Books have been written about 1968—"The Year That Made Us Who We Are," as NEWSWEEK proclaimed in a cover story 40 years later. The nation was gripped by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the Tet Offensive, Nixon's election. Far from the headlines, it was also a year that helped make John McCain and Barack Obama who they are. Both future senators had arrived in Southeast Asia around that time. Obama was a happy-go-lucky kid in Jakarta, thrilling to his exotic new surroundings—which included a pet crocodile—yet also savoring visits to the place he came to see as a symbol of hope and opportunity, the U.S. Embassy's American Club. McCain wasn't that far away from Obama geographically—Hanoi lies about 1,800 miles north of Jakarta—but as a 31-year-old naval aviator who had recently been shot down, he was beginning the five years of brutal imprisonment that would come to define his life and public persona.
Despite the 25-year gap in McCain's and Obama's ages, their Asian sojourns began to awaken parallel passions in each man: a love for his distant country, a keen appreciation of the unique values America stands for and a strong sense that it is America's destiny to keep the world an orderly place. Yet they also mark the beginning of journeys that would lead them to very different judgments about how the United States should fulfill that mission.
How McCain and Obama see the world—and hence how they might deal as president with an unexpected crisis—may seem obvious by now. "John Wayne" McCain, as he was known at Annapolis, is the tough-talking ex-flyboy who envisions the United States locked in battle with formidable foes, yet steeled to confront them. Obama is the more cerebral cosmopolitan, at ease with other cultures and calculating America's interests in broad, strategic terms. Each stereotype has elements of truth in it, but to understand truly the candidates' world views, one needs to look more closely at the places, people and ideas that have shaped each of them since 1968. Five such factors have been critical in both men's lives:
For McCain, the lessons of Vietnam did not end with his release in 1973. The next year, with the help of the then Navy Secretary John Warner, a future colleague in the U.S. Senate, McCain studied for a year at the National War College, where he devoured files and paperwork in hopes of finding out what had gone so wrong with the war.
As a part of that effort, McCain and Col. Bud Day, a POW cellmate of his and a close friend, returned to visit a teetering Saigon in late 1974. The pair dashed around town, scrounging up old buddies, trying to get the inside scoop so they could "make an assessment of what was happening with the South Vietnamese government now that [American] money had been cut off," Day says. Over drinks with an old friend of Day's from Sioux City, Iowa, Richard Baughn—who was then serving in the embassy as the American deputy defense attaché—they learned to their "astonishment that North Vietnam had a pipeline built to within 80 miles of Saigon … They were really ready for this invasion," says Day. A South Vietnamese general told the Americans his men were down to 10 rounds of ammo a day. Later they listened, aghast, to the U.S. ambassador telling them "not to worry about how the [South] Vietnamese would fight, rah, rah, rah!" says Day. "He didn't have the faintest clue what was going on."
McCain was furious: the cause for which he had endured five years of torture was being betrayed, in his eyes, by his own government. Most to blame were congressional Democrats, who controlled the purse strings—"McGovern, Javits, all those old antiwar hippies trying to sell Vietnam out," says Day. "We were both just really bent out of shape."
Friends say that for McCain, the son and grandson of admirals, Vietnam became the great cautionary example of squandering American blood. "Vietnam [taught] us that war is a terrible thing and you don't go in unless you're prepared to win and get it over with," says McCain's younger brother, Joe. "Here my father was commander in chief of the Pacific, he had the most powerful [military] force in the history of the world, and he was unable to use that force." Former senator Gary Hart says his old friend McCain, "like other veterans, believes that we could have 'won the Vietnam War' but the politicians panicked."
That view turned McCain into an early advocate of what would come to be called the Powell doctrine, named after fellow vet and later Secretary of State Colin Powell: do not commit U.S. troops unless the mission and exit strategy are clear and overwhelming force is applied. Then give the military, and your allies, full and unstinting support. McCain applied this lesson in late 2003 as he began to realize the U.S. military was undermanned in Iraq. "We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting, and because we limited the tools at our disposal," McCain said in a speech then.
