WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who ran for president in 2008 as a self-styled maverick Republican and became a prominent critic of President Donald Trump, died on Saturday, his office said. He was 81.
A senator for Arizona for more than three decades, McCain had been suffering from glioblastoma, a brain cancer, since July 2017 and had not been at the U.S. Capitol this year.
His family said on Friday that McCain was discontinuing cancer treatment.
He died on Saturday afternoon with his wife Cindy and other family members at his bedside. “At his death, he had served the United States of America faithfully for sixty years,” said a statement from his office.
McCain frequently sparred with Trump and told his family he did not want the president to attend his funeral, CNN reported, citing family friends.
Flags were flying at half-staff at the White House on Sunday morning, hours after Trump tweeted his “deepest sympathies and respect” to McCain’s family.
McCain will lie in state in both Phoenix, Arizona, and in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
He will receive a full dress funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral, where Vice President Mike Pence is expected to represent the current administration, before being buried in Annapolis, Maryland, his family said.
Paying tribute to his 2008 election opponent, former President Barack Obama described McCain as an idealist and said there was “something noble” about their political battles.
Cindy McCain said her husband had “passed the way he lived, on his own terms, surrounded by the people he loved, in the place he loved best.”
“My heart is broken. I am so lucky to have lived the adventure of loving this incredible man for 38 years,” she wrote on Twitter.
The vacancy created by McCain’s death narrows the number of Republican-held seats in the 100-member U.S. Senate to 50, with Democrats controlling 49. Republican Arizona Governor Doug Ducey was expected to appoint a member of his own party to succeed McCain.
That could also give Republicans a slight edge in the battle to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court in the weeks ahead because McCain had been too ill to cast any votes this year.
Alternatively affable and cantankerous, McCain had been in the public eye since the 1960s when, as a naval aviator, he was shot down during the Vietnam War and tortured by his North Vietnamese communist captors during 5-1/2 years as a prisoner.
He was edged out by George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 but became his party’s White House candidate eight years later. After gambling on political neophyte Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain lost to Obama, who became the first black U.S. president.
Obama said he and McCain, despite their “completely different backgrounds” and political differences, shared “a fidelity to something higher – the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched and sacrificed.”
“We saw our political battles, even, as a privilege, something noble, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those high ideals at home, and to advance them around the world,” Obama wrote.
Defense Secretary James Mattis saluted McCain as a figure who “always put service to the nation before self,” and “represented what he believed, that ‘a shared purpose does not claim our identity – on the contrary – it enlarges your sense of self’.”
McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, remained prominent during and after the last White House race as both a frequent critic and target of his fellow Republican Trump, who was elected president in November 2016.
McCain denounced Trump for, among other things, his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders the senator described as foreign “tyrants.”
“Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity,” McCain said of Trump in his memoir, “The Restless Wave,” which was released in May.
McCain castigated Trump in July for his summit with Putin, calling their joint news conference in Helsinki “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” He said Trump was “not only unable but unwilling to stand up to Putin.”
In Germany, whose government has clashed with Trump over a range of issues including trade and defense, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said McCain stood for an America “that is a reliable and close partner… that takes strong responsibility for others and sticks to its values and principles even at difficult moments.”
The European Union ambassador to the United States, David O’Sullivan, McCain’s strong support for transatlantic cooperation should be followed as an example “in strengthening EU-U.S. ties and dealing with the challenges ahead.”
French President Emmanuel Macron called McCain “a true American hero (whose).. voice will be missed” and British Prime Minister Theresa May said he “embodied the idea of service over self.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he would be “remembered both in Europe and North America for his courage and character, and as a strong supporter of NATO.”
McCain, a foreign policy hawk with a traditional Republican view of world affairs, was admired in both parties for championing civility and compromise during an era of acrid partisanship in U.S. politics. But he also had a famous temper and rarely shied away from a fight. He had several with Trump.
He was the central figure in one of the most dramatic moments in Congress of Trump’s presidency when he returned to Washington shortly after his brain cancer diagnosis for a middle-of-the-night Senate vote in July 2017.
