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The Good Soldier

On a tropical morning in 1957, the American destroyer USS Hunt was about to depart from Rio de Janeiro to complete its summer training cruise for Annapolis midshipmen, and one of them was missing. As the ship prepared to cast off, crew members peered over the side looking for their absent classmate. Then, five minutes before departure, a Mercedes sports car roared onto the pier, driven by one of Rio’s most beautiful fashion models. The gull-wing doors popped up, and out from under appeared Midshipman John McCain. He kissed the model goodbye and, to the rowdy cheers of his shipmates, climbed aboard.

How many schoolboy fantasies are in this single scene, straight out of South Pacific or the film version of Mister Roberts—lush tropical setting, beautiful local maiden, dashing young American sailor, wistful farewell, and that unattainable gull-wing Mercedes. Of course the midshipmen cheered; in a musical, at this point, McCain would have gathered them round and burst into song. To his admiring classmates, Robert Timberg writes indelicately, McCain was one of those men who, “when they walked into a room [of women],…you could hear the skivvies drop.”

McCain has had more or less the same effect on American political journalists. Now sixty-three, a conservative Republican senator from Arizona and a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, he enjoys near adulation from cynical reporters and, not least, from liberals. Part of the reason is trivial: McCain’s smile and the glint in his eye promise fun. He returns phone calls and banters with writers. He has an anarchic, mischievous sense of humor. Much more importantly, he takes on thankless fights on tough issues like tobacco and campaign finance reform, in which he defies most of his Republican colleagues. Some days in Congress it seems as if John McCain is doing all the heavy work.

But McCain’s most powerful assets are at the heart of these two books, which should be read together. In his life he has combined good times with horrendous personal pain. He spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He survived beatings and torture with no trace of bitterness, and he has so thoroughly overcome the hatreds of the war period that he led the effort to reestablish diplomatic relations with Vietnam. McCain has also made peace with American opponents of the war. At his second marriage in 1980, then Senator Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat who had managed George McGovern’s antiwar campaign for the presidency in 1972, was an usher.

In addition, McCain has combined—and as a white-haired senior senator still manages to combine—an infectious, insubordinate impatience with pomposity and an evidently deep and eloquent reverence for God, country, duty, and honor. His impishness only highlights his devotion to basic virtues. The sincerity of his patriotism and faith intensifies the impact of a perfectly timed subversive wisecrack. His personality is a rare mix of complementary opposites that once enabled him to lure his most dedicated Annapolis classmates over the academy wall for some illicit hours at an off-limits bar and, on the other hand, enables him to make speeches about God, Duty, and Country that would touch a coppermine Wobbly.

The two books must be viewed as campaign biographies. Six months ago, despite his popularity with the press and his frequent appearance on TV talk shows, McCain was not even listed by opinion pollsters as a potential Republican candidate. If his name appeared on a list of likely contenders, he was ranked among a handful of others—Republican Congressman John Kasich of Ohio or the evangelical orator Alan Keyes—at the bottom. Today, thanks in part to a documentary about him that appeared on A&E’s Biography, the publicity surrounding his autobiography, and his own old-fashioned retail campaigning, he is a solid if distant second to George W. Bush among the New Hampshire voters who will hold the nation’s first primary next February.

As campaign biographies, both books are unusual, with much profanity and no policy statements at all; they are more about war and about the cruel conditions of North Vietnamese prisons than they are about such matters as taxes and medical care. McCain’s book, written with the help of a long-time aide, Mark Salter, who has mastered his boss’s diction, is a triple biography of his grandfather, the World War II admiral John S. McCain; his father, the Vietnam-era admiral John S. McCain Jr.; and himself. It stops abruptly when he is released from prison. Timberg’s version is an updated excerpt from his 1995 work The Nightingales Song,1 which told the stories of McCain and four other Annapolis graduates of his generation, Iran-contra’s Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, and Admiral John Poindexter, and former Navy Secretary James Webb. Timberg continues with McCain’s career after prison and is virtually up to the minute.

John McCain is a native of the US Navy rather than any geographical place. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone, then a Navy-dominated American colony, in 1936 into a family whose men had been in American military service since an ancestor served as an aide to George Washington. In the last century, the McCains lived in North Carolina and Mississippi, and some served with the Confederacy. But the twentieth-century McCains lived where the Navy sent them. When he ran for a House seat in Arizona in 1982, one of his Republican rivals accused him of being a carpetbagger because he had just moved into the state. He replied with a perfect squelch:

I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.

