Sen. John McCain
AFN file photo

The neurosurgeon speaking about the glioblastoma assailing Sen. John McCain described this form of brain tumor using terms like “aggressive” and “relentless,” a warrior force that can be slowed down, stymied for the time being, but never defeated.

Funny thing. That’s exactly how I’ve always thought of John McCain himself.

As indomitable. Unbreakable. Persistent in the extreme. As, to be frank, one of the last unconquered men or women this nation has ever produced.

As news of the senator’s brain cancer made the rounds beginning Wednesday morning, it quickly became fashionable in certain circles to make political points about McCain’s health-care coverage, or to suggest that McCain’s voting record, his role in the “Keating Five” abomination and his Republican politics somehow have undermined his status as an American hero.

If you came to this space looking for such smarm, by all means feel free to stop reading here. Let me be abundantly clear: If you don’t think being shot down at 550 mph over Hanoi and surviving 5½ years as a prisoner of war at the hands of North Vietnamese torturers deserves the word “hero,” you’re a fool. End of story.

As a journalist, my path has crossed McCain’s many times over the years, with the great man always fast-witted, frank, quick with a joke and irascible as hell. In 1996, I shadowed him from sunup to deep night around the Republican National Convention in San Diego. The most vivid memory? Watching his press secretary comb his hair before a TV interview because McCain’s war injuries had left him unable to raise his arms enough to complete that simple task.

In 2000, when the memoir “Faith of My Fathers” hit bookshelves, I found myself returning time and again to the chapters about McCain’s imprisonment: The two years he spent in solitary confinement, alone with his daydreams and prayers, the tap code he and his fellow prisoners devised to communicate between the walls of the Hanoi Hilton, the endless hours of beatings he suffered at the hands of subhumans like The Bug and Slopehead and the offer of early freedom that McCain’s sense of honor compelled him to turn down.

On Election Night, Nov. 4, 2008, when McCain fell short in his second run at the presidency, he took the stage at the Arizona Biltmore and gave a concession speech that should be regarded as one of his finest moments – 10 minutes of humility and grace in the wake of a turbulent campaign that saw McCain lose, but not become a loser. His closing lines that night have stayed with me ever since.

“I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties but to believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here,” McCain told us that night. “Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”

It is in that spirit, I am sure, that John McCain now faces the final, toughest fight of a life well lived. He is 80 years old now, and maybe the science and the smart money says glioblastoma, undefeated, wins this battle, too. But we are not talking an ordinary human being here. We are talking about someone so much larger than life, he positively dwarfs it, a true warrior from a line of warriors, a man who has faced captors and cancer, heartbreak and defeat and managed to still stand tall all the while.

If ever a man alive could beat cancer’s ass, it’s John McCain. Screw the smart money. I’d say that brain tumor is in for the fight of its life.


– David Leibowitz has called the Valley home since 1995. Contact


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