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Talladega Days

John McCain

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John McCain

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In a Congress where the gulf between red and blue seems wider than it ever has, the long-serving Senator John McCain created an image of himself as a bipartisan bridgebuilder. A Republican devoted to his party, he nevertheless reached across the aisle to form alliances and friendships with Democrats as he tried to advance ideals including fiscal conservatism, campaign finance reform, and American exceptionalism.

McCain, the “maverick” Republican who survived years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to become one of the most influential U.S. senators of his time, died Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018, after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. He was 81.

Serving in the U.S. Senate for six terms – from 1987 until 2018 – McCain earned elder statesman status and the respect of both Republicans and Democrats, even as he mounted two unsuccessful bids for the presidency. Other senators might, and often do, fade into obscurity after losing a general presidential election, as McCain did in 2008, or a primary, as he did in 2000. But McCain not only stayed in the public eye; he won reelections for his senatorial seat with ease.

It helped that McCain was highly recognizable, not just in his adopted home state of Arizona but nationwide. He found his way to plenty of big moments throughout his senatorial career, from a memorable speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention to his dramatic eleventh-hour 2017 vote to sink his party’s “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act.

But perhaps McCain’s biggest moment, one that shaped his personality as well as the trajectory of his life, was one that came before he ever entered the halls of government. It was the moment when, flying a bomber over Hanoi during the Vietnam War, he was shot down.