Barack Obama's trip back to Asia was equally mind-opening. With a Pakistani college roommate, Mohammed Hasan Chandoo, he went vagabonding around South Asia in 1981. He found himself overwhelmed by Karachi—a vast and chaotic metropolis clogged with the poor, and then, as now, rife with sectarian tensions. "Part of the most memorable portion of the trip," Obama told NEWSWEEK earlier this year, "was traveling to … a more provincial area outside of Karachi, seeing what was essentially a feudal life"—peasants who were eking out a subsistence living in the middle of a modern democracy. Obama was relearning as a young man, in other words, what he had only dimly understood as a child in Indonesia: most people around the world are looking to fulfill basic needs like shelter, jobs and education for their kids. Their primary concern is development, not democracy. Later, these experiences contributed to Obama's concept of "dignity promotion"—working to ease conditions of misery rather than focusing only on elections and other trappings of democracy. "He's very much committed to the challenges of strengthening the capacity of weak states to deal with poverty and good governance," says his top foreign-policy adviser, Susan Rice.
On the trip, Obama also became more acutely aware of the diversity of and tensions within the Muslim world. "Both as a consequence of living in Indonesia and traveling in Pakistan … I was very clear about the history of Shia-Sunni antagonism," he said. Obama's confidence in his knowledge of the Muslim world is so great that he has proposed holding a global summit of Muslim leaders early in his presidency. "I think that I can speak credibly to them about the fact that I respect their culture, that I understand their religion, that I have lived in a Muslim country, and as a consequence I know it is possible to reconcile Islam with modernity and respect for human rights and a rejection of violence. I think I can speak with added credibility."
First as a naval liaison and then as a congressman and senator, McCain admired many of his colleagues on the Hill—most of all, perhaps, John Tower, the GOP Texas senator whose nomination as defense secretary went down to defeat despite McCain's fierce support. (Choking back tears, McCain declared from the Senate floor: "God bless you, John Tower. You're a damn fine sailor.") But for McCain, the hawkish Democratic Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson, one of the leading lights of the neoconservative movement, "remains the model of what an American statesman should be," as the GOP candidate said in a speech in June.
McCain's admiration is revealing: Jackson was a maverick who bucked his own party on the biggest issue of the day— how to confront the Soviet Union. In the late 1970s he opposed a Democratic president over détente and SALT II, and he refused to accept the view that Moscow could safely be contained. "Some people saw the principal cold-war issue as managing the relationship with the Soviet Union," says Richard Perle, another acolyte. "[Jackson] challenged the fundamental legitimacy of the Soviet Union. And he was right." This sense that evil must be confronted by strength appealed to McCain, who had not questioned the cause in Vietnam, only its prosecution. And Jackson, McCain later said, was a symbol of stalwart courage in the pursuit of a great cause—a model he wanted to emulate as a politician.
Obama's senatorial role model is also a man of principle from the opposing party. But Richard Lugar cuts quite a different figure than Scoop Jackson. The 76-year-old Indiana Republican is as deficient in charisma as Obama is blessed with it. (Lugar's 1996 presidential bid failed in large part because he put audiences to sleep.) Nevertheless, when Obama arrived on Capitol Hill in January 2005, he worked hard to impress Lugar, sitting through gavel-to-gavel hearings of his Foreign Relations Committee.
What Obama most admired was that Lugar, a pragmatist and internationalist with far-reaching vision, was focused on core national-security issues like nuclear nonproliferation. To achieve his long-term goals, Lugar set aside politics to work across many different administrations as well as party lines. "Not ending all our problems in four years or eight years, but putting in place, like Harry Truman, structures that are sustainable," says Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes. "A guy like Lugar has spent his life doing that."
In August 2005 the two men traveled together to the former Soviet bloc, rummaging through leaky old stores of radioactive material. Obama, who prides himself on his coolness under pressure, watched admiringly as Lugar maintained his "gentle, imperturbable manner and an inscrutable smile … during the often interminable meetings we held with foreign officials," the candidate later wrote in "The Audacity of Hope." As another Obama aide described Lugar: "He was smart, reserved and had this sense of humor that would defuse things when people got worked up. He was determined without batting an eyelid or giving way on anything." Lugar has endorsed McCain, but some Obama aides suggest the Republican would be first on a shortlist for secretary of state in an Obama administration.
