John McCain
John McCain; drawing by David Levine

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.

The best way to raise my profile as an aviator, perhaps the only way, was to achieve a creditable combat record. I was eager to begin.

More than professional considerations lay beneath my desire to go to war. Nearly all the men in my family had made their reputations at war. It was my family’s pride. And the Naval Academy, with its celebration of martial valor, had penetrated enough of my defenses to recall me to that honor. I wanted to go to Vietnam, and to keep faith with the family creed.

As pilot of an A-4C fighter-bomber aboard the carrier USS Forrestal, McCain had his first encounter with horror. As he was preparing to take off on a bombing raid over North Vietnam on July 29, 1967, a Zuni missile from a nearby plane accidentally ignited and hit his fuel tank, sending a pool of flaming gasoline across the deck. Bombs exploded, blowing crewmen to bits. McCain managed to scramble out of his plane to safety, but in the end 134 men were killed. Rather than return home, he volunteered for service on the carrier Oriskany and continued bombing Vietnam. He had no belief in the military purpose of the missions. “Most of the pilots flying the missions believed that our targets were virtually worthless,” he writes. “In all candor, we thought our civilian commanders were complete idiots who didn’t have the least notion what it took to win the war.”

On October 26, 1967, McCain’s A-4E was hit by a North Vietnamese missile during a raid over Hanoi. He ejected, breaking his leg and both arms, and parachuted into a lake. He was rescued by angry Vietnamese, who bayoneted his ankle and smashed his shoulder joint with a rifle butt. To this day, McCain cannot raise his arms much above his shoulders’ level. His captors took him to a prison camp, looked at his wounds, and told him it was too late to go to a hospital. He would die. As he was lying alone in agony in his cell, a camp official walked in and said, “Your father is a big admiral. Now we take you to the hospital.” As far as his parents knew, however, he had been killed.

McCain was well enough to give a filmed interview to a French television journalist, but began to fade. He was returned to prison to die. One of his cellmates, Air Force pilot Bud Day, describes McCain’s appearance to Timberg:

McCain weighed less than one hundred pounds. His hair, flecked with gray since high school, was nearly snow white. Clots of food clung to his face, neck, hair, and beard. His cheeks were sunken, his neck chickenlike, his legs atrophied. His knee bore a fresh surgical slash, his ankle an angry scar from the bayonet wound. The body cast added to his deathly appearance. He seemed to have shriveled up inside it. His right arm, little more than skin and bone, protruded like a stick.

Day particularly remembered McCain’s eyes, which, he said,

were just burning bright. They were bug-eyed like you see in those pictures of the guys from the Jewish concentration camps. His eyes were real pop-eyed like that. I said, “The gooks have dumped this guy on us so they can blame us for killing him,” because I didn’t think he was going to live out the day.

McCain survived thanks to the ministrations of another cellmate, Norris Overly, who washed him, nursed him, and helped him use a bucket as a toilet. Here we see what appears to be a rigid side to McCain. Overly was offered an early release and, contrary to the US military code that all prisoners had to be released in the order in which they had been captured, he accepted it, something McCain himself later refused to do. Overly made no propaganda statements in return for his freedom, but other prisoners said he was let go as part of the Fink Release Program. According to Timberg, Overly called McCain upon McCain’s own release and chatted briefly. They have talked only once since, Timberg says. McCain, writing after seeing Timberg’s words in print, is more charitable than Timberg’s story implies.

Some of the prisoners were pretty hard on Norris and the other two prisoners for taking early release. Norris had taken very good care of me. He had saved my life. I thought him a good man then, as I do today. I feared he had made a mistake, but I couldn’t stand in judgment of him. I thought too well of him, and owed him too much to stand between him and his freedom.

McCain’s prison memoirs are so painful to read that it is a wonder that he could recall them. He endured the cruelest of tortures from guards who beat him, kicked him, and bound him with ropes until he was in such desperate pain that he attempted suicide by trying to hang himself with his shirt. After four continuous days of torture, he gave up and signed a confession saying, “I am a black criminal and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate.” The confession plunged McCain into despair. “No one would ever look upon me again with anything but pity or contempt,” he thought. Despite the beatings and extended periods of solitary confinement, McCain went out of his way to talk back to his guards and defy them. He found that challenging them helped his self-respect. Timberg describes an incongruous image of a Christmas Eve service that the Vietnamese were filming for propaganda purposes, with McCain yelling at his guards, “Fuck you, this is fucking bullshit.”

