30 Iconic Photos of John McCain Through the Years
No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, there were few folks in politics as endearing, honest, and hard-working as John McCain. Known as “The Maverick” for his willingness to break from the Republican mold when it came to endorsing certain issues, we remember McCain for his bravery through his times as a prisoner of war and his impressive feats he overcame as a senator. Though he eventually succumbed to brain cancer at 81, he’ll never be forgotten.
From the ’30s to 2018, we have photos of McCain that show him for exactly who he was. Here are the most iconic ones.
1. John McCain was born in 1936
- John McCain was born John Sidney McCain III after his father and grandfather.
Before you knew him as a senator, McCain was just a boy born in the Panama Canal Zone. History reports he was born on August 9, 1936, at Coco Solo Naval Air Station. The photo features McCain’s father and grandfather as well, who both became four-star admirals. His father, John Sidney McCain Jr., went on to “command all the U.S. naval forces in the Pacific,” which certainly served as inspiration for what he would become later in life as well.
Next: John McCain during his childhood
2. McCain was one of three children
- McCain became a particularly good wrestler at his high school.
In this photo, McCain is pictured in the center with his grandfather on the left and his father on the right. History notes he was the middle child, with one older and younger sibling. During his adolescence, he moved often between naval bases both in America and across the world. And it was during his time living in a house on Capitol Hill when his interest in politics first began developing, The Bulletin notes.
In 1954, he graduated from Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, and then went on to the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Next: McCain wasn’t a very good pilot.
3. McCain didn’t do well in the Naval Academy
- He graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy.
When it came to excelling at the U.S. Naval Academy, McCain was never known for being a star student. He graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1958, and he went on to complete flight school in 1960. However, it’s important to note that at the Academy, he graduated fifth from the bottom of his class.
Nevertheless, McCain persevered and volunteered for combat duty once the Vietnam War began. He started to make a name for himself as a very capable pilot.
Next: McCain narrowly escaped serious injury early on.
4. He had some close calls with death early as a pilot
- Three months before McCain was taken as a POW, he went through another crash.
McCain had more than one near-death experience in his life. History notes on July 29, 1967, his A-4 Skyhawk plane was accidentally shot by a missile from the USS Forrestal while he was flying carrier-based attack planes against the North Vietnamese within his first month of active duty. The subsequent explosions caused the death of 134 others. Miraculously, 30-year old McCain lived, though he did suffer serious injuries.
Next: A photo of when he was taken in by the Vietnamese
5. He was shot down and taken as a prisoner in Hanoi
- He broke both arms and one leg when he was shot down.
It was just three months after his first brush with death when McCain’s most difficult hardship began. History explains he was shot down during a bombing run over Hanoi in northern Vietnam on October 26, 1967.
The photo depicts how the citizens took McCain prisoner as he crash-landed into the water and broke both arms and legs. As TIME explains, “Twenty angry North Vietnamese yanked him ashore, stripped him to his underwear, kicked him and spat on him.” They then loaded his body on to a truck and prepared to take him to his next location.
Next: McCain had his injuries assessed.
6. His medical situation was grim
- McCain did not receive medical attention for days once he reached the prison.
When McCain was pulled from the Vietnamese waters, he was taken to Hoa Lò prison — a place Americans nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, TIME says. John G. Hubbell recalls in his book, P.O.W.: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner-of-War Experience in Vietnam, 1964–1973, “No American reached Hoa Lò in worse physical condition than McCain.” And it was in this same location that McCain was told he wouldn’t be allowed to receive medical attention until he gave up vital information.
Next: He endured abuse and beatings for staying quiet.
7. His father’s ranking may have saved his life
- His cellmate, Maj. George “Bud” Day, suspected McCain wouldn’t make it out alive.
McCain drifted in and out of consciousness for days before begging for medical care, TIME notes. Eventually, an officer noticed his father was an important military admiral — and that was the push necessary to get him help. McCain was then transferred to a medical facility where he received blood transfusions, but his injuries were still severely uncared for, and the hospital was filthy.
Weeks later, doctors attempted to set his right arm and operate on his knee, but to no avail. His cellmates didn’t even think he’d live.
Next: McCain finally left Vietnam.