The Uses of Power
As a congressman in 1983, McCain defied a president he admired, Ronald Reagan, over the question of deploying U.S. Marines to Beirut. The mission, he said, simply wasn't clear enough. "What in the world are a few hundred Marines doing [there] but making themselves targets?" McCain's top aide, Mark Salter, later explained. For similar reasons, McCain was publicly leery of committing U.S. troops to a ground war in the desert after Saddam Hussein's tanks rolled into Kuwait in the summer of 1990.
He ultimately voted for the war, and its outcome altered his thinking on the exercise of American power. Desert Storm marked the beginning of the "smart bomb" era. Saddam's supposedly formidable million-man Army was routed in weeks. American soldiers were sent off to Kuwait and returned home as heroes. The sight was liberating for McCain, says a former senior McCain staffer who would discuss the candidate's reaction only on condition of anonymity. "He saw the country [had gotten] over a hump and was able to … move past the legacy of the Vietnam War," says the staffer. McCain had never doubted that "there were circumstances where aggression needed to be reversed." Now, though, he saw that the nation was more willing to agree—and to sacrifice.
That didn't transform McCain into an eager warmonger. He still resisted what he saw as muddled interventions in Somalia and, initially, Bosnia. But after the massacre of thousands of Muslim men in Srebrenica, he endorsed a bombing campaign there, and later harangued President Bill Clinton for not being active enough in halting ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. By the late 1990s, McCain was among the signers of the Iraq Liberation Act, calling for the overthrow of Saddam.
For Obama, the gulf war was less transforming than an event that had occurred a year earlier—Nelson Mandela's release from prison after 27 years. His ecstatically received freedom marked the effective end of apartheid, the brutal policy of white rule in South Africa.
As a freshman student in the early 1980s at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Obama got his first taste of organized politics and foreign policy in the growing antiapartheid movement. The cause of the day was pushing colleges to give up their investments in South Africa, and Obama's first attempt at public speaking came at a divestment rally. As he later described it in "Dreams From My Father," he began speaking to a group of Frisbee-throwing kids one afternoon on campus, but few were listening when he began in a low voice, saying, "There's a struggle going on." Obama raised his deep baritone, and suddenly "the Frisbee players stopped … The crowd was quiet now, watching me. Somebody started to clap. 'Go on with it, Barack,' somebody shouted … I knew I had them, that the connection had been made."
More important, the success of the antiapartheid movement shaped Obama's views on how to tackle problems that don't lend themselves to military solutions. "Unique among people who have ever run for president, he was coming of age in the '80s, toward the close of the cold war," says speechwriter Ben Rhodes. "There you see the combination of bottom-up movements in Eastern Europe," like Poland's Solidarity organization. "Politically, he believes in bottom-up change with social movements. Economically, he believes in bottom-up growth and development. Similarly, in foreign policy, he believes security starts at the individual level."
Mandela was released three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Obama believed the two historic events converged in some ways, representing what could be achieved when ordinary people united to take action and were supported by international pressure. Obama's view is that the United States should support such "people power" movements wherever possible as the best hope for securing U.S. interests. But aides say he is also realistic about the limitations of both grass-roots movements and international will. In Obama's view, the lessons from South Africa and Germany are tempered by two historic failures that also took place around the same time—the Tiananmen Square massacre in China and the Rwandan civil war in the mid-1990s.
John McCain's hero worship of Teddy Roosevelt dates back to McCain's days as a boy talking about historical figures at the breakfast table, says McCain's brother, Joe: "He's probably his most important historical role model, a sickly asthmatic kid who became a robust type." Both Bud Day and John Raidt, a former Commerce Committee staff director for McCain, say he mused about TR deep into the night with them too, whether in the Hanoi Hilton or the halls of the U.S. Senate.