It is in his prison memories that the most moving passages in McCain’s book occur. “Once I was thrown into another cell after a long and difficult interrogation,” he writes.

I discovered scratched into one of the cell’s walls the creed “I believe in God, the Father Almighty.” There, standing witness to God’s presence in a remote, concealed place, recalled to my faith by a stronger, better man, I felt God’s love and care more vividly than I would have felt it had I been safe among a pious congregation in the most magnificent cathedral.

In the same vein, he writes “In prison, I fell in love with my country. I had loved her before then, but like most young people, my affection was little more than a simple appreciation for the comforts and privileges most Americans enjoyed and took for granted.”

On Christmas Night 1972, his last Christmas in captivity, McCain served as chaplain for his fellow prisoners, which meant that he was allowed to copy an account of the Nativity before a guard took away the prison Bible. Between hymns, shivering in the cold, he read passages from the Nativity. “The lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling illuminated our gaunt, unshaven, dirty and generally wretched congregation,” McCain writes. “But for a moment we all had the absolutely exquisite feeling that our burdens had been lifted.” Of all the contenders for the Republican nomination, McCain seems, on the surface, the least pious. Still, if anyone wants to start an “I am a Christian” contest, he has the most powerful ammunition.

McCain was released from prison, with his fellows in March 1973, and his own book stops there. He does not address another discrepancy in his life. For all his talk about the faith and loyalty that sustained him in prison, upon returning home, he betrayed the wife, Carol, who had waited for him for over five years. He made a number of casual conquests before divorcing her and marrying his current wife, Cindy, in 1980.

Timberg picks up the rest of McCain’s story. He caught the attention of California’s then governor Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy (who this year asked McCain to accept an award for her husband as Conservative of the Century). He managed to pass a flight physical again, and then served out his Navy career as a liaison officer on Capitol Hill, where he made friends with Senators William Cohen of Maine and Gary Hart. In 1981, he decided to seek a House seat from Arizona, Cindy’s home state, and won. After two terms in the House, he ran for the Senate seat being vacated by Barry Goldwater and won. One more cloud blighted McCain’s career: the Keating Five scandal in which he was suspected of doing favors for Charles Keating, a crooked Savings and Loan operator who had contributed to his campaign. In fact, McCain had done nothing wrong but, in journalistic shorthand, his name became linked to Keating’s. McCain regarded this stain upon his honor, even though unfounded, as the worst pain he had ever endured, including prison.

McCain first drew public attention as a political maverick when he opposed Reagan’s disastrous deployment of US forces to Lebanon in 1983. As a senator, he has continued to act with singular independence. He led not only the effort to establish relations with Vietnam, but also the Senate battles to limit campaign spending and to restrict cigarette sales. Some detractors complain that he is disliked by many of his Republican Senate colleagues, which sounds like a criticism until we consider that he is challenging some of the basic features of the system from which his colleagues benefit. Another minor problem has been his defiance of the POW-MIA lobby, which is convinced that McCain has turned his back on some two thousand American prisoners who, supposedly, are still being held and tortured in Vietnam. There is no credible evidence to support that belief, yet in their obsession some of the activists have labeled McCain the Manchurian Candidate, suggesting that he was brainwashed in Hanoi and is now doing North Vietnam’s bidding.

McCain has put the controversies over Vietnam behind him. He was a friend of David Ifshin, a radical anti-war activist and a lawyer in the first Clinton campaign, until Ifshin died in 1996. Timberg, however, also an Annapolis graduate and Vietnam veteran, casually repeats a slur that should be dealt with once and for all. He accuses the antiwar movement, as a whole, of hostility to Vietnam veterans. “…They [those who opposed the war] treated the men fighting the war with contempt, spitting on them, calling them fascists and babykillers, as if by a simple act of labeling they could transform them into beings different from and less worthy than themselves, with less reason to live.”

