John McCain

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination

by Beth Rowen
John McCain

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In one of the most pivotal U.S. elections since World War II, John McCain lost his second bid at the presidency to the Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama. On Nov. 4, 2008, McCain finished the race for 44th U.S. president with 161 electoral votes—177 votes behind Obama, who accrued 338, including votes from crucial swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

During his campaign for president in 2008, John McCain once again toured the country in his Straight Talk Express campaign bus, but he ran a markedly different campaign for the Republican presidential nomination than he did in 2000.

McCain tempered his maverick nature. Instead of challenging many conventional Republican ideals, he reached out to the party’s conservative base as well as its moderate contingent. In fact, many reports said he selected political neophyte, Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska since 2006, as his running mate over his first choice, Sen. Joe Lieberman, because Lieberman's pro-choice stance incensed socially conservative Republicans.

Mended Fences with Bush

The four-term senator from Arizona patched up his once troubled relationship with President Bush—McCain’s former rival whose vitriolic smear campaign during the South Carolina primary in 2000 very likely cost him the Republican nomination and handed McCain his first ever electoral loss. He supported Bush’s tax cuts, which he once deemed fiscally irresponsible, and defended Bush in 2006 when fellow Vietnam veteran John Kerry famously botched a joke that was intended to lampoon Bush’s intellect, but instead came out as an insult to troops in Iraq. (And who can forget Bush’s embrace of McCain during the 2004 presidential race?)

McCain’s détente with Bush has its limits, however. In 2005, under the threat of a presidential veto, the Senate passed McCain’s anti-torture amendment that banned “cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment” of prisoners held in U.S. custody. Although he supports the war in Iraq and endorsed the surge of troops that arrived in Baghdad in February 2007, McCain has been critical of Bush’s execution and management of the war. He reserved his sharpest criticism for former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld.

“I think that Donald Rumsfeld will go down as one of the worst secretaries of defense in history,” McCain said at a speech in February 2007.

A Champion of Reform

Although McCain somewhat reinvented himself as a mainstream Republican candidate, he can still spark the ire of many in his party. Indeed, his support of the failed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act alienated many core Republicans. Some observers say it affected his fundraising over the summer.

In July 2007, McCain’s campaign nearly imploded. He was running precariously low on money, with only about $2 million on hand, and his longtime strategist John Weaver quit, leading the charge to the door for other members of his senior staff. McCain survived the storm, and now boasts that he’s running a lean, mean machine.

McCain remained steadfast in his opposition to pork-barrel spending and committed to campaign-finance reform. He co-sponsored legislation, passed in 2002, with Democrat Russ Feingold that banned soft money—unlimited contributions to political parties. McCain still has a penchant for calling things—and people—as he sees them. He derided the diminutive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a “pip-squeak in platform shoes.”

McCain consistently leaned conservative. He is anti-abortion, and favors teacher testing and school vouchers. He believes in small government and lower taxes.

Vietnam Veteran, U.S. Senator

John S. McCain was born August 29, 1936 in the Panama Canal Zone into a family steeped in military history. At age 17, McCain enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He graduated four years later, fifth from the bottom of the class. As an ensign in the Navy he trained as an aircraft carrier pilot.

His service in Vietnam was nothing short of catastrophic. In July 1967, aboard the USS Forrestal, he narrowly escaped death when the aircraft carrier was accidentally hit by a missile and engulfed in flames. More than 130 men died in the accident. Only three months later, McCain set off for a bombing mission over Hanoi. His plane was hit by a missile, and he went down. He suffered two broken arms and a broken leg. He was snatched up by the North Vietnamese, who interned him in the "Hilton Hanoi."

McCain's father, Admiral Jack McCain, became commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific shortly after the younger McCain was taken prisoner. McCain’s captors offered him early release as propaganda, but he refused and spent five-and-a-half years as a POW, two of them in solitary confinement.

After a long rehabilitation, McCain resumed his service with the Navy. He served as U.S. Navy Liaison Officer to the U.S. Senate from 1977 to 1980, and retired as a captain in 1981. He served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 1986. He was re-elected in 1992, 1998, and 2004.

Not Without Scandal

The decorated war hero has weathered his scandals, including his admitted infidelity that led to the break-up of his first marriage. Senator McCain was also a member of the Keating Five, a group of five senators who worked behind the scenes on behalf of savings and loan operator Charles H. Keating, later convicted of fraud.

After his loss in 2000, McCain doubted he’d take another shot at the presidency. Though a few years older and a little slower on his feet, McCain, a former boxer, still has the fight in him. If he had won in November 2008, McCain would have been 72, the oldest person—by more than two years—ever elected president.

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