8. McCain’s all smiles when he leaves Vietnam
- McCain was finally released from prison after five and a half years in 1973.
History notes McCain was in prison camps for five and half years — and he somehow managed to persevere through it all. Three and a half of those years were spent in solitary confinement as well.
Two months before the Vietnamese cease-fire finally came into effect, he was released from the camps along with other American prisoners of war on March 14, 1973. Though his captors offered him early release if he gave away vital info to be used against his family, McCain refused.
Next: He held no ill-will against the Vietnamese.
9. McCain held no grudges when it came to what he endured
- McCain held many friendships with the Vietnamese and greatly admired their culture.
One of the most miraculous aspects of McCain’s harrowing tale as a P.O.W. is the gracefulness of his return back to the U.S. While others may have expected him to want vengeance against his captors, he made it clear he was not angry. Years later, NPR notes he said, “I don’t blame them. We’re in a war.”
McCain has also since visited the prison camp he stayed in. “I still despise those who inflicted pain unnecessarily on me and my fellow prisoners, but I hold no ill will toward the Vietnamese people, either North or South,” he said.
Next: He made a grand return to flying after being a P.O.W.
10. McCain wished to stay in flight
- McCain made a return to naval aviation after rehab.
McCain’s wife, Cindy, posted this throwback photo of him from when he was leaving Hanoi en route to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. And while many assumed he would never want to return to flying again, he proved everyone wrong. History notes McCain lost a great deal of strength and flexibility as a result of his P.O.W. status, but after nine months of painful rehabilitation, he was able to return as a naval aviator. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to advance in terms of ranking due to the extent of his injuries, but he still made his passion for flying known.
Next: He received many military awards.
11. He was considered a war hero
- He received 17 awards for his service.
Upon his return home, McCain was able to shake hands with President Nixon as he was welcomed home in 1973. And while his request for admiral was refused, he was recognized on numerous other levels and noted as a war hero. The Bulletin explains he was given 17 awards in total which included the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, and Navy Commendation Medal. From here, his political career started to take shape.
Next: McCain considered politics as his next move.
12. He moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and ran for Congress
- His “Maverick” reputation took hold in the late ’80s once he joined the Senate.
Once his time in the navy was through, McCain made a big move and headed to Phoenix, Arizona. Here, he ran for Congress and became a Republican representative for his new home state by 1983, The Bulletin notes. He was well-received as a politician as well, with many noting his optimism and energy as selling points. In 1986, he joined the Senate and started garnering his “Maverick” reputation.
Next: How his reputation in politics took hold
13. McCain wasn’t scared to go against the grain
- McCain was ready to fight for what he felt was right — whether it was liberal or conservative.
From the beginning of his time in the House and Senate, McCain was ready to challenge the status quo. While McCain skewed toward the conservative, History notes he had no trouble challenging traditional Republican beliefs if he felt they disenfranchised others. As an example, in 1983, he criticized his own party’s handling of the Iran-Contra affair and wanted the Marines to be withdrawn from Lebanon. He also shared plenty of views that veered toward the liberal side.
Next: Scandals marred his time as a senator.
14. He became part of the ‘Keating Five’ scandal
- He was accused of corruption along with four other senators.
Not everything was smooth sailing for McCain at the beginning of his political career. CNBC notes he was one of five senators in the ’80s who were accused of corruption and improper intervention for Phoenix loan executive Charles Keating. Allegedly, these five senators were given donations from Keating and were asked to help him resist federal regulators. In total, McCain’s campaigns had received $112,000 from Keating.
McCain was eventually exonerated but still reprimanded for his bad decision-making.
Next: His personal life also made national news.
15. Drama in his marriage hit the press
- McCain fell in love with another woman while he was still married to his first wife.
McCain married his first wife, Carol Shepp, in 1965, History reminds us. She had two children from a previous marriage, which he also adopted as his own, and together, the couple had a daughter in 1966. Unfortunately, by 1980, their marriage had fallen apart due to McCain’s constant traveling putting stress on their relationship, People reports her son, Andy, said. And he had also met another woman — Cindy Lou Hensley — whom he fell in love with in 1979.
Next: His next wedding came swifter than anyone expected.
