Arizona remembers ‘most fascinating son’ John McCain
‘He always took the right side, the side of the good people, regardless of his politics’
Julieta Delgado laid flowers outside John McCain’s senate office in Phoenix, then buried her face in her partner’s arm. They stood for a moment by the collection of bouquets, wilting in the summer heat, and homemade cards that decorated the entryway of the otherwise nondescript building.
Delgado is a clinical researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, where McCain received treatment. She said their politics were not always aligned but she admired his courage - especially as shown in his middle-of-the-night vote last year, to save the Affordable Care Act.
She pantomimed the dramatic thumbs-down McCain delivered on the floor of the Senate that doomed a Republican plan to repeal the healthcare law.
“That was so courageous,” she said, her voice swelling with emotion.
To Delgado, the late senator represented the best of American politics, a dignity and decency she fears is disappearing in an era of opportunism and partisanship. When she heard McCain had died on Saturday, she wept.
“He always took the right side, the side of the good people, regardless of his politics,” she said. “It’s going to be very difficult to fill his shoes.”
McCain, a Vietnam war hero, two-time presidential candidate and one of the most influential American politicians of his generation, died after a year-long battle with an aggressive form of brain cancer.
In a statement, Arizona governor Doug Ducey said McCain will lie in state at the Arizona capitol on Wednesday. It would have been his 82nd birthday. On Thursday, friends, family and dignitaries will celebrate his life and legacy at a public service at North Phoenix Baptist Church.
Ducey described the service as a “rare and distinct occurrence for a truly special man”.
“John McCain is Arizona, and we will honor his life every way we can,” he added.
McCain’s body will then be brought to Washington, where on Friday the Republican will lie in state at the US Capitol. The following day, he will receive a full-dress funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral before he is laid to rest on Sunday at the US Naval Academy cemetery, in Annapolis.
McCain was not a native son of Arizona but he represented the state in Washington for more three decades. After he retired from the navy, he remarried and settled in Arizona in the early 1980s. He entered politics almost immediately.
“Some old political hack advised John to start slowly,” said Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian who met McCain when he moved to Arizona nearly 40 years ago. “But that wasn’t his style. He just jumped in. He wasn’t someone who let the grass grow under his feet.”
Trimble recalled on of their first meetings, when he led the retired Navy pilot on a horseback ride through the craggy Superstition Mountains. It was clear McCain was far more comfortable in a cockpit than in the saddle. But, Trimble said, he “cowboyed up”.
“We were in the saddle all day long and he just stuck right with us. He didn’t complain at all,” he said. “I realized then that he was one tough guy.”
During his first run for Congress in 1982, a political opponent accused him of not having roots in the state. The decorated war hero responded - in a line he would reprise again and again - that until moving to Arizona, the longest he had lived anywhere was his “unexpectedly lengthy” stay in Vietnam, at the “Hanoi Hilton”. That settled the issue.
McCain served two terms in the House of Representatives, from 1983 to 1986. When Senator Barry Goldwater retired, McCain won his first of six Senate terms.
A desire for compromise and willingness to buck his party endeared McCain to independent and even Democratic voters in the state, but it also left him deeply unpopular with a swath of conservatives. In 2014, the state Republican party took the extraordinary step of censuring the senator for what they said was “a long and terrible record of drafting, co-sponsoring and voting for legislation best associated with liberal Democrats”.
“It was that independence, that rugged individualism - he did not march in lockstep with the party line,” Trimble said.
Arizona has a rich history of sending “giants” to Washington, Trimble said, and McCain was no exception. Its political lineage includes Goldwater, the senator and 1964 Republican presidential nominee, and two other influential US senators, Ernest McFarland and Carl Hayden; congressman John Rhodes; and supreme court justices William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor.
McCain will be remembered here both admiringly and critically, a war hero and an iconoclast who more than once fell short of his own high standards. The Phoenix New Times, a weekly that was often critical of McCain, said the senator was Arizona’s favorite son but he was certainly her “most fascinating son”.
In his final memoir, McCain wrote affectionately about the state, quoting his predecessor, Goldwater, who once described Arizona as “113,400 sq miles of heaven that God cut out”.
“I’ve driven through the desert in the spring after a wet winter and gasped at the profusion of color, the mesmerizing beauty of desert wildflower in sudden bloom,” McCain wrote. “I love it so much.”
After his diagnosis, McCain retreated to the family’s ranch near Sedona. There amid the sycamores and cottonwoods, a babbling creek and the buzz of the summer cicadas, McCain spent his final days.
On Saturday, scores of Arizonans gathered along the Interstate 17 to pay final tribute to the late senator as his hearse passed on its way to Phoenix. Some carried American flags while others held signs that thanked McCain for his service or said simply: “I love you.”
Outside his Senate office in Phoenix the next morning, mourners slowly trickled in to pay their respects. On a poster, someone wrote: “Often disagreed, but always respected you. Thank you for your service and leaving our nation better than you found it.”
Tina Dennis, of Phoenix, said she was there for “the man, not the politician”. She wanted her 11-year-old son, Anthony Walker, to remember McCain’s sacrifice and his sense of duty.
Anthony proudly put a tiny American flag on top of the memorial. He laid a card next to it. Inside, the message said simply: “Miss you.” - Guardian