Roosevelt is the patron saint of what's come to be called national-greatness conservatism, of which McCain is a proponent. At the turn of the 20th century, a time when the United States was seen as a secondary power, TR built up the country's might, preaching both intensive diplomacy ("speak softly …") and military investment ("… carry a big stick"). McCain admired his sheer grit—Roosevelt once delivered a speech after being shot in the chest—and he appreciated that Roosevelt believed "the U.S. was the greatest force for good in the world," says the senator's brother. The Great White Fleet that Roosevelt sent around the world in 1907 was the greatest armada in history at the time, and a potent warning to America's enemies. (Standing on the fleet's flagship, McCain later wrote, was "a skinny young ensign" named John Sidney McCain, his grandfather, who went on to become a famed admiral in World War II.) "He sought to preserve peace and order by confronting potential adversaries with America's resolve and readiness to fight," McCain later wrote.
McCain is friends with TR's great-grandson Theodore Roosevelt IV. Obama, too, has a direct personal connection to his own presidential hero, John F. Kennedy. Caroline Kennedy has praised Obama as a man who can inspire people "in the way my father made them hope." Ex-New Frontiersmen like speechwriter Ted Sorensen and Newton Minow, a senior Kennedy administration official, have also joined the cause. "In the summer of '06, by chance I saw him speaking at a big event," says Minow. "I watched him dealing with the crowd and said, 'My God, that's JFK all over again'."
While he hasn't made Kennedy his role model as forthrightly as McCain has TR— Obama also likes to invoke Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lincoln—he has sought to identify himself with JFK's foreign policy (at least after the disastrous Bay of Pigs). "Kennedy had a vision for America's leadership role in the world that is very much like his," says Susan Rice. The candidate likes to compare his proposal to talk to Iran without preconditions about its nuclear program to JFK's bold bid to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear-test ban with the Soviets at the height of the cold war. "It was cheeky of Kennedy to do it at a time when we were so polarized," notes one adviser. Obama's "No. 1 quote," this adviser says, comes from JFK: "We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate."
Obama himself, in private meetings, has cited Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis as a model, especially how JFK consulted widely and negotiated directly with the Soviets to defuse an intense situation effectively. Obama admires Kennedy's steady, cool leadership and his ability to bring many people into the process: Ben Rhodes says that Obama also often cites the successful resolution of the crisis as an example of what can come from negotiations, even if there is no immediate resolution. Only five months before, JFK held a summit in Vienna with Nikita Khrushchev. "JFK had begun to acquire some knowledge of Khrushchev, which not only enabled him to be in touch with the Kremlin during the crisis, but to have a little bit of insight into the guy," says Rhodes. "There are benefits to direct contact with adversaries, even if you don't reach agreement. You get to know your adversary."
McCain was crossing the 14th street bridge in Washington, D.C., near the Pentagon, when he heard news of the first plane crash at the World Trade Center. Upon arriving at his office on Capitol Hill, he immediately went into the office of his then chief of staff, Mark Salter, where he, Salter and other aides watched on television as a second plane hit the South Tower. "I immediately thought, 'This is war'," McCain recalled. A few minutes later, an aide rushed in and announced that the Pentagon had been hit.
Bud Day, his old friend, says McCain's first reaction that day was to suspect Iran. "It was such a shattering day," he says. "They had been attacking us all over: Hizbullah … had blown up the Khobar Towers [in Saudi Arabia], bombed the Marines in Beirut … Who the hell else would it be?"
Salter claims that McCain "knew, like everybody else, that Al Qaeda was almost certainly responsible." And U.S. intelligence did quickly identify Al Qaeda, which was not linked to Hizbullah or Iran, as the culprit. Regardless, for McCain, the event signaled the start of another grand struggle, like the one that his grandfather undertook after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The morning after 9/11, McCain did an interview with his closest Senate friend, Joe Lieberman, on CBS's "The Early Show." Lieberman targeted by name Iran, Iraq and Syria, saying the United States needed to focus on countries that gave terrorists a safe haven. Asked if he agreed, McCain said yes. "These [terrorist] networks are well embedded in some of these countries," he said. Just over a month later, after a deadly strain of anthrax had been mailed to offices on Capitol Hill and to various news organizations, McCain brought up Iraq again, this time on the "Late Show With David Letterman": "Some of this anthrax may—and I emphasize may —have come from Iraq," he told Letterman.