This is factually wrong on several counts. It ignores the widespread anti-war “coffee house” movement to recruit and support servicemen who might be opposed to the war. It also ignores the fact that many of the most effective opponents of the war were themselves Vietnam veterans, such as members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. And it repeats what has become a modern myth, the notion that returning Vietnam veterans were routinely spat upon. In 1989, the Chicago Tribune’s syndicated columnist Bob Greene asked readers if any of them were veterans who had been spat upon. He received a thousand letters and in a book, Homecoming; When the Soldiers Returned from Vietnam,3 he printed sixty-three accounts in which veterans claimed that it had happened to them. Some of them seem persuasive; but Greene also printed sixty-nine other responses from veterans, some of whom had returned two or three times from Vietnam tours. They said it had never happened to them and that they had never heard of any such incident from any of their fellow servicemen.

In a book published last year, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam,4 Holy Cross University sociologist Jerry Lembcke, himself a Vietnam veteran, writes that it is impossible to prove that no one anywhere ever spat upon a Vietnam veteran. But he notes that he could not find a single photograph or any news film of such an incident, even though returning veterans generally came back festooned with cameras, and TV stations would have staked out airports in hopes of filming confrontations. After surveying news accounts in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, Lembcke could not turn up a single news story recording a spitting incident. Lembcke also notes that virtually all of the accounts of spitting first appeared long after the war had ended, and equates them with the “stab in the back” myth that the Nazis used to explain the German defeat in World War I. Vietnam veterans were indeed spat upon during the war, Lembcke says, but in all the documented accounts he found the spitting was done by pro-war activists displaying their contempt for veterans who had joined peace demonstrations.

McCain’s views on the Vietnam War are complex. He fought in it without much reflecting that he was dropping high explosives on populated areas; he was protected in his own mind by the bomber pilot’s traditional defense that he was trying to minimize civilian casualties. He and his fellow inmates cheered the “Christmas bombing” of 1972, when B-52 bombers struck the North. But today he writes,

It’s not hard to understand now that, given the prevailing political judgments of the time, the Vietnam War was better left unfought. No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the government and the nation lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone.

McCain has buried the war without bitterness. This surely accounts for much of his popular appeal. In a country still divided and troubled over the Vietnam defeat, McCain, a man no one could accuse of having illusions about the Vietnamese regime, offers the possibility both of coexistence with it and of collaborating without rancor with Americans who opposed the war. Today he has new battles to fight: reforming campaign finance, halting pork-barrel spending, winning the Republican presidential nomination. He proudly calls himself a conservative and he is predictably conservative in his views on such Chamber of Commerce issues as opposing increases in the minimum wage and favoring cuts in capital gains taxes. In foreign affairs, he differs from most of his colleagues in not being intimidated by the currentpolitical orthodoxy that no American soldiers must be sent into combat. He broke with other senators in advocating both an end to the embargo on arms sales to the Bosnian Muslims and the use of ground troops in Kosovo.

In domestic matters, he is, by current standards, more accurately described as a moderate. He is opposed to abortion but is much less fixated on the issue than most of his Republican rivals; he told the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle that he was against the repeal of Roe v. Wade. He has said he could envision a gay president and has good relations with the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay organization. If the Republican presidential primaries were open to Independents and Democrats, I believe McCain could seriously challenge George W. Bush. As of now, he must be considered an extreme long shot, which doesn’t seem to discourage him at all.

On the campaign trail, McCain explains to audiences that he is seeking the presidency to restore the notion that public service is an honorable profession and that government should not be for sale to the richest contributors. He appears genuinely outraged by the Clinton fund-raising scandals, and his championing of campaign finance reform lends credence to his sincerity. He is not merely bashing Clinton with the handiest stick; he is fighting his own party, too, in seeking to limit the influence of money on politics. McCain is certainly high enough in the party hierarchy to be a natural candidate for the presidential nomination. Robert Dole very nearly picked him as his running mate in 1996, before deciding on Jack Kemp. My own suspicion is that people at McCain’s level of government and with his experience run for the presidency in large part because they see who else is seeking the job and say to themselves, “I’m certainly more qualified than those other guys.” These two eloquent and honest books are strong evidence for that belief.

This Issue

October 21, 1999