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McCain: War Hero Who Became a Political Power Broker

  • Cindy Saine

FILE - U.S. Senator John McCain speaks at the opening of the 53rd Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 17, 2017.

There has been an outpouring of bipartisan support from current and former lawmakers for Republican Senator John McCain, a singular figure in American politics, after it was revealed he has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, glioblastoma.

The Arizona Republican is widely regarded as an American hero for his service as a U.S. Navy pilot in the Vietnam War, where he narrowly escaped death twice. His plane was shot down over a Hanoi lake, and he was captured.

He spent the next five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, including two years in solitary confinement. His injuries were neglected and he was beaten and tortured. He was offered early release, because his father was a four-star admiral, but he rejected it, choosing to stay until his fellow POWs were also released.

FILE - John McCain is administered to in a Hanoi, Vietnam, hospital as a prisoner of war in the fall of 1967.
FILE - John McCain is administered to in a Hanoi, Vietnam, hospital as a prisoner of war in the fall of 1967.

Visits to Vietnam

VOA interviewed McCain last May, ahead of then-President Barack Obama's historic trip to Vietnam and Hiroshima. McCain said he had been back to Vietnam more than 20 times since the war, working to promote normalization of relations and to bring back the remains of American servicemen killed during the war.

McCain is passionate about the power of reconciliation to bring two former enemies, the U.S. and Vietnam, together,

"First of all, I worked very, very hard for normalizing our relationship," he said. "I wanted to heal the wounds of war. I wanted many of our veterans, who have been unable to do so, to come all the way home. I can't tell you, by the way, the number of veterans that I have met who have brought their families back to Vietnam to show them where they served and fought. ... And the relations between the Vietnamese people and the United States of America has never been better."

FILE - Republican Senator John McCain and his wife, Cindy, greet supporters after casting their ballots at a polling station, in Phoenix, Arizona, Nov. 8, 2016.
FILE - Republican Senator John McCain and his wife, Cindy, greet supporters after casting their ballots at a polling station, in Phoenix, Arizona, Nov. 8, 2016.

After the war, McCain was elected to the U.S. House, then to the U.S. Senate in Arizona, his home state.

After 31 years in the Senate, McCain now chairs the powerful Armed Services Committee and is a staunch champion of the U.S. military. He is viewed as a tough foreign policy "hawk," championing U.S. intervention in hot spots such as Syria and remaining a deep skeptic about improving relations with Russia.

McCain has been seen as an independent thinker who has not shied away from questioning decisions made by fellow Republicans. He supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 but criticized how the Bush administration waged the war.

He is also known for reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats on a number of issues, such as climate change, comprehensive immigration reform and campaign finance reform.

FILE - Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., talk during the presidential debate, Oct. 15, 2008, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
FILE - Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., talk during the presidential debate, Oct. 15, 2008, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

McCain and Obama

He has run for president twice. He dropped out when running behind Republican George W. Bush in the primaries in 2000.

Eight years later, he was chosen as the Republican nominee to run against Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois.

A few weeks before the November election, at a time when some McCain supporters shouted racist insults about Obama, McCain corrected one of his supporters in this famous exchange:

"I don't trust Obama," the woman told McCain. "He's an Arab."

McCain stopped her and said: "No, ma'am," he said. "He's a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with."

Watch: Outpouring of Support for Senator John McCain, an American Hero

After Obama won, McCain congratulated him, saying he recognized the special significance his victory had for African-Americans.

One of the first people to respond to the news breaking late Wednesday of McCain's brain cancer diagnosis was Obama, who tweeted: "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."

This same sentiment has been echoed by President Donald Trump and a number of foreign leaders, and by many of McCain's Democratic and Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, who are hoping to have the 80-year-old fighter back in the Senate soon.

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