John McCain

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You’ve probably heard a lot about John McCain lately, the American politician who died on 25 August 2108 just four days shy of his 82nd birthday. You may have read that he was the son and grandson of US Navy admirals, or that he was a hot-tempered Senator from the US state of Arizona who twice tried, and twice failed, to become president of the United States. Both times he ran on the Republican Party ticket, his political views therefore fell to the conservative. But even if you didn’t share McCain’s politics, everyone agreed – with one exception (see below) – that John McCain was a model and an icon for all Americans.

Whether on the field of battle or in the halls of government, McCain never strayed from his values. Though even he would admit he was far from perfect, he had what it took to be a true #HistoryHero.

With the US war in Vietnam heating up in 1967, McCain did what any military legacy was expected to do: he enlisted. Soon the young aviator was flying jets and dropping bombs on what was then North Vietnam. On his 23rd mission, in October 1967, a Soviet-made SA-2 anti-aircraft missile tore a wing of his A-4 Skyhawk bomber. It went into a vertical inverted spin from 3500ft (100m), forcing McCain to bail out upside down at high speed. He plunged in Hanoi’s Trúc Bạch Lake, nearly drowning as the weight of his parachute pulled him under. Both his arms and his right knee had been shattered in the fall, making it impossible to swim to freedom. Somehow McCain managed to activate his life jacket with his teeth and kicked to the surface with one leg.

Lieutenant McCain (front right) with his squadron and T-2 Buckeye trainer, 1965

Lieutenant McCain (front right) with his squadron and T-2 Buckeye trainer, 1965

But his ordeal was far from over. The moment he gasped for air, a mob of Vietnamese soldiers pulled McCain to shore and attacked him. They shattered his shoulder with the butt of a rifle. They bayoneted his stomach and foot. They took him prisoner, and though barely alive, denied him medical care for his broken body.

This was just the first of many mistreatments he’d face over the next five-and-a-half years in captivity in the now infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”

A prisoner of war (POW), McCain was tortured routinely, suffering pain that would break most men. But less than a year after his capture, in 1968, the North Vietnamese leadership offered him a deal: unconditional release. McCain’s father had just been named the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. Hoping to gain a propaganda victory as well as demoralize all US prisoners of war, the North Vietnamese bribed McCain with a privilege no other prisoner could ever hope for. Freedom from pain and the comfort of home were now well within his reach. But McCain refused to go. Crippled, skin and bones, his hair now white as snow, McCain remained true to the POW code of honor, accepting repatriation only if every other US soldier captured before him was freed as well.

His captors then beat every two or three hours for the next four days. They kept in solitary confinement for the next two years.

John McCain finally tasted freedom on March 14, 1973, two months after the Paris Peace Accords that ended US military involvement in Vietnam. He was 36.

Lieutenant Commander McCain being interviewed after his return from Vietnam, April 1973

Lieutenant Commander McCain being interviewed after his return from Vietnam, April 1973

Back home, he retired from the army and in 1982 became an elected representative for the US state of Arizona. Then, in partnership with the famously anti-war Democratic Congressman John Kerry, McCain led the charge for full normalization of U.S. diplomatic relations with Vietnam, this despite six years of torture that left him with lifelong physical disabilities. 

The friendship that developed between Kerry and McCain, who stood on opposite sides of the American political spectrum, became a hopeful example of reconciliation for a country ripped asunder by an unjust war. Their efforts to bring a true end to the war in Vietnam were finally achieved in 1995, more than two decades after the US pulled its troops from the region. But John McCain never stopped reaching across the Republican-Democratic aisle to negotiate solutions to seemingly intractable problems, like immigration and campaign finance reform.

Old friends, John Kerry (left) and John McCain, (right) in 2004.

Old friends, John Kerry (left) and John McCain, (right) in 2004.

McCain saw politics was the art of achieving incremental progress when leaders representing opposing points of view join hands to accomplish big, potentially divisive, things together. For McCain, politics was not a zero-sum game, but the joy of seeking and finding the middle ground where everyone could agree. He believed in working closely and building relationships with those on the other side of any argument. He believed in the power of negotiated compromise. That’s why, though a steadfast conservative throughout his 36-year political career, McCain sought friendships with Democrats from Joe Biden to Ted Kennedy to Hillary Clinton. He demonstrated, time and again, that government works best when the goal is not what is right for Party, but for people.

McCain exemplified the notion of “bipartisanship” that under the current US administration seems to have been buried along with our fallen hero.

A good-faith negotiator who repeatedly and instinctively placed honor and principle above party, John McCain was honored and eulogized on XXX as Democrats and Republicans sat next to one another, sharing tears and laughter, stories and candies. They remembered McCain as an iconic American who embodied the best of his country’s founding values, the same values that appear lost to the tribalism that now divides both the country and congress under the leadership of the one and only American who insists McCain is not a hero: the boastful bully who claims to be president.

For his honor, courage, endurance, and acceptance of the shortcomings of himself and his fellow human beings and for reminding us that hope lies in working together and on behalf of each other, we are proud to claim John S. McCain a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Robert Grieg of New York and Paris for nominating him.

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Who's your #HistoryHero?

Tell us in the comments below, or message us the name of your #HistoryHero here. We’ll let you know when we feature him or her on the #HistoryHero BLAST. 

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