16. McCain married Cindy Lou Hensley shortly after his divorce
- Cindy Lou Hensley and McCain married just weeks after his divorce.
People reports Cindy Lou Hensley and McCain met in Hawaii in 1979 when they were both invited to the same reception. Hensley was a special education teacher at the time McCain introduced himself to her. “What I saw was this incredible human being that was a lot of fun to be around,” Hensley, who was 18 years his junior, recalled.
The two then got their marriage license four weeks before his divorce was finalized.
Next: McCain’s ex-wife’s thoughts on the divorce
17. Carol Shepp said McCain wanted ‘a way to be young again’
- Shepp mentioned how painful the ending of her marriage was, but since then, she’s been able to heal.
Shepp never spoke out too much regarding the situation with her ex-husband and Hensley, but more recently, she did tell documentary filmmakers a little about what was going through her mind at the time. According to People, she felt “blindsided” and brokenhearted by the ordeal. “He was looking for a way to be young again, and that was the end of that,” she added.
“I think the divorce rates among the POWs were extraordinarily high so in hindsight it’s probably not unexpected,” McCain said of the situation.
Next: More children and more family complications
18. McCain and Hensley had more children
- McCain and Cindy had three children together and adopted another.
Between the children from his first marriage to the kids he had with Cindy, McCain’s family grew larger as the years went on. In addition to the three children from Shepp, McCain and Cindy had three kids — Meghan, Jack, and Jimmy, ABC News reports. And they even went on to adopt another little girl, Bridget, from Bangladesh.
Relations between Sidney, McCain’s firstborn daughter with Carol, and Cindy were strained for many years in the beginning. But in more recent years, the family came together.
Next: A look toward the presidency
19. McCain became even more established in politics
- McCain saw corruption in politics early from money, and he tried to stop it.
The New York Times notes before McCain even considered presidency, he was ready to completely “shake up the system and reign in the influence of money in politics.” That didn’t sit well with everyone, of course — and it put many of his own party members off completely. Either way, McCain was ready to step forward and halt the corruption.
“There’s too much money washing around and this money makes good people do bad things and bad people do worse things,” McCain memorably said while hoping to reform campaign finance. Unfortunately, his party wasn’t ready for big change.
Next: McCain wanted to appeal to everyone during his presidential run.
20. His first presidential run
- McCain’s campaign was attempting to appeal to all people, not just Republicans.
By 1999, McCain was ready to move up the ranks and become a presidential hopeful. “It is a fight to take our government back from the power brokers and special interests and return it to the people and the noble cause of freedom it was created to serve,” McCain said in September of that year, azcentral reports. He was hoping to appeal not just to Republicans, but to everyone. Unfortunately, despite McCain’s war record and best-selling book, George W. Bush was the clear frontrunner for the GOP.
Next: An embrace between Bush and McCain
21. Bush and McCain were on complicated terms
- Bush came for McCain aggressively for the Republican nomination.
As azcentral reports, Bush didn’t shy from humiliating McCain in his own home state of Arizona. And other politicians didn’t help McCain here either, as some reported on his ill temperament. McCain himself has remarked on this in his 2002 memoir Worth Fighting For, as he said, “It is fair to say that my temper has become legendary. But like most legends, it is exaggerated far beyond reality.”
Bush came out on top, of course. But thankfully, the Bush-McCain feud didn’t last for long.
Next: McCain didn’t give up on advancing in politics just yet.
22. McCain showed his support for Bush after the loss
- McCain’s medical records were revealed.
McCain didn’t win, of course, but he did lose with grace. He allegedly gave a speech after Bush beat him that was “lofty” and “patriotic.” “I support him. I am grateful to him. And I am proud of him,” he said of Bush.
McCain made a few appearances with Bush in the aftermath, but new problems were mounting — and this time, they were with his health. Azcentral reports medical record revealed he dealt with melanoma in 1993, and he was getting surgery again for skin cancer in 2000.
Next: McCain came back strong for another presidential run.
23. He prepared to go for the presidency once more
- McCain had a general dislike for Obama during his campaign in 2008.
ABC News reports in 2007, McCain announced he would be returning in an attempt to win the presidential race once again. This time, he chose running mate Sarah Palin, a governor from Alaska, to accompany him during his campaign. He won his party’s nomination this time around and would be set to go against Barack Obama — the newcomer (and underdog) to beat McCain.
