John McCain: Hidden Depths

It was the day he buried his father. Early on the morning of Friday, march 27, 1981, Capt. John Sidney McCain III (USN) had risen, put on his dress blue uniform and, by 10 o'clock, was standing in the white sanctuary of the Colonial brick Old Post Chapel at Fort Myer, next to Arlington National Cemetery. Adm. John S. McCain Jr. had died the previous Sunday, on a transatlantic flight. His funeral was full: First Lady Nancy Reagan, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, three chiefs of Naval Operations and so many officers that some had to stand in the side aisles during the service. One of McCain's chief memories of the morning was of Rear Adm. Ike Kidd "sobbing loudly and struggling to regain his composure."

In a eulogy, John's brother, Joe, quoted their father: "Life is run by poker players, not the systems analysts," the admiral would say, and "It's one of the most forgotten, then relearned foreign-policy axioms in history. If you keep backing away because you're afraid of what might happen to you—and you keep backing away and backing away—what you were afraid of in the first place is going to happen to you."

The admiral, Joe recalled, would chomp on his cigar as he recited poetry (Lewis Carroll was a favorite, as was Oscar Wilde's "Ave Imperatrix"). Every night he prayed the daily office, carrying "an old worn Episcopal prayer book into whatever served as his study"; the family sometimes found him "down on his knees reciting a prayer from that old book."

Then it was John III's turn to speak. Standing with his back to the altar, flanked by stained-glass windows, McCain recited some lines from Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem":

Afterward, the McCains went to the grave site. As a riderless horse led the caisson from the chapel, the Navy Band played the same Handel march the Royal Navy had used for Nelson's funeral at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

The service over, taps played, the admiral in his grave—John had, he recalled, kept his "eyes fixed straight ahead" during the burial—the mourners adjourned to the elder McCains' grand apartment on Connecticut Avenue, in the Kalorama section of Washington, near Embassy Row. The neighborhood had been home at various times to William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. Amid drinks and old stories beneath a large oil portrait of her father-in-law, the first Adm. John S. McCain, Roberta McCain was a perfect hostess—she "whirled around the apartment," John recalled in a memoir, "seeming to take part in every conversation."

The images of that Washington funeral—the Old Post Chapel, the gathering of admirals and statesmen, the stained glass, the sound of taps, the sloping hills and white headstones of Arlington, the party afterward in Kalorama, high on Connecticut Avenue—seem to belong to another, vanished world. The capital that McCain's grandfather and father knew was the city as evoked by Allen Drury or by Herman Wouk, one of McCain's favorite writers (McCain recently reread Wouk's "The Winds of War," the saga of Victor [Pug] Henry, a taciturn but devoted and passionate World War II naval officer).

At the reception, though, John McCain was thinking not about the past, but about breaking with it. Tired and distracted, McCain recalls having a hard time making small talk. He had business on the other side of the river. An hour after arriving, McCain left, drove back across the Potomac to a Navy office in Crystal City, Va., and signed his discharge papers. He had begun the day by donning the uniform of his fathers. He now ended it by boarding a plane and leaving for Phoenix. He has not stopped moving since.

McCain's admirers, and they are legion, think of him as a man of valor, a kind of honorary member of the Greatest Generation whose evident obsession with the virtues of honor, courage, faith and duty make him an ideal soldier of freedom to keep the watches of the night against terrorist enemies, and to stand fast in Iraq. His foes, and they, too, are legion, would like to cast him as a relic of a long-ago era whose service was noble but whose time has passed. In this view he is a black-and-white movie in a YouTube era, a doddering old hawk competing against a lithe young multilateralist. McCain can seem an unreflective warrior whose wealth and isolation from ordinary life—first as the scion of a high-ranking naval family, then as the husband of a very rich woman and finally as a longtime senator—have rendered him a foreign figure to many Americans.

Neither caricature, however, has the man who will accept the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States this week exactly right. It is easy to mistake McCain for a rich septuagenarian with houses beyond number, who does not use e-mail or what George W. Bush once called "the Internets," and who hums "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of a Beach Boys cover of a song written the year Barack Obama was born.

But McCain is not a neo-Victorian, or a neo-Eisenhower. In ways difficult to discern but central to understanding him, he is a very modern figure who is at once heroic and ironic, stoic and sometimes short-tempered, ambitious and rebellious. John McCain is no sun-belt Cincinnatus. He is an eager, cold-eyed politician who has sought the White House for a decade, compromised and reversed himself and believes he is an actor in a grand, unfolding saga. He is also more comfortable with shades of gray than he appears—a sense of nuance rooted, it seems, in an early life in which he at once revered his father and felt sorry for him. McCain has long lived with complexity, and Democrats who try to dismiss him as stubborn or Republicans who venerate him as unflinching miss a crucial truth about the man: he is an adept political juggler, as he has always been an adept emotional one.

