It was Christmas eve in Hanoi, 1968, and prison guards hustled 50 American POWs from their cells to an impromptu church service. As North Vietnamese cameramen filmed the festive scene, John McCain, coming out of solitary confinement for the first time in nine months, began chatting and joking with the other inmates.
"No talking," the guards told him.
"F--- you!" McCain replied.
"This is f---ing bull---t. This is terrible. This isn't Christmas. This is a propaganda show," McCain shouted, jamming his middle finger toward the cameras. His captors returned him to his cell, where, after a day off for Christmas, they resumed their savage beatings.
John McCain has changed in the three decades since. And he'll keep changing, which is part of what makes him a compelling work-in-progress this campaign season. But in essential ways, McCain remains the same spunky, intense and defiant man he was then. He learned in prison that rugged individualism isn't enough; he relied on others. Yet when he had to, as his fellow POW Orson Swindle says, "He stood alone."
Biography is not destiny in modern presidential politics. Otherwise Americans would have elected President Bob Kerrey and President Bob Dole. But this is the era of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" and Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation." If McCain can't convert his life story into a chunk of votes, no one can.
The long-shot battle plan is simple: win New Hampshire with independents; South Carolina with the 400,000 veterans there. Outclass George W. Bush in debates, where McCain's deeper knowledge of presidential-level issues like foreign policy might pay off. "All the king's horses and all the king's men can't put inevitability back together again," says McCain consultant Mike Murphy.
Right now, that's still wishful thinking, but McCain's outsider message is starting to cohere. The line running from life experience to campaign themes isn't hard to draw. "He's a fighter, whether he's fighting special interests in Congress or getting in the face of prison guards in North Vietnam," says Dan Schnur, his communications director, simultaneously spinning stories about McCain's bad temper and summarizing the campaign. "The different elements of his life story reinforce each other."
McCain skillfully deploys that story by seeming not to exploit it. "It's just foolish to say, 'Vote for me because I suffered in war'," he says. So on the campaign trail the link becomes implicit and inspirational, with each speech including a call for Americans to "sacrifice for something greater than our own self-interest." The hope is to rekindle some Kennedyesque ideas about public service, but with a conservative gloss to keep it from going gooey.
The animating principle of McCain's life is honor. It kept him in a Vietnamese prison for five and a half years instead of going home early, as his captors offered. It's at the root of his passionate efforts to clean up politics and redeem what he sees as his own connection to a corrupt system. It's why he bonded a few years ago with a onetime antiwar protester, David Ifshin, who was dying of cancer, and why he repeatedly visited former Arizona representative Morris Udall (a Democrat suffering for years from Parkinson's disease) in the hospital when everyone else seemed to have forgotten about him. Their honor mattered to him, too.
Honor is almost a quaint notion now, associated with a different time. McCain gives it a charming twinkle, and the hope of living on as something more than a platitude. He keeps faith with it, even while sometimes falling short of the standard himself. Like many other POWs, McCain broke under torture and signed a "confession." On returning to the United States, he cheated on his first wife, Carol, who had been seriously injured in a car accident when he was in Vietnam. Later, he was too wrapped up in work to notice that his second wife, Cindy, was addicted to prescription drugs (box). He let himself get too close to savings and loan executive Charles Keating, who turned out to be a crook. He can be sarcastic and belittling, when he knows better.
But even his failures just seem to deepen the character lines. The life story works politically because McCain wears it lightly. It's part of his campaign advertising but not his basic stump speech. "I'm always a little embarrassed and nostalgic when I see some of those [Vietnam] pictures," he says. When asked about his years in captivity, he insists he wasn't a hero. And, determined to avoid seeming grim, he recalls that he had some good times in prison, re-creating movies with other POWs ("One-Eyed Jacks" was a favorite). In hawking his new memoir, "Faith of My Fathers," McCain says he wants Tom Cruise to play him in the movie, but his children favor Danny DeVito.
