John McCain, US war hero and political maverick, dead at 81

John McCain, a war hero and towering figure in US politics, known for reaching across the aisle in an increasingly divided nation, died Saturday following a battle with brain cancer. He was 81.

The senator’s passing marked the end of a 35-year political career that brought the independent-minded Republican within reach of the White House as his party’s presidential nominee.

“It’s been quite a ride,” McCain, who was tortured during five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, wrote in a memoir published earlier this year.

“I’ve known great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war and helped make peace. I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.”

McCain, who was being treated at his home in Arizona, was surrounded by his wife Cindy and his family during his final hours.

“He was a great fire who burned bright, and we lived in his light and warmth,” said Meghan McCain, one of the late senator’s seven children — three of them from a previous marriage.

In Washington, flags on Capitol Hill and the White House were lowered to half mast in his honour.

Near the driveway to his ranch in Sedona, Arizona, a sign read “Sen McCain, thank you for your service.”

A police escort accompanied the hearse that carried his body, as a fiery sunset cast its last light over the countryside McCain loved so dearly. Local residents brought flowers to honour the late politician.

Friends and colleagues traveled to Arizona to bid McCain farewell in the months since his cancer diagnosis in July 2017.

‘All in his debt’

US President Donald Trump, who once mocked McCain’s war record, said he sent his “deepest sympathies and respect.”

A rare Republican critic of Trump, McCain accused the president of “naivete,” “egotism” and of sympathising with autocrats. He cast a decisive vote last year that killed Republican attempts to repeal Barack Obama’s health care reforms, something Trump never forgave.

All living former US presidents lined up to praise McCain for his deep integrity.

“We are all in his debt,” said Obama, the Democrat to whom McCain lost the presidency in 2008.

“We shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher — the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched and sacrificed.”

McCain “was a man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order,” said Republican George W. Bush (2001-2009).

Democrat Bill Clinton (1993-2001) hailed McCain for having “frequently put partisanship aside,” while Republican George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) praised him as “a public servant of the rarest courage.”

The late senator “was a man of honour, a true patriot in the best sense of the word,” wrote Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). “Americans will be forever grateful for his heroic military service & his steadfast integrity.”

McCain spent more than three decades in the Senate, looming large in debates over war and peace and the moral direction of the nation. Earlier he served as a US representative 1983-1987.

McCain had been away from the Senate floor since last December, remaining at his ranch home for treatment of glioblastoma — the same form of brain cancer that took the life of another Senate giant, Democrat Ted Kennedy, in 2009.

Two former senators who became vice presidents, Democrats Al Gore and Joe Biden, praised McCain respectively as someone who would “work to find common ground” and “a friend” who “will be missed dearly.”

Sarah Palin, whom McCain plucked from obscurity to become his 2008 White House running mate, described him as “an American original” and “a fighter, never afraid to stand for his beliefs.”

Chuck Schumer, top Senate Democrat, said he would seek to rename a Senate building in his honour.

“Thank you Senator McCain for your service to the nation,” First Lady Melania Trump tweeted.

From abroad, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said McCain’s “lifetime of public service” was “an inspiration to millions,” while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he would be remembered as an “Atlanticist” and NATO supporter.

© Agence France-Presse

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