Early on, he had to be. It was the only way to make sense of a great and glaring contradiction at the center of his universe: his father—strong, honorable, noble—was also an alcoholic, a binge drinker who, under the influence, became what McCain calls "a totally different person." Adm. Jack McCain was not to be mindlessly celebrated or mindlessly condemned. He was a man of parts, of strengths and weaknesses, and his son learned to take the occasional bad with the usual good.

Presidents tend to come from one of two kinds of families. There is either no father at all (Andrew Jackson, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton) or a dominant one (the Adamses, the Kennedys, the Bushes). Barack Obama belongs to the first category, the son of a man he met only once. McCain embodies the second. He was clearly driven to live up to the example of his grandfather and his father, heroes and leaders of men, but McCain's dad was not what he seemed.

The McCain story is both obvious and murky. The title of McCain's first book—"Faith of My Fathers"—sums up the obvious part. He grew up in the shadows of, and on the shoulders of, noble ancestors who had long proved their virtue in life and their virtuosity in war. During an interview aboard his campaign plane en route from Orlando to Atlanta in August, I asked McCain about the influence his father had on him. He had been gone a lot, McCain replied, but "my mom, who really idolized my dad, had the effect on us of kind of idolizing him."

Then, in a quiet, steady voice, McCain told me: "Yet at the same time I became aware, I think when I was either in my very earliest teens or even before that, that my father had a struggle with alcohol. And I watched him fight and fight this sickness … So I not only idolized him but I also understood that he had flaws like all of us, and probably his greatest was his struggle against alcoholism, which made him a very religious man. He prayed every night on his knees; he was very religious, because he saw hell combating [alcoholism, a struggle that] he knew he could not successfully win by himself."

I asked the obvious next question: did you ever worry about your own risk for alcoholism? McCain's answer was quick and clear: "No," he said. "You know, I never did. Because I just didn't have the inclination. I could tell early on. I of course went to happy hour. I of course had drinks with my squadron mates, et cetera. But I never felt any particular appetite for alcohol, nor did I …" He pauses for the briefest of beats, then says: "Oh, I'm sure there were times in my squadron life when I overindulged, but almost never. I just didn't. I'm sure the example of my father may have had some kind of effect."

His father's example made him devoted but wary, romantic yet skeptical, obsessed with strength but understanding of weakness. He saw the man he most wanted to be like at the worst of moments. Where the father failed, the son would strive to succeed. And so, restless and relentless, John Sidney McCain III has fought a lifelong campaign to live up to the legacy of his family, redeem its largely unknown faults and add his own honorable chapter to the story—a story that begins in the distant past, in the warrior class of Europe.

The McCains are an ancient tribe. One branch of the family traces its lineage to Charlemagne. In the New World, McCains have served in America's armed forces since the Revolutionary War. They fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, chased Pancho Villa with Pershing and made their greatest marks in the epic clashes of the 20th century, from World War I to Vietnam. (And now, in the 21st, two McCain sons are in uniform. One will graduate from Annapolis next year, and another, a Marine, recently returned from Iraq.) McCain's father was a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, an elite group of descendants of Washington's officers that is headquartered at the elegant Anderson House on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington (Pauline and Albert Gore raised their son next door at the old Fairfax Hotel). "His evident pride in claiming such distinguished ancestry gave me the sense not only that I had a claim on my country's history, but that it would fall to me to represent the family when the history of my generation was recorded," McCain wrote. His grandfather had stood with MacArthur aboard the Missouri as the Japanese surrendered; his father, a submariner, won the Silver Star.

This history hung heavy on the young McCain; the legacy was at once thrilling and daunting. His grandfather was Annapolis class of 1906, and rose to be an admiral; his father was class of 1931, and did the same. His father fell in love with his mother, Roberta Wright, the daughter of a successful oil wildcatter who, having moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, retired at 40 to raise his twin daughters. Roberta met Jack McCain when she was a freshman at the University of Southern California and he was serving aboard the USS Oklahoma, then home-ported at Long Beach. Roberta's mother, Myrtle, was opposed to the match, but her father, Archibald Wright, did not object when Roberta told him she was eloping to Tijuana with the young naval officer. There, joined by McCain's father, the two were married in 1933 in a bar called Caesar's—the origin, Roberta likes to note, of the Caesar salad. Beautiful, adventurous, wealthy and game for the itinerant life of a Navy family, Mrs. McCain (now 96) was determined that her three children (Sandy, born 1934; John III, born 1936, and Joe, born 1942) would grow up with an appreciation of their father's service. "My mother did a good job of keeping him alive for us—your father this, your father that," McCain told me. "She was very good at reminding us of him and of his example." A loving woman, she was also skilled in the arts of stoicism and strength in the face of adversity. She kept things together, and things going, no matter how difficult the moment—and difficult moments were a constant fact of life for a Navy family. "The relationship of a sailor and his children is, in large part, a metaphysical one," McCain once wrote. "We see much less of our fathers than do other children. Our fathers are often at sea, in peace and war. Our mothers run our households, pay the bills, and manage most of our upbringing … It is no surprise then that the personalities of children who have grown up in the Navy often resemble those of their mothers more than those of their fathers."

