John McCain, Arizona senator and Vietnam war hero, dies at 81

John McCain, Arizona senator and Vietnam war hero, dies at 81

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John Sidney McCain III, a Vietnam War hero with more than 35 years of public service and who became one of the most distinctive figures in modern American politics as a maverick conservative who took delight in disruption, died Saturday at his home in Arizona.

He was 81.

McCain was the admiral’s son who refused an easy out from a Vietcong prison, enduring torture rather than abandoning his friends.

He was also a six-term Republican senator who gained an outsized influence by going against his own party and negotiating with Democrats —- even after the 2008 Republican presidential nominee faced a crushing defeat to Barack Obama.

Getty ImagesLieutenant Commander John McCain is welcomed by President Richard Nixon upon his release as a POW during the Vietnam War, May 24, 1973, in Washington.
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Two images of McCain, taken 50 years apart, bookend his journey.

One is of a 31-year-old Navy pilot, son of a four-star admiral, lying in agony in a Hanoi prison, his arms and legs broken when his plane was shot down, refusing the offer of an early release out of loyalty to his fellow prisoners. McCain spent five years as a prisoner of war, was placed in solitary confinement and tortured, and carried the injuries for the rest of his life.

In an interview in 2007 with ABC News' Terry Moran, McCain reflected on those years.

“I was privileged to serve in a company of heroes. I’ve observed a thousand acts of courage, and compassion and love,” McCain said. “And what I really found out that I wasn't dependent on myself alone. That I was dependent on others. I was a pretty arrogant, young Navy pilot. I found out that it was my comrades and my leaders who picked me up when I was down. I found out that I was human.”

The second enduring image is of an 81-year-old Senator, already suffering from the aggressive brain cancer that would claim his life, stretching out that war-injured right arm, thumb down, to kill his party’s last-ditch attempt to repeal Obamacare. McCain was no friend of the Affordable Care Act but felt that the Republican bill would have exploded the deficit, and cast the deciding vote on principle.

Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty ImagesVice President George H.W. Bush re-enacts the swearing in of Sen. John McCain with his wife Cindy and children Jack and Meghan in January 1987.

McCain had just been diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive and usually lethal brain tumor. The vote would be his final act of defiance against his own party, and against President Donald Trump, whom he held in open contempt.

The enmity between the two men carried on into 2018, this time over another of McCain’s passions -– his intense dislike of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Congressional Quarterly via Getty ImagesSen. Russ Feingold and Sen. John McCain watch a rally in the Dirksen Senate Office Building after the cloture vote on the campaign finance reform bill on the Senate floor, March 20, 2002.

After Trump congratulated Putin on his election victory, McCain scolded the president in a tweet, writing: "An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.”

An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election. https://t.co/lcQTBi7CA1

— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) March 20, 2018

The bad blood goes at least as far back as 2015, when Trump, who avoided Vietnam because of foot issues, disparaged McCain’s service.

“He’s not a war hero,” said Trump at a forum in Iowa. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

"If I took offense at everybody who has said something about me, or disparaged me or something like that. Life is too short. You've got to move on," McCain told CBS’ 60 Minutes in his final TV interview last October.

"He is in the business of making money and he has been successful both in television as well as Miss America and others. I was raised in a military family," McCain said, drawing a contrast both charitable and pointed. "I was raised in the concept and belief that duty, honor, country is the lodestar for the behavior that we have to exhibit every single day."

Jonathan Ernst/ReutersSenators Ted Kennedy, Joe Lieberman and John McCain speak to one another before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing the war in Iraq on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 8, 2008.

By his own admission, McCain’s long career has been marred by a few less-than-honorable chapters.

His father and grandfather both graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, both men going on to become four-star admirals. McCain went, too, but barely made it out, earning a reputation as a partier, a less-than-diligent student. He graduated fifth from the bottom of his class.

SENATE TV/Handout via ReutersA still image from video shows U.S. Senator John McCain, who had been recuperating in Arizona after being diagnosed with brain cancer, acknowledging applause as he arrives on the floor of the U.S. Senate in Washington, July 25, 2017.

After Vietnam, McCain’s marriage to his first wife Carol fell apart.

"My marriage's collapse was attributable to my own selfishness and immaturity more than it was to Vietnam, and I cannot escape blame by pointing a finger at the war,” he told the Arizona Republic. “The blame was entirely mine."

In the 1980s McCain, along with four other senators, was accused of trying to help a wealthy donor, savings and loan owner Charles Keating, hold off federal regulators.

Heidi Gutman/ABC via Getty ImagesSenator John McCain poses for a photo with his daughter Meghan on ABC's "The View," Oct 23, 2017.

“I would very much like to think that I have never been a man whose favor could be bought,” he wrote of the scandal in his 2002 book “Worth the Fighting For.” “Yet that is exactly how millions of Americans view me for a time, a time that I will forever consider one of the worst experiences of my life.”

In 1983, McCain voted against making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, a position he renounced in his 2008 presidential run.

"We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I myself made long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King. I was wrong," he said in 2008. "I was wrong, and eventually realized it in time to give full support -— full support —- for a state holiday in my home state of Arizona."

But in the crucible of that campaign McCain’s sense of honor also shone. In August, with the campaign still neck and neck, McCain publicly denounced a conspiracy theory about Obama at a town hall in Pennsylvania.

A woman in the audience told McCain she couldn’t trust Obama because “he’s an Arab.”

“No, ma’am,” McCain said. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about. He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president.”

Last July, Obama joined the outpouring of affection for McCain that followed the revelation that he was suffering from a deadly cancer.

“John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I've ever known,” Obama tweeted. “Cancer doesn't know what it's up against. Give it hell, John.”

John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I've ever known. Cancer doesn't know what it's up against. Give it hell, John.

— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) July 20, 2017

Over the course of his extraordinary political journey, McCain forged deep friendships, especially with South Carolina Republican Senator Sen. Lindsey Graham.

"I can't think of anything I've done since 1999 politically, in many ways personally, that was worth doing without John," Graham said in July. “He loves his family. He loves his friends. But his passion above all else is his passion for his country."

But McCain’s personal affections were never partisan. Among his close friends were Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman, Massachusetts Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, and former Vice President and Delaware Senator Joe Biden.

Last October, as his health declined, McCain spoke of his life in public service.

“I’ve had the good fortune to spend 60 years in service to this wondrous land,” he said. “It has not been perfect service, to be sure, and there were probably times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help.

"But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege as best I can, and I’ve been repaid a thousand times over with adventures, with good company, and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America," he said. "And I am so very grateful.”

McCain is survived by his wife Cindy and his seven children.

ABC News’ Adam Kelsey and Ali Rogin contributed to this report.

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