The Good Soldier

John McCain: An American Odyssey

by Robert Timberg
Touchstone, 235 pp., $13.00 (paper)

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…

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