. McCain valued friendship and he valued family. In the context of this publication, I feel it was important to talk about his perception of the relationship between the United States and Australia. In January 2017, merely days after assuming office, President Trump had a controversial and testy phone call with then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The President had concerns in regard to the asylum seeker deal made under the prior Obama administration, and this led to Trump labelling the conversation as the “worst call by far” he had with any foreign leader, on a day where the President also spoke to figures such as Vladimir Putin9. McCain, having fought alongside Australian troops in Vietnam and aware of the mutually beneficial and inseparable bonds between the two countries, phoned the Australian ambassador, Joe Hockey, to “express [his] unwavering support for the US-Australia alliance”4. He identified how the two nations were “united” through “family and friendship, mutual interests, common values and shared sacrifice”. This self-inflicted responsibility eventually culminated in him visiting Australia in May last year to have frank dialogue with government ministers and academics, urging Australians to ‘stick with the U.S.’5. In the eyes of John McCain, America’s position in the world was bigger than the Trump administration, or indeed any one person. He valued the traditional relationships which America shared with countries such as Australia. This inherent value was so great that he saw it fit to voluntarily assume an almost ambassadorial role in an effort to maintain the warmth of this alliance, in the best interests of both America and Australia.

So, to answer the question—what made him so revered and admired? The answer can be encapsulated in two words: wholesome values. The truth is that the handful of values I mentioned can be overlappingly applied to each of the instances discussed. These values are the ingredients of McCain’s goodwill, common-sense and unwavering commitment to support what he believed was right. The reason why I believe John McCain has earnt our respect is because he is one of the best examples of the type of person we should all strive to be. No individual is perfect, and he would never claim to be. But you don’t have to be perfect to be a source of inspiration; a role model per se. A great role model is someone who is real. Someone who has lived through positive and negative experiences, has had triumphs and tribulations and has learnt from their mistakes.

I feel that not only America, but indeed the world, will miss an individual of the calibre of John McCain. It is important for us to recognise good people, particularly when these good people have had a significant impact upon the world. While there may never be another John McCain, we will continue to find good people who make it their lives’ destiny to uphold wholesome values. We must recognise and support these individuals in both our personal lives and in public life. As his daughter Meghan McCain said at the late senator’s funeral, “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great4. In a time where populism is spreading globally, the ‘cult of personality’ is again an attractive concept and seething tensions are cracking the surface of once seemingly insurmountable democratic regimes; now more than ever it is important for the people of the world to consider what they value the most. While John McCain may no longer be with us, he will forever serve to be a source of inspiration for good, wholesome values which we should actively apply in our world.

1Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2018, ‘John McCain, maverick US senator and former Vietnam War POW, dead at 81 after struggle with brain cancer’, August 26.

2Carney 2017, ‘McCain calls Australian ambassador to express support after Trump exchange’, The Hill, 2 February

3Clemens 2018, ‘Joe Biden on decades long friendship with John McCain: ‘We’re like two brothers’, American Broadcasting Company, 25 August

4Hubbard 2018, ‘Read the Full Transcript of Meghan McCain’s Eulogy for Her Father John McCain’, Town&Country, 1 September

5Johansen & Roberts 2017, ‘Stick with the US’ John McCain urges during visit to Australia’, SBS, 31 May

6‘John McCain’ in Wikipedia, ‘’

7Lizza 2017, ‘Why John McCain Killed Obamacare Repeal—Again’, The New Yorker, 22 September

8Lui 2017, ‘Read the Full Text of John McCain’s Speech at the Liberty Medal Award Ceremony’, Time, 17 October.

9Miller & Rucker 2017, ‘‘This was the worst call by far’: Trump badgered, bragged and abruptly ended phone call with Australian leader’, The Washington Post, 2 February

10National Public Radio 2008, ‘Transcript Of John McCain’s Concession Speech’, 5 November.

11Rhodan 2018, ‘Here’s a Brief History of Donald Trump’s Feud with John McCain’, Time, 27 August.


Cover image from Flickr.

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