Biography of John McCain, From POW to Influential US Senator

John McCain at Republican National Convention In New York - August 30, 2004
Arizona Senator John McCain speaks at Republican National Convention at the Madison Square Garden in New York, New York, Monday, August 30, 2004.

 Jim Rogash / Getty Images

John McCain (August 29, 1936 - August 25, 2018) was an American politician, military officer, and Vietnam War veteran, who served six terms as a United States senator representing Arizona from January 1987 until his death in 2018. Prior to being elected to the Senate, he served two terms in the United States House of Representatives. During his fourth term in the Senate, he was the Republican nominee for president of the United States in the 2008 election, won by Democrat Barack Obama

Fast Facts: John McCain

  • Full Name: John Sidney McCain III
  • Known For: Six-term U.S. Senator, two-time presidential candidate, naval officer, and Vietnam War veteran
  • Born: August 29, 1936, at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station, Panama Canal Zone
  • Parents: John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta McCain
  • Died: August 25, 2018 in Cornville, Arizona
  • Education: United States Naval Academy (1958)
  • Published Works: Faith of My Fathers, Worth the Fighting For: A Memoir, The Restless Wave
  • Awards and Honors: Silver Star, two Legion of Merits, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and the Prisoner of War Medal
  • Spouses: Carol Shepp, Cindy Lou Hensley
  • Children: Douglas, Andrew, Sidney, Meghan, Jack, James, Bridget
  • Notable Quote: “Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”

Early Life and Education

John Sidney McCain III was born on August 29, 1936, at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone to naval officer John S. McCain Jr., and Roberta McCain. He had a younger brother, Joe, and an older sister, Sandy. At the time of his birth, the Panama Canal was a United States territory. Both his father and paternal grandfather had graduated from the Naval Academy and had advanced to the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy. As military families often do, the McCain family moved to several naval bases before settling in Virginia, where McCain attended the private Episcopal High School in Alexandria, graduating in 1954. 

Portrait Of Lieutenant McCain
Portrait of American Navy Lieutenant (and future US Senator) John Sidney McCain III in uniform, 1964. US Navy / Interim Archives / Getty Images

Like his father and grandfather, McCain attended the United States Naval Academy, graduating near the bottom of his class in 1958. He attributed his low-class rank to his indifference to subjects he did not enjoy, disagreements with higher-ranking personnel, and failure to obey rules. Despite his lackluster academic performance, he was well-liked and considered a leader by his classmates.  

Early Military Career and First Marriage

After graduating from the Naval Academy, McCain was commissioned as an ensign, finishing flight school in 1960. He was then assigned to ground-attack flight squadrons aboard the U.S. aircraft carriers Intrepid and Enterprise in the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas.

On July 3, 1965, McCain married his first wife, former fashion model Carol Shepp. He adopted Shepp’s two children Douglas and Andrew. In 1966, Carol gave birth to McCain’s eldest daughter, Sidney.

Vietnam War

With the United States now fully involved in the Vietnam War, McCain requested a combat assignment. In mid-1967, at age 30, he was assigned to the USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin, flying bombing missions over North Vietnam as part of Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968). 

Senator John Mccain In A Hanoi Hospital During The Vietnam War November 19
Senator John Mccain in a Hanoi hospital during the Vietnam War, November, 1967. Getty Images / Getty Images

On July 29, 1967, McCain survived a devastating fire aboard the USS Forrestal that killed 134 sailors. After escaping from his burning jet, he was rescuing a fellow pilot when a bomb exploded on deck. McCain was wounded in his chest and legs by bomb fragments. After recovering from his wounds, McCain was assigned to USS Oriskany, where he continued to fly combat missions over North Vietnam.

Prisoner of War

On October 26, 1967, McCain was flying his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam when his A-4E Skyhawk was hit by a ground-to-air missile over Hanoi. In ejecting from the aircraft, McCain fractured both arms and one leg and almost drowned when his parachute carried him into a lake. After being captured and beaten by North Vietnamese soldiers, McCain was taken to Hanoi's Hỏa Lò Prison—the “Hanoi Hilton.” 