And yet, McCain noted, "our fathers, perhaps because of and not in spite of their long absences, can be a huge presence in our lives. You are taught to consider their absence not as a deprivation, but as an honor. By your father's calling, you are born into an exclusive, noble tradition. Its standards require your father to dutifully serve a cause greater than his self-interest, and everyone around you, your mother, other relatives, and the whole Navy world, drafts you to the cause as well."

Born in the Panama Canal Zone, John III was a part of this world from the very beginning, a world that, for all its sense of tradition and palpable example of duty, was also oddly transitory. His rootlessness made him restless, curious and somewhat emotionally guarded. Looking back years later, McCain wrote: "All my life I had been rootless, part of a tradition that compensated me in other ways for the hometown it denied me. But without a connection to one place, one safe harbor where I could rest without care, I had lived my life on the move, never entirely at ease … The landscape and characters passed too rapidly to form the attachments of common love that quicken your heart when age and infirmity have slowed your walk and deprived your restlessness of its familiar expressions."

As a child he found—and now, as a man, he still finds— comfort and order in books and poems about love and war. A voracious reader (and rereader), McCain has long used literature as a refuge and an inspiration. Distant trumpets are not so distant to him. The epigraph of his second book is taken from Thucydides' funeral oration of Pericles: "Fix your eyes on the greatness of Athens as you have it before you day by day, fall in love with her, and when you feel her great, remember that this greatness was won by men with courage, with knowledge of their duty, and with a sense of honor in action." He loves James Fenimore Cooper, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, Wouk (even the more obscure ones, like "Youngblood Hawke" and "Don't Stop the Carnival")—and, above all, Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which he first read, entranced, after picking it up by accident in his father's study when he was 12.

Books helped him smooth the rough edges of a combative disposition. As a small child he would, if angry, hold his breath until he passed out; his parents had to plunge him in cold water to rouse him. Later, though he adored his grandfather and his father, at some level he resented the inevitability of his own naval career.

The Navy—always, always the Navy. On Christmas mornings, once the family had opened presents around the tree, Jack McCain would excuse himself, walk upstairs, put on his uniform and go to the office. He adored his wife and his children, but admitted that he loved his father above all others. John McCain believes that if his father had been asked to describe his family relationships, Jack McCain would have said, "I'm the son of an admiral and the father of a captain."

Educated at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., and then at the Naval Academy (a place, McCain said, "I belonged at but dreaded"), John McCain found outlets for the ambivalence he felt about having a preordained future. He was a scamp and a cut-up who was highly skilled at amassing demerits at both institutions. (He liked to slip into Washington from Alexandria to the bars and what he called "the burlesque houses" on Ninth Street NW.) Once, when he feared he was close to failing out of Annapolis, he wrote off for information about how to join the French Foreign Legion. On discovering that there was a nine-year service requirement, McCain decided the Navy was not so bad after all.

There is a kind of egotism in McCain—he loves attention, always has, and takes glee in confounding the expectations of the institutions of which he is a part. Hence the misbehavior at Episcopal and at Annapolis. And in a way, his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate fits his lifetime pattern of merrily challenging the conventions of the cultures he loves, from the military to Congress to presidential politics.

For all his antics and ambivalence, though, he has always had a strong sense of honor, especially in his relationships with comrades in arms. A friend from Annapolis, Frank Gamboa, recalled that McCain and his roommates "bought a TV to watch 'Maverick' and boxing matches … The company officer found it and asked for one name to take the penalty … We usually decided with rock, paper, scissors … The other four members of the clique decided John had too many demerits. We said, 'You can't take the chance. If it falls on you you'll get thrown out.' He wouldn't hear of it." (Luckily, someone else lost the shake and took the blame.)

He became an aviator, and loved life at sea. "No other experience in my life so closely approximated the exploits of the brash, daring heroes who had captivated my schoolboy's imagination," he recalled. "Ever since reading about the storied world of men at arms, I had longed for such a life."

