The release of the movie Top Gun in 1986 introduced into popular culture Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a dangerously bold Navy pilot whose magnetism derives from his courage and skill. Maverick takes chances as a pilot that others wouldn’t dream of taking, and gets away with it because he’s that good.
But the “maverick” label has always belonged to a different Navy pilot, one we find ourselves without this morning in the wake of his passing at age 81, Senator and retired Navy Captain John S. McCain. The definitive American icon representing honor and independence, McCain died of complications from brain cancer, at last caught by death after deftly cheating it for decades.
Despite his reputation for roguery, McCain’s life was actually defined by a remarkably aligned and dutiful service to the nation. He enrolled at the US Naval Academy in 1954, fresh from high school, entering active duty in 1958. Flying attack missions over Vietnam from the deck of the USS Forrestal in 1967, he was nearly killed when a stray rocket struck the fuel tank of his A-4 Skyhawk, sparking a disastrous fire that killed 134 sailors.
Later that year, McCain was shot down over Hanoi and captured by the North Vietnamese. Having sustained serious injuries, he was beaten and tortured by his captors to the point of suffering lifelong disabilities. Still, he refused when offered parole, aware that his father’s status as a four-star commander made his release a propaganda opportunity for the enemy. McCain spent six years as a POW in the notorious Hanoi Hilton, enduring untold suffering.
Upon release, he harbored no bitterness toward his country or the war. On the contrary, he continued serving in the Navy for nearly a decade more before retiring and entering politics in Arizona. McCain was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982 and served two terms before winning the Senate seat vacated by Barry Goldwater in 1986. There he remained until his dying day, having spent his entire adult life in public service.
So how does a man who consigns himself to the strictures of a relatively staid public life for more than 60 years get a reputation as a maverick? By disagreeing with his own party on key issues, and unlike stock politicians, doing so publicly, transparently, and without reservation.
Over the years, fierce independence became McCain’s signature trait. He was one of the first national politicians to sound the alarm on campaign funding and electoral corruption, and made campaign finance reform the central argument of his 2000 presidential bid.
This was deeply unpopular among the entire political establishment, not least his own party, which in addition to directly benefitting from authorized corruption was reflexively opposed to anything that might upend the traditional order of things. Two decades removed, he looks to most like a genius canary who accurately predicted our current dysfunction.
McCain lost in the Republican primary that year to George W. Bush, but made a name for himself by running a grass-roots campaign that spoke truth to power and quarrelled with the party line on many core issues. It made him a national figure.
I was personally caught up in the 2000 McCain campaign — a legitimate McCainiac. There was something about willingness to risk the charge of political disloyalty in service to greater principles that struck a chord with me. It seemed to me he was a politician with character and the will to operationalize it — a modern Teddy Roosevelt. In the years between then and now, he proved me right time and again.
McCain publicly shamed Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon for bungling the Iraq War. He stood against his own party on torture, speaking with unequalled clarity and credibility over cynical murmurs that he was a terrorist sympathizer. Showing remarkable restraint, McCain refused to dignify his opponents when they attempted stupid arguments.
He argued for greater environmental protections, allying with Democrats. He argued for a breakup of the big banks and an increase in financial regulation. In recent years, he took the mantle of elder statesman on defense oversight, calling incompetent bureaucrats to account for fumbling about with a duty McCain always held as sacred above all others. In this 2016 clip from a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, he skewers former Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh for proposing retirement of the A-10 attack jet without first developing a replacement.
McCain also stood in stalwart opposition to Vladimir Putin, actively stoking political trouble for the Trump Administration. Most recently, he voted down a bill seeking to repeal Obamacare, silencing a political distraction that had created a handy excuse for legislators to avoid doing any real work.
In each of these examples and many more, he defied his own party, reinforcing his maverick brand. And yet, McCain’s positions seldom changed over the years, leading some who knew him to point out he wasn’t so much a maverick as a consistent, principled, and vocal politician who happened to disagree with the contemporary Republican platform on a number of issues.
There was, of course, a political downside to the way McCain operated. Embracing “straight talk” as an ethos created a self-imposed limitation to tell the truth, lest his entire persona be undermined. This reduced McCain’s capacity for half-truth, double-truth, and shaded truth … primary weapons in the arsenal of the modern politician and the source of political maneuver in today’s exhaustively publicized races. In the 2000 South Carolina primary, an ugly smear campaign spread vicious lies about McCain’s personal life and combat record. He refused to counterpunch with misinformation of his own. This cost him dearly, setting his ultimate defeat in motion.
Eight years later, McCain’s boldness would cost him another election. His selection of Sarah Palin as running mate in 2008 proved to be the blunder of a lifetime, changing the tone and trajectory of the election and propelling Barack Obama into the White House. It wasn’t so much that Palin had proven to be a disastrously off-message and erratic Vice Presidential candidate who seemingly lacked the experience, reflexes, and heft for national office. It was that McCain made his selection without vetting her, a grave risk that made him look reckless. Mavericks sometimes take excessive risks, and sometimes pay the price.
But throughout that rough ride, he maintained his honor. One moment in particular stands out as my favorite John McCain lore of all time, and the reason I’ve come to regard him as the mouthpiece for our nation’s conscience.
Watch for yourself this short clip from an October 2008 rally in Lakeville, Minnesota.
That’s “we’re all Americans first.” That’s poetry in motion. That’s leadership. Starkly in contrast with the vast majority of political conduct in our public square these days, John McCain passed the basic tests of honor, decency, and character … tests which should lie at the core of how we elect our representatives but are sadly little more than footnotes.
In the end, McCain faced his death as honorably as he lived his life, refusing treatment when it could no longer save him and choosing instead to enjoy his last moments with dignity, surrounded by the family he loved and inspired. Ever the curmudgeon, he took a few moments away from family to say farewell to his Senate colleagues, reminding them they have a job to do and scolding them for failing to get it done.
In a heartfelt statement commemorating her father’s passing, Meghan McCain wrote:
Now that he is gone, the task of my lifetime is to live up to his example, his expectations, and his love.
Given how much John McCain loved our republic, may we all take this as a charge and consider it a debt to his towering legacy as an American hero, maverick, public servant, and voice of reason.
Mr. Senator, we yield back.
Tony Carr is an American writer, manager, veteran, and strategist. He is a former combat pilot and squadron commander with an M.A. from George Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Tony is the founder of The Colosseum Blog and writes from Manchester, United Kingdom.