While a POW, McCain endured years of torture and solitary confinement. In 1968, when the North Vietnamese learned that his father had become commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, they offered to release the younger McCain. However, suspecting the offer to be a propaganda ploy, McCain refused to be freed unless every American POW captured before him was also released. 

On March 14, 1973, after nearly six years of captivity, McCain was finally released along with 108 other American POWs. Unable to raise his arms above his head due to his injuries, he returned to the United States to a hero’s welcome. 

President Nixon Greets Captain McCain
At a pre-dinner reception, US President Richard Nixon (1913 - 1994) shakes hands greets former North Vietnamese prisoner of war (and future US Senator) Captain John McCain, Washington DC, May 24, 1973. White House Photo Office / PhotoQuest / Getty Images

Senate Liaison and Second Marriage

In 1977, McCain, having been promoted to the rank of captain, was appointed as the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate, a position he recalled as being his “real entry into the world of politics and the beginning of my second career as a public servant.” In 1980, McCain’s marriage to his first wife ended in divorce, due mainly to what he admitted having been his own infidelities. Later the same year, he married Cindy Lou Hensley of Phoenix, Arizona, a teacher and only child of Jim Hensley, founder of one of the largest Anheuser-Busch beer distributorships in the country. The couple would go on to raise four children—Meghan, Jack, James, and Bridget. 

McCain retired from the Navy on April 1, 1981. His military decorations included the Silver Star, two Legion of Merits, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and the Prisoner of War Medal.

Political Career: House and Senate

In 1980, McCain moved to Arizona, where he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982. After serving two terms in the House, he was elected to his first of six terms in the U.S. Senate in 1986. In 1988, he gained national attention at the Republican National Convention, when he stirred the crowd with the phrase, “Duty, Honor, Country. We must never forget those thousands of Americans who, with their courage, with their sacrifice, and with their lives, made those words live for all of us.”

President Reagan & Senator McCain
US President Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) (left) meets with Senator John McCain in the White House's Oval Office, Washington DC, July 31, 1986. The meeting was part of a photo op with Republican Senate Candidates. PhotoQuest / Getty Images

The Keating Five Scandal

In 1989, McCain was one of five Senators—known as the Keating Five—to be accused of illegally attempting to gain favorable treatment from federal banking regulators for Charles Keating, Jr., chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan Association and a central figure in the 1980s savings and loan crisis. Though he received only a mild rebuke from the Senate for exercising “poor judgment,” his involvement in the Keating Five scandal left McCain humbled and embarrassed. In 1991, he would be the only Senator of the Keating Five to testify against Keating in a lawsuit filed by bondholders of Lincoln Savings and Loan. 

Campaign Finance Reform 

In 1995, Sen. McCain joined with Democratic senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin to champion campaign finance reform legislation. After a seven-year struggle, they gained passage of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act signed into law in 2002. Considered McCain’s most significant achievement in the Senate, the act restricted the use of donated funds not subject to federal limits for political campaigns. 

McCain the Maverick

While McCain’s stance on most issues such as government spending, abortion, and gun control laws generally followed the conservative Republican party line, his bipartisan position on certain issues gained him a reputation as the Senate’s Republican “maverick.” He sided with progressive Democrats in backing federal taxes on tobacco products, greenhouse gas limitations, and reduction of wasteful earmark government spending. In 2017, McCain angered President Donald Trump by opposing a Republican-backed bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act—Obamacare. 

John McCain - Legislation To Fight Global Warming
U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks about global warming on Capitol Hill March 30, 2004 in Washington, DC. McCain, U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and twenty members of congress are in support of the "Climate Stewardship Act" legislation aimed to enact the first nationwide restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.  Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Presidential Campaigns of 2000 and 2008

In 2000, McCain competed for the Republican presidential nomination against Texas Governor George W. Bush. Though Bush won the nomination in a brutal series of state primary elections, McCain would campaign for Bush’s reelection in 2004. He also supported Bush in declaring war on Iraq in 2003, and after initially opposing their passage, voted against repealing Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. 

In September 2008, McCain easily won the Republican presidential nomination, naming Alaska’s Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate. In November 2008, McCain faced Democrat Barack Obama in the general election. 

