Andrew Harnik / AP
Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — John McCain was an essential element of the nation’s political conversation for half a century, an ever-present figure eager to challenge friend and foe through his singular temperament — sometimes angry, often funny, always ardent.
Now he is gone, leaving behind a storied life and a tear in America’s political fabric at a time when national unity — always a McCain theme and ultimate goal — seems especially elusive.
“We are losing someone who really, no matter who was the president, believed in the Senate’s role in checks and balances,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was a frequent traveling companion of McCain on official overseas trips. “He truly was a giant in the Senate, a towering figure and someone who really made a difference not just on policy, but in asserting the Senate’s constitutional role.”
The capital has had some time to adjust to life without McCain given his absence since December for treatment of the brain cancer that finally took his life Saturday. He weighed in from afar on a range of issues in the meantime, but the digital messages from Arizona lacked the power they might have had if delivered in his always self-certain style on the Senate floor. His death will be deeply felt.
It seemed particularly fitting that McCain died nine years to the day after the same virulent form of brain cancer claimed the life of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his longtime friend, occasional foil and legislative partner on big issues such as immigration. Both enjoyed a boisterous scrap on the Senate floor and could laugh about it afterward. Both were the type of larger-than-life characters who could command the attention of the Senate — and the nation — on the issues of the day. The struggling Senate is a smaller place without them.
McCain had real power, not just the kind that comes from seniority and being a committee chairman, but the kind that comes from rich — and sometimes shattering — life experiences that provide credibility and heft to positions. No one else could talk about the need to ban torture with the authority of McCain, who had been tortured during his more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And his crusade for better campaign finance laws arose from his own bitter experience as a member of the Keating Five, the group of senators exposed for interceding with bank regulators on behalf of a generous donor.
He was also an institutionalist, helping lead the bipartisan Gang of 14 that in 2005 struck a deal to preserve the filibuster against judicial nominees. It was a temporary reprieve, as it would turn out, but it showcased McCain as a creature of the Senate willing to put what he saw as the fate of the chamber above more partisan interests. McCain was of the era when senators saw themselves — and their branch of the government — as independent equals of the executive, not merely an extension of it.
McCain was tremendously resilient. He endured grueling rehabilitation from his POW experience to return to the military and become naval liaison to the Senate, whetting an interest in politics that eventually took him to the House and then the Senate.
As a first-term senator in 1987, he met with federal regulators on behalf of a donor and savings-and-loan chairman. The ensuing Keating Five scandal, which stretched from 1989 to 1991, was a public humiliation for McCain, a real blow to someone who lived by a stringent honor code.
The only Republican implicated, he also received the most lenient finding by the ethics committee, which found him guilty of poor judgment. The televised hearings essentially ended the political careers of several of the other senators involved. But that searing experience drove McCain to become a more independent lawmaker as well as a champion of campaign finance changes intended to reduce the influence of big money in politics, and he eventually became his party’s presidential nominee in 2008, after a failed bid in 2000.
The loss to Barack Obama that followed rocked McCain, and he returned to the Senate unhappy and somewhat at a loss. But he eventually recovered his footing and remained an outspoken force on immigration and the military — and an outspoken opponent of the Obama administration on a variety of domestic and foreign affairs issues.
Few in the Senate escaped McCain’s outbursts of temper, and he could be extremely cutting and dismissive to those he saw as standing in his way or offering what he considered unfounded views. During his presidential run in 2008, some of his colleagues whispered concerns that his temper was potentially disqualifying. But the episodes often quickly passed, and McCain would offer apologies.
For a man who built his public reputation through close ties to journalists, he could also be up and down with the news media. But even when angry, he had a hard time keeping himself away and thoroughly enjoyed jousting with the reporters who frequented the Capitol hallways.
When he first returned to Washington in September after his devastating diagnosis, reporters were encouraged to stay far away from him to avoid passing on any illness, given his weakened immune system. That lasted about a day, and soon McCain was striding through the Senate hallways as usual, trading barbs and bits of information with journalists and colleagues who were aware that their moments with him were drawing to a close.
The final elections of his career marked a turn to the right for McCain as he sought to fight off the Tea Party movement, a groundswell he helped accelerate with his selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential nominee in 2008. But in one of his last acts, he defied the far right — and President Donald Trump, the man who had ridiculed his capture in Vietnam — by helping to derail the Republican drive to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
Much of McCain’s signature campaign finance overhaul has been undone by the courts. The nation’s immigration problems remain unresolved and seem to defy legislative solutions despite his best efforts. And the famous deal to preserve the judicial filibuster has long since dissolved.
But his impact on the Senate, his influence on his colleagues, and the force of his will won’t be forgotten.
“The lions are gone,” Collins said. “The lions of the Senate are gone. It is very sad.”