McCain’s grandfather, who graduated from Annapolis in 1906, was a bantam-sized, disheveled, toothless warrior who, McCain tells us, led his carrier task force into battle in World War II wearing a crushed, non-regulation green cap and no shoes. He drank, swore, and gambled. His men called him Popeye the Sailorman, and adored him. He died, at sixty-one, at a homecoming party immediately after V-J Day. His son, also John and also an Annapolis graduate, was a hard-drinking Navy submariner who survived combat in World War II to become, at the time his own son was in a North Vietnamese prison, commander in chief of US forces in the Pacific. Senator McCain tells their stories for a simple reason: “They were my first heroes, and earning their respect has been the most lasting ambition of my life.”

McCain went to prep school in Alexandria, Virginia, wearing a ragged jacket and tie and a pair of dirty Levi’s, and then into the US Naval Academy with little reflection. He hated the academy’s plebe year, with its petty and pointless sadism administered by upperclassmen. He was known for leading drinking escapades over the wall and for keeping the sloppiest room at the academy. Not until his final year did he adapt to military order and discipline, and even then he barely escaped expulsion just before graduating fifth from the bottom of his class.

As a young officer, he continued his rowdy ways. Timberg thinks that because McCain knew the real Navy from childhood, he disdained some of its nonessential niceties. One night during flight training at Pensacola, Florida, he was playing shuffleboard at the Officer’s Club, wearing cowboy boots and a tattered crew-neck sweater.

A cigarette dangled from his lips as an irate commander stormed over,” Timberg writes. “‘Ensign McCain, your appearance is a disgrace,’ said the officer, four grades his senior. ‘What do you think your grandfather would say?’ Squinting through the smoke, McCain replied, ‘Frankly, Commander, I don’t think he’d give a rat’s ass.”’

McCain himself tells of an awkward social moment when he showed up at a gathering of young officers and their very proper wives with an exotic dancer whom he identified as “Marie, the Flame of Florida.” When Marie grew bored with the company, “she reached into her purse, withdrew a switchblade, popped open the blade, and, with a look of complete indifference, began to clean her fingernails.”

Beneath this frivolity, however, McCain had been imbued, from the beginning, with a Navy officer’s creed, to which he devotes an extended passage that, in these go-go days, is worth repeating:

An officer must not lie, steal, or cheat—ever. He keeps his word, whatever the cost. He must not shirk his duties no matter how difficult or dangerous they are. His life is ransomed to his duty. An officer must trust his fellow officers, and expect their trust in return. He must not expect others to bear what he will not.

An officer accepts the consequences of his actions…. For the obedience he is owed by his subordinates, an officer accepts certain solemn obligations to them in return, and an officer’s obligations to enlisted men are the most solemn of all….

An officer accepts these and his many other responsibilities with gratitude. They are his honor. Any officer who stains his honor by violating these standards forfeits the respect of his fellow officers and no longer deserves to be included in their ranks. His presence among them is offensive and threatens the integrity of the service.

These are stirring words, but in McCain’s life there are troubling discrepancies between this code of honor and reality—most of them concerning Vietnam. McCain echoes the common military complaint that a nation should never send its sons to war without supporting them. But the US, as a democracy, never had an opportunity to decide whether or not to send its sons to war in Vietnam. Congress never approved a declaration of war. On the contrary, the conflict was expanded by subterfuge with the collusion of the military establishment that now resents the lack of popular support. The Vietnam War was fought on the basis of Congress’s 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution, which authorized retaliation against North Vietnam for an attack on a Navy ship, the USS Maddox, that almost certainly never occurred. The Navy brass put pressure on the ship’s commander, Captain John Herrick, to confirm that he had been attacked, but he would not. Nevertheless, President Lyndon Johnson demanded the right to respond to North Vietnamese attacks on US military forces. Top Navy officers, sworn never to lie or “toler-ate those who do,” did not speak out and question the alleged attack, and Congress approved retaliation that escalated into full-scale war.2

John McCain, as a junior officer, had no part in the Tonkin Gulf machinations. But his own attitude toward Vietnam was typical of that of other career officers. He writes that he saw service in Vietnam as a way to win promotion as well as to uphold his family’s martial traditions.

  1. 1

    Simon and Schuster, 1995.

  2. 2

    See Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (Viking, 1983), pp. 366-373.

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