The Iraq war and President Bush’s unpopularity dominated the early part of the campaign. While McCain supported the war and Bush’s 2007 troop buildup, Obama strongly opposed both. Despite endorsing McCain, President Bush rarely campaigned publicly for him. While McCain’s campaign stressed his government experience and military service, Obama campaigned on the theme of “hope and change” leading to government reform. The final days of the campaign were dominated by debate over the “Great Recession,” economic crisis which had peaked in September 2008. 

McCain Campaigns On Final Week Before Presidential Election
Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin hold a campaign rally at the Giant Center October 28, 2008 in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

In the general election, Obama easily defeated McCain, winning both the Electoral College and the popular vote by sizable margins. Along with winning the largest share of the popular since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, Obama also won in traditionally Republican-voting states, including Florida, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, and Virginia.

Later Career in the Senate

Though humbled by his failures as a presidential candidate, McCain returned to the Senate, where he continued to cement his legacy as an influential political maverick. In 2013, he joined the “Gang of Eight,” a group of Republican and Democratic senators supporting immigration reform legislation that included a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants. Also in 2013, President Obama chose McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham to travel to Egypt to meet with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, now designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. In 2014, after Republicans won control of the Senate in the midterm elections, McCain won the chairmanship of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee.

Feud With Donald Trump

During the early phases of the 2016 presidential campaign, McCain supported Republican nominee Donald Trump, despite their past disagreements over border security measures and amnesty for undocumented immigrants. McCain’s support was tested when Trump questioned the worth of his military service in Vietnam, stating, “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” McCain finally dropped his endorsement in October 2016, after a video from a 2005 television interview surfaced in which Trump bragged about engaging in predatory sexual behavior toward women. 

Comey Testifies In Front Of US Senate Intelligence Committee
On a large television screen, US Senator John McCain, (R, Arizona), left, questions former FBI Director James Comey, right, during Comey's testimony June 8, 2017 in front of the US Senate's Intelligence Committee in Washington, DC. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Their feud only intensified after Trump won the presidency. McCain was one of a small group of Republicans who joined most Democrats in criticizing Trump’s apparently friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even after U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that the Russian government had attempted to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In May 2017, McCain joined Democrats in demanding that the Justice Department appoint former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a Special Counsel to investigate alleged collusion on the part of the Trump campaign in helping Russia intervene in the election. 

Illness and Death

Following surgery on July 14, 2017 to remove a blood clot over his left eye, McCain was diagnosed with aggressively malignant brain cancer. As best wishes flowed in from former presidents and his fellow senators, President Obama tweeted, “Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”

On July 25, 2017, McCain returned to work on the floor of the Senate to debate a Republican bill endorsed by President Trump to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare.” McCain urged the Senate to look beyond party partisanship and reach a compromise. On July 28, McCain, along with fellow Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, joined Democrats in voting 51-49 to defeat their own party’s bill to repeal Obamacare. On December 20, however, McCain showed his loyalty to Republican ideals by backing and voting for the passage of President Trump’s sweeping tax cut and job creation bill. With his health now failing rapidly, it would be one of McCain’s last appearances on the Senate floor.  

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) Lies In State In The Rotunda Of U.S. Capitol
The flag-draped casket of US Senator John McCain arrives inside the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, August 31, 2018 in Washington, DC.  Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On August 25, 2018, John McCain died of cancer at his home in Cornville, Arizona, with his wife and family beside him. In planning his funeral, McCain had invited former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to deliver eulogies, but requested that President Trump not attend any of the services. After official memorial observances in Phoenix, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., McCain was transported to Annapolis, Maryland, for burial on September 2 at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery, next to his lifelong friend and classmate Admiral Charles R. Larson. 

In a farewell message released after his death, McCain shared his often-expressed belief that true patriotism requires rising above partisan politics, writing:

“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.… Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”

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Longley, Robert. "Biography of John McCain, From POW to Influential US Senator." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). Biography of John McCain, From POW to Influential US Senator. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Biography of John McCain, From POW to Influential US Senator." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).