The self-deprecating jokes help pre-empt criticism and have earned him the fondness of the national press. "One thing you can count on--I'll say something stupid--because that's the way I am," he tells reporters on his New Hampshire bus. The home-state press, particularly The Arizona Republic, has been more skeptical, citing examples of what the paper calls his "volcanic" temper. While the entire Arizona GOP congressional delegation supports his campaign, McCain has strained relations with Republican Gov. Jane Hull and former attorney general Grant Woods, a onetime McCain aide. The Republic reported last week that in 1988 McCain denounced two reporters looking into his role in the "Keating Five" scandal as "liars." "Even the Vietnamese didn't question my ethics," he snarled.
After Cindy McCain admitted in 1994 to pilfering prescription pills from a relief organization she ran, the paper's cartoonist, Steve Benson, drew her holding an emaciated black child upside down and shaking him. The caption: "Quit your crying and give me the drugs." McCain refused to speak to the paper for a year.
McCain's anger is the dark side of his candor. In 1989, he tongue-lashed several senators for changing their votes on the nomination of his friend John Tower to be secretary of Defense. The former mayor of Phoenix, Paul Johnson, says he and the senator almost came to blows one day in 1992. But McCain's friends note that most of The Arizona Republic's examples of temper tantrums are several years old. "He's changed," insists Warren Rudman, his former senate colleague. "Mellow isn't the right word, but he's learned control. When he came to the Senate [in 1987], on an anger scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being wacko angry, he was a 7; now he's a 3 or 4." One sign that the temper may be more often in check is the intense loyalty of his staff, whose tenure averages more than eight years, extraordinarily long service for aides on Capitol Hill.
Some of the anger may prove useful politically. For instance, McCain bluntly informs colleagues inside the GOP caucus that their pork-barrel projects are hypocritical for budget-balancing Republicans. "I don't win any Miss Congeniality awards in Washington," he tells New Hampshire voters with a proud smile.
The interplay of anger and honor in John McCain's life began long before Vietnam. As a 2-year-old, McCain writes, "when I got angry I held my breath until I blacked out." Reared in a Navy family that moved often, McCain responded to new schools by getting into fistfights. He was "Punk," "McNasty," "John Wayne McCain" and later, turning prematurely gray, "The White Tornado."
McCain raised hell the 1950s way. "I thank God every day there weren't drugs around when I was growing up," he says. At the Tony Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., he styled himself a James Dean rebel; as a plebe at the U.S. Naval Academy, he was a scrappy if unfocused boxer, charging to the center of the ring and wildly throwing punches until someone went down (an approach some of his colleagues in the U.S. Senate believe he still employs today). McCain finished fifth from the bottom in the class of 1958, racking up demerits for hundreds of minor infractions. In flight training, he ditched one plane in Corpus Christi Bay; flew another so low in Spain that he cut power lines and plunged part of the country into darkness. The young pilot was a rake. He recounts in his book showing up at a proper party with a scantily clad date he calls "Marie, the Flame of Florida," who proceeded to pick her fingernails with a switchblade.
The puckishness that would lead a major presidential candidate to tell that story runs deep. McCain's father and grandfather both led colorful lives (and did poorly at the Naval Academy) before going on to storied careers as heroic admirals. His 86-year-old mother, Roberta, is herself an adventurer (last week she was driving across Turkey with her twin sister, Rowena). Asked recently by Sam Donaldson why she was so proud of her son, Roberta McCain replied: "Because he's such a scamp."
But one of the clues to John McCain's character development is that "McNasty" was also McNice. While George W. Bush was known at prep school and college for hazing underclassmen, McCain was known for sticking up for them. "I just thought it had become too demeaning," he says of the Naval Academy hazing rituals he refused to take part in. In his classic 1995 account of famous midshipmen, "The Nightingale's Song," Robert Timberg tells of McCain and his roommate Frank Gamboa in the mess hall one Saturday night during their sophomore year. A "firstie" (senior midshipman) began abusing a Filipino steward.
"Hey, mister, why don't you pick on someone your own size?" McCain said.
"What did you say?" the firstie snapped.
"I don't think it's fair for you to pick on that steward," McCain shot back at the upperclassman, a brave move in the Annapolis culture of the day. Gamboa, a Mexican-American whom McCain had befriended, recently cut a radio ad telling the story to New Hampshire voters. The message: he's a stand-up guy.
