Republican senator John McCain is dead at the age of 81, and for this movies and TV blog it is easy to be reminded of what a prolific role in American politics and culture he has played for decades now. In 2002, years before his presidential run together with Sarah Palin (which became unforgettable partly thanks to Tina Fey’s imitation of her), he hosted Saturday Night Live, a first for a sitting senator. The clip above shows his opening bit, together with Fred Armisen.
Born in the Panama Canal Zone where his father, also a naval officer, was stationed, McCain moved around a lot as a child and attended many schools. After studying at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, he became a pilot with a reputation for being reckless. He began his combat duty in 1967 and came to earn a great number of medals for his Vietnam War missions. After being shot down in October that year, he was taken prisoner and subjected to torture at the “Hanoi Hilton”. During the five and a half years he was prisoner of war, McCain suffered extreme abuse and almost died several times; some of the physical damage would stay with him forever. When he was finally released in 1973, it would become McCain’s first moment in the national spotlight.
After a period of physical therapy, John McCain became a commanding officer in Florida and in 1977 the Navy’s liaison to the U.S. Senate. After retiring from the Navy in 1981, he was elected to Congress the following year, representing a district in Arizona where he was now living together with his second wife, Cindy, whom he had married after a tumultuous breakup from his first wife Carol. A loyal Reagan Republican, McCain ran for the Senate in 1986 (the clip above is an ad from the campaign) and replaced the conservative icon Barry Goldwater, who had retired. He survived a major corruption scandal, the Keating Five (he was cleared of any crimes, but criticized for showing poor judgment), and was nicknamed “the Maverick” because of his independent streak, which he would try to exploit during his presidential runs.
During his third term in the Senate, in 2000, John McCain ran for president for the first time, facing Governor George W. Bush in the primaries. He did quite well, campaigning from his Straight Talk Express bus, but the duel between him and Bush got really dirty, with an anonymous smear campaign spreading vicious rumors about McCain. After losing the GOP nomination to Bush, McCain went back to the Senate, but made a comeback eight years later as his party’s nominee against Democratic Senator Barack Obama. After choosing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, a deeply inexperienced person who became an increasingly inappropriate selection that turned off independents (and really opened the door to the darkest corners of the GOP, eventually resulting in the rise of Donald Trump), McCain lost another presidential contest. But not without showing a bit of fairness and dignity, correcting a voter on camera who said she doesn’t like Obama because “he’s an Arab”. A remarkable moment because of how the current GOP has completely surrendered to the Trump doctrine of racism, never-ending lies and smears.
In 2012, McCain became the subject of a TV movie, Game Change, which depicted the 2008 election and how he came to choose Palin as running mate (and live to regret it, as we see in this clip). Julianne Moore was the true star of the movie as Palin, but Ed Harris was convincing enough as McCain.
As McCain once again went back to the Senate and eventually began his treatment for brain cancer, he stayed true to his independent streak, not always following party orthodoxy but remaining faithful to his conservative ideals, constantly resulting in moments where he was either celebrated or vilified by both liberals and conservatives. He couldn’t stand Trump, the constant lying and the President’s weak response when it came to Russian interference in U.S. elections. One of his last memorable efforts was to vote against a hopelessly flawed Republican health care bill in 2017 (to audible gasps in the chamber), but make no mistake, he opposed Obamacare as well. That was McCain, a hero and a villain. A complex human being, like most of us.
He’s saved some of the best drama for last. One of McCain’s final requests was for former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to deliver eulogies at his funeral. Both defeated him in presidential contests, both represent starkly different political ideologies. One can imagine that McCain wanted this to serve as an inspiration to the American people in these dark times of Trump.