Next: McCain settled his differences with Obama.
24. McCain lost again — but he remained graceful
- McCain said he felt proud to “stand up for Arizona” during his run.
The New York Times notes his 2008 run was his last opportunity to become president, but even with his “Maverick” tendencies, he was easily bested by Obama’s campaign that promised newness and change. According to McCain’s former aides, it may have also been his distaste for Obama that held him back from achieving more votes, Vanity Fair reports. And his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate was also a polarizing move. Nevertheless, he gracefully accepted defeat and said he’s still proud of his record and of himself.
Next: His health returned to the public eye.
25. McCain’s health alarmed many
- McCain had a blood clot removed above his eye, which was associated with brain cancer.
He never won the presidency, but McCain still remained a senator. His health was becoming a greater concern as he aged, however — and the scar above his eye didn’t go unnoticed in 2017. Heavy reports he had brain surgery to remove a cancerous tumor at this time. And he returned to Washington, D.C., to discuss amending the health care bill just a few weeks later despite his brain cancer diagnosis. As the Mayo Clinic reported at the time, “glioblastoma was associated with the blood clot.”
Next: At odds with President Donald Trump
26. He butted heads with Trump
- McCain allegedly asked that Trump not attend his funeral.
At the beginning of Trump’s campaign, McCain supported the presidential hopeful. But it wasn’t long before Trump’s polarizing views put McCain way off — and ABC News reports he withdrew support after evidence surfaced of Trump describing groping women.
McCain continued to distance himself from Trump and spoke out against his policies and ideology. Eventually, things got so heated that McCain reportedly requested that Trump not attend his funeral, Business Insider added.
Next: We’ll never forget this poignant gesture from McCain.
27. The infamous thumbs-down to repealing Obamacare
- One of McCain’s most infamous moments in politics was this simple gesture.
Vox reminds us the Republicans planned to overhaul the Affordable Care Act put in place by Obama — but McCain’s vote was still up in the air. On July 27, 2017, however, he made his stance known with his iconic thumbs-down to the repeal.
In regards to his decision, McCain said, “We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of the aisle, heed the recommendations of nation’s governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people.”
Next: Despite political differences, Joe Biden honored him with this award.
28. He was honored by Joe Biden
- Nelson Mandela and Sandra Day O’Connor were given the same award.
The Liberty Medal is an annual award given to a person who “strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe” — and in 2017, McCain was honored. He’s in good company with Nelson Mandela, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Malala Yousafzai, who have also received the award in the past.
In his speech, McCain addressed his political differences with the Democrats — but he also mentioned how they all believed in a better America. “We believed in each other’s patriotism and the sincerity of each other’s convictions. We believed in the institution we were privileged to serve in,” he said.
Next: McCain’s final days
29. Final months were spent with family
- Glioblastoma also killed Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden’s son, Beau Biden
Glioblastoma is an incredibly aggressive form of brain cancer that begins in the brain or spinal cord and invades surrounding brain tissue. And McCain wasn’t the first notable person to have it, either. Joe Biden’s son, Beau, and Ted Kennedy also died from the disease, CNN reports.
Meghan McCain frequently posted photos of her and her father spending private moments together on Instagram. And while the family remained hopeful that treatments could help extend his life, they knew the severity of the situation. After a year from when he was first diagnosed, McCain died.
Next: McCain will never be forgotten.
30. McCain’s legacy will always be remembered
- The Clintons, Trumps, and Bush family had heartfelt words regarding McCain’s passing.
From war hero to “Maverick,” McCain’s free-thinking politics and wish to do right by the American people will never be lost. The New York Times notes politicians from all across the political spectrum have reached out to the McCain family to send condolences. Cindy McCain tweeted that her “heart is broken” — but she also added, “I am so lucky to have lived the adventure of loving this incredible man for 38 years. He passed the way he lived, on his own terms, surrounded by the people he loved, in the place he loved best.”
George W. Bush also had a few poignant words regarding McCain’s legacy: “Some lives are so vivid, it is difficult to imagine them ended. Some voices are so vibrant, it is hard to think of them stilled.”
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