‘Maverick’ McCain has aggressive brain tumour

Flying the flag: McCain has represented Arizona in the Senate since 1987. © Getty

John McCain has been diagnosed with a deadly brain cancer. The announcement triggered an outpouring of warm words from colleagues. But just how much has the veteran senator achieved?

For a man who once described himself as “older than dirt”, John McCain has proved very resilient. Which makes the news that the 80-year-old Republican senator has a brain tumour all the more shocking.

McCain’s condition was announced on Wednesday, after doctors discovered it during a routine medical exam last Friday. Politicians of all stripes have offered their sympathy; the words “hero” and “fighter” have been used a lot. “Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against,” tweeted Barack Obama.

It is not the first time McCain has been described in this way. As a naval pilot in the Vietnam War, he was shot down over Hanoi and imprisoned. He spent more than five years in captivity and was repeatedly tortured. Yet when he was offered an early release he declined, insisting that other prisoners should be freed first.

Over a remarkable political career that includes two runs for president and three decades in the Senate, McCain has often referred to his wartime experiences. He credits them with turning him into a true patriot. His supporters point to them as evidence of his courage and sense of duty. He has opposed torture ever since, although he tends to favour military intervention abroad.

As a senator, however, he is most often described by another word. He has come to be known as a “maverick” thanks to his outspoken style (his presidential campaign bus was called the Straight Talk Express) and his deviation from some key Republican positions.

McCain likes to portray himself as a defender of ordinary people against big money. He voted against George W. Bush’s tax cuts and helped impose limits on the amount that groups and individuals can donate to a political party. He has often teamed up with Democrats to achieve his goals and has criticised Donald Trump’s reluctance to promote American values abroad.

His critics dispute the “maverick” tag. They say that, with a few big exceptions, he votes with his Republican colleagues. They also accuse him of flip-flopping on everything from abortion to immigration in order to further his career.

McCain is certainly an unusual politician. But will he leave behind much of a legacy?

Dear John

No, say some. History speaks for itself: the American people twice rejected McCain as president, then picked Trump, who disagrees with him on most things. He deserves respect for a distinguished career. But he hasn’t left his stamp on his party or country.

Hang on, reply others. McCain has much to show for his career. He played a decisive role in passing important laws, has been an influential voice on matters of foreign affairs, and he makes friends with everyone, setting an example for all politicians in an increasingly polarised age.

You Decide

  1. Would you vote for McCain?
  2. When judging a politician, how much should we care about their life outside of politics?


  1. Imagine you have been granted an interview with McCain. Come up with five questions for him.
  2. Create a fact sheet comparing and contrasting the views of McCain and Trump. Use the NBC and New York links in Become An Expert for help.

Some People Say...

“Our character is a lifelong project.”

— John McCain

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Last Friday, McCain turned up at a routine physical exam complaining of fatigue and double vision. Scans of his head revealed a blood clot and a glioblastoma — a highly aggressive kind of brain tumour. Both were removed in an operation, but the tumour could grow back. As a result, McCain may have to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.
What do we not know?
How the senator will come out of this. His office has said that he is recovering “amazingly well”, and is talking with his doctors about when he can go back to work. However, the prognosis for a glioblastoma is not great. Around one in ten patients live longer than five years, but the tumour is not curable, and medical experts put the average survival period at little over a year.

Word Watch

The capital of Vietnam, which also served as the capital of what was then communist North Vietnam.
McCain’s body was so badly damaged during his plane crash and subsequent torture that he has been unable to lift his arms above his head ever since.
Freed first
McCain was following the US military’s Code of Conduct, which requires that prisoners of war are released in the order in which they are captured.
Two runs for president
In 2000 McCain lost the Republican nomination to George W. Bush. In 2008 he won the nomination, but lost to Obama.
McCain is friends with Democratic politician John Kerry, and once said he “would entertain” the idea of being Kerry’s running mate in the 2004 presidential election.
Between 1987 and 2015, McCain voted with the Republican Party on 87% of party line votes (i.e. those where the party tells members to vote a certain way). The average senator did so 91% of the time.
Foreign affairs
McCain is the chair of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.