Need to Know: Senator John McCain Dies at 81, Americans Debate His Legacy

Need to Know: Senator John McCain Dies at 81, Americans Debate His Legacy

by Zach Harris | NEWS |

After a public battle with brain cancer, the longtime U.S. politician will be remembered as a war hero by some, and a war hawk by others.

Photo via Gage Skidmore

Longtime Republican Senator John McCain passed away on Saturday, leaving behind a polarizing legacy that has lead to outpourings of both well-wishes and posthumous criticism — immediately contrasting the former prisoner of war’s pro-combat posturing with his celebrated patriotism. 

A military man his whole life, McCain made a name for himself after his fighter jet was shot down and he was captured during the Vietnam War. Returning home with the goal of entering politics, McCain won a congressional seat representing Arizona in 1982, before graduating to the Senate in 1986. In 2008, McCain won the Republican nomination for president, but was defeated in the general election by fellow Senator Barack Obama.

In the past year since McCain’s cancer diagnosis was made public, the senator has become a key figure in Donald Trump’s Republican Congress, frequently quarrelling with the president while simultaneously using his critical vote to support a majority of Trump’s policies.

Since Saturday, publications including the New York Times and the Washington Post have eulogized McCain as a great patriot and a “maverick” who fought for American freedom. In the Times, McCain was described as a war hero who “possessed the rugged independence of a natural leader.”

But thanks to the ubiquity of social media, a number of differing viewpoints have shined light on some of the senator’s less savory actions and ideals, questioning America’s tendency to use death as an opportunity to cleanse a dubious reputation. Over his decades of public service, McCain voted multiple times to support protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, voted against the creation of a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, opposed same-sex marriage, and openly used the racist slur “gook” into the early aughts. 

On Twitter, McCain’s decision to voluntarily cease cancer treatment was met by hordes of criticism bemoaning the thousands of Americans who have been forced to stop treatment unwillingly, thanks to policies put in place by Republican legislators including McCain himself.



In the days since McCain’s death, President Trump has continued to feud with the now deceased senator, refusing to answer any questions about his passing at a press conference, and prematurely returning White House flags from half mast to their standard height.

McCain’s Senate seat will be filled at the will of Arizona Republican Governor Doug Ducey, with his appointment due to serve until 2020.


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Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.


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