US mourns John McCain, war hero and political icon

John McCain

WASHINGTON: Flags were flying at half-staff yesterday over the White House and US Capitol in honor of John McCain, the Vietnam War hero and two-time presidential candidate known for a legendary temper but whose personal courage and insistence on treating even his foes with respect earned him near-universal admiration. McCain died on Saturday, four days shy of his 82nd birthday, following a yearlong battle with an aggressive brain cancer. He leaves a wife, Cindy, and seven children, three by an earlier marriage.

He will lie in state in the US Capitol – an honor accorded only a few notable Americans, including John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and civil rights icon Rosa Parks – as well as in the Arizona Capitol, the state he represented for 35 years. His funeral is expected to take place in the National Cathedral, the massive Gothic structure overlooking Washington, before he is laid to rest according to his wishes at the Naval Academy in nearby Annapolis, Maryland.

Former presidents George W Bush, a Republican, and Barack Obama, a Democrat – his successful rivals in, respectively, the 2000 and 2008 elections – are to speak at the funeral, according to the New York Times. Media reports earlier this year said the senator had expressly asked that President Donald Trump not be invited. Instead, Vice President Mike Pence is expected to attend.

As tributes poured in from the US and abroad, Trump said simply that he sent his “deepest sympathies and respect” to the McCain family. Trump’s wife Melania, his daughter Ivanka and Pence saluted the senator’s service to the nation. A rare Republican critic of Trump, McCain had accused the president of “naivete”, “egotism” and of sympathizing with autocrats, especially after Trump’s widely criticized appearance in Helsinki alongside Russian president Vladimir Putin. McCain cast a decisive vote last year that killed Republican attempts to repeal Obama’s healthcare reforms. The repeal was a Trump priority, and the president never forgave McCain.

The hawkish McCain was an unrelenting critic of Obama’s foreign policy, saying the Democratic president was weak on Libya, Iraq and Syria. Still, Obama said he and the senator “shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher – the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched and sacrificed”. Bush, whose tough campaign against McCain in 2000 left both sides bruised, praised the Arizonan as “a man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order”. Hillary Clinton, whose encounters with McCain also left bruises, called him “a patriot”.

McCain spent more than three decades in the Senate, looming large in debates over war and peace and the moral direction of the nation. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he was a powerful advocate for the nation’s veterans. As a fervent Atlanticist, a persistent critic of authoritarian leaders, and a frequent congressional traveler, he earned respect around the globe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called McCain “one of the great political figures of our time (who) fought tirelessly for a strong transatlantic alliance”; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “an inspiration to millions”; British Prime Minister Theresa May said McCain “embodied the idea of service over self” while French President Emmanuel Macron saluted “a true American hero”. Across the Pacific, the China Daily referred to him as a “titan of American politics”.

Sarah Palin, whom McCain plucked from obscurity to become his 2008 White House running mate, described him as “a fighter, never afraid to stand for his beliefs”. McCain drew criticism from the left for giving a platform to Palin’s rightwing views, contributing to the rise of the Tea Party movement. But he also earned respect on the left for his steadfast opposition to torture and his push for immigration reform. Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said he would seek to rename a Senate building in his honor.

Praise for McCain however was not universal: Chinese social media users called him an “enemy of China” for his hawkish foreign policy views. And comments on the US far-right Breitbart website slammed the senator for his key vote against the Obamacare repeal. McCain had been away from the Senate floor since December, remaining at his Arizona ranch for treatment of glioblastoma – the same form of brain cancer that took the life of another Senate giant, Democrat Ted Kennedy, in 2009.

The son and grandson of four-star admirals, McCain will be buried in the cemetery of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, on a peaceful hillside overlooking the Severn River. As a student at the academy he had a reputation as a rebel, but with a wit and charm that drew people to him. In 2015, McCain himself revealed the simple epitaph he wanted on his tombstone, which will stand alongside those of naval heroes going back to the 1800s: “He served his country.” – AFP

This article was published on 26/08/2018