20 July 2019
John McCain was more than just a 'seasoned senator' or a 'former presidential candidate' in the American eye. Photo: Reuters
John McCain was more than just a 'seasoned senator' or a 'former presidential candidate' in the American eye. Photo: Reuters

John McCain and the ‘Old American Dream’ he stood for

John McCain, the seasoned US Republican senator from Arizona, died of brain cancer last Saturday. The veteran politician received a lot of tributes, and his death was recognized as the passing of an era.

For evidence, look at the nationwide and massive media coverage which his death has received in the United States, as well as the flood of messages from politicians across the political spectrum in Washington, as well as public opinion leaders, celebrities and even athletes.

Judging from the massive outpouring of emotion over the past few days, you can tell McCain was more than just a “seasoned senator” or a “former presidential candidate” in the American eye.

Instead, he has become a by-word for “The American dream”.

Now, the key question is, what kind of “American dream” does McCain stand for? Is his “American dream” the same as the one pitched by President Donald Trump?

To find out the answer to these questions, we need to take a closer look at McCain’s family background first.

McCain was born on Aug. 29, 1936 to a naval family, with both his father and grandfather having served as highly respected four-star admirals in the US Navy, the first father-son pair to achieve the rank in the navy.

McCain’s grandfather, Admiral John S. McCain Sr., was a renowned war hero during the Second World War in the Pacific theater.

However, years of intense military service had taken a heavy toll on his health, and he died just a few days after Japan’s surrender in August 1945.

Over the decades, it has remained a prevailing view among the Americans that their country owes a great deal to McCain Sr.

And McCain Sr’s son, John S. McCain Jr., served as the commander of the US Pacific fleet during the Vietnam War.

After his son John S. McCain III, a young naval aviator at that time, had been shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese, McCain Jr. made every effort to rescue him, while commanding US naval forces in the war.

Again, years of military service as well as his deep concern about his son’s capture took a toll on McCain Jr. his health, and he died at the age of 70 from a heart attack.

There is currently a US naval destroyer named “USS John McCain” in honor of the dedicated service to both the navy and the nation by the McCain family.

Apart from being seen by many Americans as the embodiment of patriotism, John McCain III’s second marriage was also hailed as a fairy tale with a touch of the “old” American dream.

In 1980, McCain met Cindy Lou Hensley, who was 18 years younger than him, and who is the daughter of the late wealthy beer tycoon Jim Hensley, and the two soon got married.

Nonetheless, when McCain first met Cindy, he was actually still married to his first wife Carol Shepp. Quite a few Americans took the view that McCain’s marriage with Cindy was pretty much a wealth-power deal.

It is estimated that Cindy McCain had inherited about US$200 million from her family.

Yet what is truly interesting about McCain’s love story is that even though he had cheated on his first wife, it didn’t dent his reputation nor ruin his political career.

Even more amazing is that McCain’s first wife Carol had not only forgiven him, but also publicly rooted for him on numerous occasions during his election campaigns.

After McCain married Cindy Hensley, he quickly rose to prominence and became a political heavyweight in the country, thanks to the wealth, connections and influence of his new wife’s family.

As far as McCain’s political stance is concerned, although he was a Republican, he was more commonly known for being a maverick in Congress, and had substantial political influence that transcended partisanship in Washington.

Over the years, John McCain had been serving as a de facto bridge between the Republicans and the Democrats.

And his unrivalled ability to reach across the aisle on major issues had made him a key player in the interactions between Congress and the White House when former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were in office.

McCain’s approach enabled him to cut a unique “third path” in US politics during his 30+ years of service in Congress, a path that shared a lot in common with the so-called “Third Way” promoted by former President Bill Clinton.

Suffice it to say that McCain was instrumental in facilitating consensus politics among traditional political elites in Washington.

Yet the rise of Donald Trump has completely toppled the political status quo.

As a result, the Third Way pursued by traditional elites like McCain who once bestrode Washington like the Colossus was soon replaced by Trump’s own path, i.e. the populist way.

That probably explains why Trump and McCain were on such bad terms, as their rivalry was by nature pretty much a bitter line struggle between traditional political elites and populists.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 28

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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