Still bearing a black eye and scar from surgery, McCain gave a thumbs-down signal in a vote to scuttle a Trump-backed bill that would have repealed the Obamacare healthcare law and increased the number of Americans without health insurance by millions.
Trump was furious about McCain’s vote and frequently referred to it at rallies, without mentioning McCain by name.
After Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, McCain condemned his hard-line rhetoric on illegal immigration and said Trump had “fired up the crazies.” Trump retorted that McCain was “not a war hero,” adding: “I like people who weren’t captured.”
After Trump became president, McCain blasted what he called the president’s attempts to undermine the free press and rule of law and lamented the “half-baked, spurious nationalism” of the Trump era.
MCCAIN VS OBAMA
McCain, the son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona in 1982 after more than two decades of Navy service.
He served four years in the House before Arizona voters elected him to the Senate in 1986 to replace Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee revered by conservatives.
In running for president in 2008, McCain tried to succeed an unpopular fellow Republican in Bush, who was leaving office with the United States mired in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and stuck in a financial crisis.
It was a stark contrast between McCain, then a 72-year-old veteran of the Washington establishment, and the 47-year-old Obama, who was offering a “Yes, we can” message of change.
McCain tried to inject some youth and enthusiasm into his campaign with his selection of Palin, Alaska’s governor, as his running mate. But her political inexperience and shaky performances in media interviews raised concerns about her qualifications.
McCain voiced regret in his new memoir for not choosing then-Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent, as his running mate.
Obama won 53 percent of the vote to McCain’s 45.6 percent.
McCain flew attack planes off aircraft carriers during the Vietnam War. In October 1967, his A-4 Skyhawk was shot down on a bombing mission over North Vietnam’s capital and he suffered two broken arms and a broken leg in the crash. A mob then dragged him from a lake, broke his shoulder and stabbed him.
Held at the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison and other sites, McCain was beaten and tortured, suffering broken bones and dysentery. He was released on March 14, 1973, but was left with permanent infirmities.
Several U.S. citizens living in Vietnam adorned a monument erected at the site of the plane crash with flowers on Sunday in tribute to McCain.
“Not only did Senator McCain actively contribute to Vietnam-U.S. ties, he was a friend of Vietnam who won huge love from Vietnamese people at many levels,” Vietnam’s former ambassador to the United States, Ha Kim Ngoc, told the state-run Voice of Vietnam radio service.
“His love for Vietnam will always be treasured and greatly appreciated,” Ngoc said.
In Congress, McCain built a generally conservative record, opposing abortion and advocating higher defense spending. He supported Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and criticized Obama for not doing more to intervene in Syria’s civil war.
Still, he prided himself on his reputation as a maverick and had a history of working across party lines on immigration, climate change and campaign finance reform.
He also spoke out against the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding, a torture technique that simulates drowning, and other harsh interrogation tactics on detainees in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
McCain wrote in a 2002 memoir: “I’m an independent-minded, well-informed public servant to some. And to others, I’m a self-styled, self-righteous maverick pain in the ass.”
McCain was born on Aug. 29, 1936, at an American naval installation in the Panama Canal Zone – U.S. territory at the time – where his father was stationed.
McCain divorced his wife Carol after 15 years of marriage in 1980 and weeks later married the former Cindy Henley, daughter of a wealthy beer distributor in Arizona.
A dark period for McCain came as one of the “Keating Five” group of senators accused of improperly intervening with federal regulators to help political contributor and bank executive Charles Keating, whose Lincoln Savings and Loan failed in 1989 at a cost to taxpayers of $ 3.4 billion.
McCain was cleared of wrongdoing in 1991 but the Senate Ethics Committee rebuked him for poor judgment.
On July 25, 2017, McCain delivered a Senate floor speech not long after his cancer diagnosis that was widely seen as his farewell address. It included a call to fellow Republicans to stand up to Trump and for all lawmakers to work together to keep America as a “beacon of liberty” in the world.
Additional reporting by Jason Lange, Maria Caspani, Paul Grant, Richard Cowan, Patricia Zengerle, Bill Trott, John Walcott, Rich McKay, Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Khanh Vu in Hanoi; Editing by Diane Craft, G Crosse and John Stonestreet