Salter says McCain was responding to the climate of those days, when Washington was looking to pre-empt further attacks. "After 9/11, it became clear that the central security challenge was that terrorists, Islamic extremists, would acquire weapons of mass destruction," Salter says. "You looked around the world, and who was a threat?" McCain, though, continues to group the various strains of Islamic extremism together, calling them collectively the "transcendental challenge" that faces the country and the next president. "You could trace [the threat] back to the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut" by Hizbullah, McCain told NEWSWEEK earlier this year.
Obama had a very different reaction to 9/11. He was a state senator heading to a committee hearing in downtown Chicago that morning, driving along Lake Shore Drive. When he heard the initial news reports, he, like many, thought a small propeller plane had mistakenly crashed into the Trade Center. By the time he arrived at his meeting, the second plane had struck, and Obama's building was evacuated. People gathered in the streets, looking up at the sky and at the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the United States, 10 blocks away. Obama went to his law office, where he worked part time, and watched the television footage of the planes, people jumping from windows, the towers collapsing. Then, after the retaliatory attack on Afghanistan—which he supported to the point of wanting to "take up arms myself," Obama later wrote—"I waited with anticipation for what I assumed would follow: the enunciation of a U.S. foreign policy for the 21st century … This new blueprint never arrived."
For Obama, say aides, 9/11 presented not just a tactical problem—finding Osama bin Laden and punishing the Taliban—but also a golden strategic opportunity. Obama wanted to put in place a framework to tackle a host of 21st-century transnational threats, like nuclear nonproliferation and endemic poverty. Instead, he found the Bush doctrine to be all too similar to the way that Teddy Roosevelt had interpreted the Monroe doctrine—as an excuse to remove unfriendly foreign governments. A year later, Obama was delivering the speech in Chicago's Federal Plaza that first brought him to national attention, vehemently opposing the impending invasion of Iraq as "dumb" and "rash."
For Obama, 9/11 brought into focus all that he had learned abroad—in Indonesia, Pakistan and elsewhere—about how raising people's living standards is key to U.S. national security. He saw the challenge of the post-9/11 era as similar to the one taken up by JFK and, before him, Truman: to introduce long-lasting strategic structures in concert with U.S. allies to tackle the world's worst problems. In a larger sense, 9/11 was a chance to reaffirm America's wisdom and promise as global leader. "Instead, what we got was an assortment of outdated policies from eras gone by, dusted off, slapped together and with new labels affixed," Obama wrote.
Obama and McCain are complicated men, and the pieces of their lives don't exactly fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. But in the four decades since their time in Southeast Asia, a picture of how each might lead begins to emerge. McCain has spent much of his life and career trying to guide America through a complete recovery from Vietnam, championing a Rooseveltian buildup of U.S. might and prestige. Obama is keen on reaching across vast divides like JFK; he seems more preoccupied with restoring U.S. legitimacy and securing America's safety through patient work like Lugar's and summits of understanding, and with rebuilding America's strength from the "bottom up"—through its economy.
It's fair to expect a McCain presidency to be a harder-edged one than Obama's. Like his forefathers, McCain believes in "victory," sees a world made up of enemies and friends and is determined to show resolve above all. His passionate advocacy of friends like Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, his open detestation of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his refusal to talk to Tehran could well produce a series of confrontations. For Obama, the danger is the opposite. He would need to take care that his eagerness for negotiation and mutual understanding doesn't verge into appeasement, whether with Iran, Russia or other rogues. His focus would be different, too: Obama seeks to "contain" the Islamist threat rather than aim for some grand victory over all terrorists.
But the two candidates do have some important things in common we can be fairly sure of. Both know a lot about the real world—they've "pierced the veneer," as the explorer Ernest Shackleton, one of McCain's heroes, once wrote—and are pragmatists at heart. Despite that, neither will miss a chance to trumpet the creed they learned in their youth—that America is a unique place, and its values should be an example for the world.