Over the course of American history, a handful of U.S. senators have been so consequential that they are remembered better than some presidents. Among them are Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Robert La Follette, Everett Dirksen and Ted Kennedy. John McCain, who died Saturday, deserves to be the most recent addition to this exclusive company.
He was one of a kind -- a blunt-spoken legislator with a sense of humor who followed a sometimes unpredictable course, often clashed with his own party and exercised an outsized influence on policy debates. After losing to Barack Obama in his 2008 race for the presidency, he absorbed the defeat and resumed his Senate work with unflagging zeal.
McCain graduated near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, where he was infamous for his large number of demerits. As a Navy pilot, he was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. There he spent more than five years enduring torture and solitary confinement but refusing offers to be released before fellow POWs who had been held longer. During a 2007 Republican presidential debate, he mentioned that Hillary Clinton had earmarked $1 million in the Senate for a cultural museum in Woodstock, in upstate New York. McCain hadn't attended the festival in 1969: "I was tied up at the time."
He eventually found his way into politics, winning a U.S. House seat in Arizona in 1982 before moving to the Senate four years later. Investigated for his role in a savings and loan scandal, McCain was cleared of breaking any laws but was cited for bad judgment. Afterward, he gained attention crusading for campaign finance reform and against pork barrel projects.
He lost a bid for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination to George W. Bush, but became a staunch supporter of the Iraq invasion and the military surge that Bush mounted in 2007 to counter a spreading insurgency. He was one of Washington's foremost experts on military and national security matters, advocating tough policies against Iran, Syria, Libya, Russia and other unfriendly governments.
His signature legislative achievement, a campaign finance reform package known as McCain-Feingold, became law in 2002, but a provision restricting corporations and unions from spending money on electioneering communications was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2010.
Joining with Democratic Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy in 2005, he made a valiant effort to enact comprehensive immigration reform -- a crucial need that Congress has still not met. He proposed a "cap-and-trade" system to curb greenhouse gas emissions, defying Republicans who scorned climate change as a hoax.
The 2008 presidential campaign was not his finest hour. McCain, who had criticized Bush's tax cuts, came around to supporting them, and his commitment to fiscal restraint went missing. He chose a running mate, Sarah Palin, who was exposed as terribly unprepared for a national campaign, much less the vice presidency. When a huge financial crisis threatened to throw the economy into a full-fledged depression, McCain failed in a confusing, oddly passive effort to unite his party behind a solution.
But in the following years, he proved he could still play an important role in the Senate. He was a critic of Obama's health care plan, the president's refusal to provide lethal military aid to Ukraine after Russia's invasion and his signing of a nuclear deal with Iran. But McCain was never one to spare Republicans: In June, he said American leadership in the world was stronger under Obama than it has been under President Donald Trump. When the Senate took up a measure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, McCain cast the decisive vote that saved it.
Unlike many of his GOP colleagues, he didn't shrink from criticizing Trump. The president's July news conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, McCain charged, was "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory." He took Trump's many fulminations against him as a badge of honor.
McCain was sometimes wrong, but he was fearless in fighting for the principles he held dearest. He will be remembered in many ways -- as a war hero, a political maverick, a reformer and a staunch advocate for an assertive American role in world affairs. But he will be remembered most as a patriot.