That courage was truly tested in Vietnam. On the deck of the carrier Forrestal one day, McCain watched a missile from another plane come loose and hit his engine, creating a huge fireball. He miraculously survived but watched men obliterated before his eyes as the huge fire spread. By the time the blaze was extinguished, 134 men were dead, the largest military accident of the war. McCain thought he'd have to go home, but, eager for battle, found duty aboard another carrier.
On Oct. 26, 1967, as he made his 23d bombing run over North Vietnam, McCain's A-4 was shot down over a small lake in downtown Hanoi. Hauled ashore by an angry group of Vietnamese, he recovered consciousness and saw that his leg was broken. A rifle butt smashed his shoulder to pieces. Taken to the big prison nearby, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by American POWs, McCain was asked for the names of his squadron mates. He listed the Green Bay Packers offensive line. Near death, he was denied medical treatment until authorities discovered he was an admiral's son. Then he was thrown in a huge cast and told to say he was well treated to a French film crew brought in to record the North Vietnamese prize. He declined. Two other POWs, Bud Day and Norris Overly, nursed him back to life.
In June of 1968 came McCain's moment of truth. The U.S. Military Code of Conduct requires prisoners to be released according to when they were taken--first in, first out. More than 100 POWs were ahead of McCain in line, dating back to 1964. But Overly and some others took early release, and the North Vietnamese authorities offered McCain the same, no strings attached.
At this point, McCain was beginning what would turn into more than two years of solitary confinement, communicating with his close friend Bob Craner by tapping an elaborate code on the prison walls, and sometimes whispering through cups. McCain, emaciated from severe dysentery, doubted he could survive another year. Craner told him to take the release; the Code of Conduct allowed exceptions for the seriously sick and injured. McCain, desperately wanting to go home but knowing the release of an admiral's son would give the communists a propaganda victory and dishonor his family, declined.
"They taught you too well," the prison warden known as "The Cat" shouted when he heard the decision. "Now it will be very bad for you, Mac Kane."
And it was. McCain's teeth were broken at the gum line; his ribs cracked. After a week with his arms lashed behind his back, he reached his breaking point and signed a statement written by guards, saying: "I am a black criminal and I have performed deeds of an air pirate." Returned to his cell, McCain draped a prison shirt like a rope and considered hanging himself. Over time, with the help of the other POWs, he recovered. Communication was minimal. He didn't find out about the 1969 moonwalk until two years later.
After the POWs were finally released in 1973, McCain learned politics working as a Navy liaison in the Senate. He met Cindy, the daughter of a wealthy Arizona beer distributor, in Hawaii in 1980. Neither knew the other's real age until they got their marriage license (she had lied to seem older; he younger). William Cohen, now secretary of Defense, was the best man. The couple moved to the Phoenix area explicitly to run for Congress in 1982. The carpetbagger issue died abruptly when McCain said "the place I've lived longest in my life was Hanoi." When one of his opponents contacted his first wife looking for dirt (she supports her ex-husband politically and refused to comply), McCain threatened to beat him up. He won easily, and moved up to the Senate in 1986, despite a campaign gaffe in which he called the Leisure World retirement community "Seizure World."
Shortly after arriving in the Senate, McCain faced a challenge that he says made him feel worse than anything in Vietnam. Over the years, McCain had received $112,000 in campaign contributions and nine free trips to the Bahamas from Charles Keating, a developer and savings and loan kingpin who later went to jail for the biggest S&L rip-off of all. Keating wanted McCain to pressure federal regulators on his behalf; when the senator refused, Keating called him "a wimp." But McCain did attend two meetings with the regulators, thereby becoming immortalized as one of the "Keating Five." In 1991, the Senate Ethics Committee dealt harshly with most of the other senators but cleared McCain of everything except "poor judgment," an assessment he does not dispute. His fervor for campaign-finance reform is a direct result of that experience. Once again, the subject is honor.
McCain's presidential campaign will ultimately rise or fall on whether he can give that ancient idea new life. The strength of our democratic system, our faith in its integrity, is being sapped and dishonored by money. Whatever happens to his own political ambitions, John McCain knows honor, personal and national, and may help the rest of us light our way back to it.
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