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Senator McCain giving a speech in Missouri, USA, 2008

John McCain: Biography

Image Credit: Gino Santa Maria / | Above: Senator McCain giving a speech at rally in O'Fallon near St. Louis, Missouri, USA on 31st August, 2008

War veteran, naval captain, prisoner of war, victim of torture, US senator and contender for the presidency: John McCain's 2008 Republican campaign may have been somewhat overshadowed by a certain Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – both of whom drew appeal for their potential 'firsts' in the White House as a female or black president – yet his political career spans over twenty years and his supporters know he isn’t one to give up a fight easily.

John Sidney McCain III was born at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in Panama on 29 August 1936. His father, John S. McCain Jr, was a four-star United States navy admiral, like his father before him. Following the family tradition, McCain, his older sister Sandy and younger brother Joe all chose careers within the navy.

In 1951, the family settled in Northern Virginia and McCain graduated from high school in 1954. Following in his dad's footsteps, he enrolled at the United States Naval Academy where he soon excelled and graduated in 1958 to begin his pre-combat duty, becoming a naval pilot of ground-attack aircraft.

With his first marriage, to model Carol Shepp in 1965, McCain became step-father to her two children, Douglas and Andrew, and the couple later added their own daughter, Sidney, to the new family. Meanwhile, by 30, McCain had become itchy for some proper fighting action and requested his first combat assignment aboard an aircraft carrier, flying an A-4 Skyhawk. This followed years of training and simulated war, but he was finally thrown into the terror of a real war zone. As part of the Vietnam War bombing campaign in 1967, McCain narrowly escaped death when his plane went down, and he was subsequently caught in a bomb explosion that struck him in the legs and chest.

Not one to be deterred by such injuries though, he volunteered for another assignment, unawares that in October 1967, he may have had wished to take a well-earned rest off-duty instead. While flying on another bombing mission, McCain's plane was shot down by a missile, fracturing both his arms and a leg and leaving him half-drowned after parachuting into Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi. As he regained consciousness, he was captured and became a prisoner of war.

Although he was badly wounded, his captors refused to treat his injuries and subjected to him to horrific torture in a bid to extract enemy information from him. Fortunately, they learnt that his father was a senior admiral in the USA Vietnam campaign and, bowing to the threat of the US neglecting the care of their own POWs, finally admitted him to hospital for medical care, where he spent six weeks recovering. In March 1968, McCain was put into solitary confinement, where he stayed for a whole two years.

His salvation from sole imprisonment came as a direct result of his father being named commander of all US forces in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese offered him for early release on the premise of appearing merciful, yet actually for the purpose of propaganda. However, McCain took the moral high ground and refused the offer of repatriation, on the basis he should not be freed unless all his fellow prisoners were too.

His captors were insulted to have their lone olive branch rejected and, in August 1968, they began to torture McCain aggressively, through which he endured for four full days until he was forced to relent into an anti-American “confession”. He later commented that ‘every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.' McCain was finally released as a prisoner of war in 1973, after five and a half years of imprisonment. To his credit, in spite of all that he endured at the hands of the North Vietnamese, he later dedicated himself to the cause of repairing diplomatic relations with Vietnam throughout the 1990s.

During McCain’s time in captivity, his wife Carol had herself been suffering, not just emotionally from her husband's endurance, but also physically after being involved in a car accident that had left her crippled. Following treatment for his injuries, McCain proved to again be a glutton for punishment when he returned to duty in 1976 at a training squadron in Florida. During this period, the cracks in his marriage started to appear as he began to occupy his spare time with other women. By April 1979, his “bits on the side” had developed into a fully blown affair with Cindy Lou Hensley, a teacher from Phoenix. Subsequently, McCain and Carol divorced in early 1980 and he remarried Hensley in May of the same year.

After all he had been through in Vietnam, it came as no surprise when McCain decided to leave the navy in 1981, and from here his political career began to unfold. McCain's interests in becoming a Congressman had evolved from his interest in current events and now without his naval career to focus on he was in the market for a new challenge. He started work at his father-in-law's beer distributorship as Vice President of Public Relations, and gained political support slowly thorough the local community, where he was able to meet powerful influential figures. With the help of his new local political contacts and money from his second wife's family, McCain won his first primary election, then the general election in the Republican district.

In 1983, he was elected to lead the Republican representatives and a year later his first child with Cindy was born. Little Meghan was followed two years later by sons John and James. Although McCain found himself initially estranged from his children from his first marriage after his split from Carol, relationships reformed in later years.

In 1987, McCain began his senate career, quickly developing a reputation for taking on battles against establishment forces and challenging the political views of others. His most major stance was attacking the corrupt influence of large contributions from major corporations on American politics. Taking his political career up a level, McCain announced in September 1999 that he would be running for presidency, his biggest Republican rival being Governor George W. Bush, who already had a large chunk of political and financial support on his side. Travelling on a campaign bus called the Straight Talk Express, McCain used free media to compensate for his lack of funds in comparison to that of his rival, but by March 2000 it was clear that Bush's lead was growing ever further from his own percentage votes and he withdrew from the campaign.

In the subsequent 2004 presidential election, there were Chinese whispers of McCain taking the Vice President slot under new Democratic nominee John Kerry, but he has since claimed that the position was not offered to him and nor would he have accepted it, choosing instead to support old rival Bush for re-election. After sitting out the previous run for presidency, McCain felt the time was right to kick-start the Straight Talk Express again and get back on the campaign route for the 2008 elections. His campaign strengths were boosted by his previous experience in the 2000 election and his well-known military service, which were hugely significant in this election's focus on US troops in Iraq.

The competition in the 2008 election race proved to be phenomenally tough, with the media choosing to throw all their weight into covering Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's Democratic nomination battle, leaving McCain to slump badly in the national polls, with up to 15% less support. The presidential race is still up for the taking though, and with McCain named as the presumptive Republican nominee, against Obama for the Deomocrats, he will be focusing on D Day: 4 November 2008.

Although he tends to be largely overlooked in favour of his ground-breaking rivals, McCain's character is not to be knocked. His years of naval service have given him a fiercely competitive persona with a known temper and this conservative Republican candidate will certainly fight right until the last vote is counted to ensure his political know-how and strengths are internationally recognised.