His life changed forever the day he nearly died, on Oct. 26, 1967, when he was shot down over Hanoi. For five years of deprivation, isolation and torture, McCain refused to take advantage of his status as the son of an American admiral. He was offered early release, but refused. The code said POWs could leave only in the order in which they had been captured, and he was a man of the code. When his parents heard he was missing, they were in London, dressing for an evening at the Iranian Embassy; they kept their engagement, saying nothing about their son, setting a pattern of dignified reticence they would maintain for the next five years.

The family was in an extraordinary position, with one son in Hanoi and the father, Jack, who commanded three different submarines in the second world war, becoming commander in chief of the Pacific Command (or CINCPAC, in the Navy's vernacular) in May 1968. "The communists have chosen to make Vietnam the testing ground for their so-called wars of national liberation," Admiral McCain said. "If they can make this kind of aggression work there, we can expect to be faced with more such wars elsewhere. We are there to prove to them it won't work."

The admiral's personnel file makes it clear that he was always forward-leaning. One supervisor called him "the little man with the big cigar," while another noted he was "one of the most competent submarine officers I have ever served with. He has initiative, aggressiveness, as well as enthusiasm for improving the submarine service." He jumped rope 200 times a day to stay in shape.

He was not a political admiral. "My father never even registered to vote," says Joe McCain. "When we were at the breakfast table or the dinner table it didn't take two minutes before the arguments would start [over history and politics] … This is when we were kids, when we were growing up, as soon as we could talk, we would start discussing things. My mother, my brother and I would argue at the top of our lungs, and my dad would only intervene at two points—to correct something or if he felt we were getting disrespectful to my mother." One evening the subject of Gen. Douglas MacArthur came up. "We were arguing about how MacArthur was right about wanting to attack the Chinese after they became involved [in Korea]. John and I and Mother, we were sort of on the same side of this, and my father told us flat out we were wrong, and he said Truman had to fire MacArthur. But we said, 'MacArthur was right, though. The Chinese didn't have any real air-delivery system, they were attacking the north …' He said, 'No, the president of the United States is the commander in chief to make decisions, and the local military commander in the field criticized him … That can lead to coup d'états'."

Admiral McCain did not like to talk about war. "He would make references to Sherman—'War is hell' … You heard war stories from Dad kind of reluctantly," says Joe, and the admiral never mentioned what it was like to order bombings that might put his imprisoned son in danger. "When you're a commander it is hard to put your men in peril, it is hard to put your men in harm's way, and John was in harm's way, but that in no way dissuades you from doing what you need to do," says Joe. "Whether he speculated on what John's reaction to hearing bombs come down [was], I don't know. I'm sure he worried about it … but they're two different areas—area of father and son, and area of commander." Now, decades later, John McCain, who frequently says that he detests war, is also determined to see a struggle through. The Admiral McCain of Vietnam would understand the views of Senator McCain about Iraq.

During Vietnam, Admiral McCain rarely spoke about the fact that John was in prison. "I really can't talk about the boy," the admiral would say when asked. "I pray for him every day." One Christmas, the admiral traveled to the 17th parallel between North and South Vietnam. "Gentlemen, excuse me just a moment," Admiral McCain said, and then he stood alone, gazing across the border for 10 or 15 minutes—gazing toward his son.

Rear Adm. Joe Vasey, now 91, spent much of his career at the side of the ever-frustrated Jack McCain. In an interview with NEWSWEEK's Suzanne Smalley from his home in Hawaii, Vasey, who was McCain's chief of strategy when he was at CINCPAC, recalled the constraints placed on Admiral McCain as he tried to command U.S. forces in the Pacific during Vietnam. "There were a lot of restrictions on what we could bomb in North Vietnam and what we couldn't," Vasey said. How did Admiral McCain react? "He was just frustrated and let go an oath," says Vasey. "I wrote a lot of the messages that went into Washington under his direction. He was not a bashful man. I would say, 'Well, the State Department won't like that, sir.' He would puff on his cigar and say, 'To hell with the State Department'… He was not a pussycat, I'll tell you. Straight talker."

Col. Bud Day, who was in the Hanoi Hilton with McCain when America began the Christmas bombings of '72, said the future senator's reaction to the Christmas raid was joyful despite the dangers. "I was the squadron commander at the time," Day recalled. "The bombardments started the night of Dec. 19th. They were falling very close to the camp. Shrapnel was coming into the windows … A lot of stuff was falling off the ceiling. We were wildly ecstatic because that was the airline ticket home. John was like all of us—deliriously happy … Everyone was hysterical and jubilant that finally the right thing was happening because this was the only way we'd get out. We knew that and the Vietnamese knew that. We were slapping each other on the back … They went berserk. They told everyone to sit down as soon as we started laughing and everything. They immediately stuck guns through the window and started yelling at us in Vietnamese … They were always worried we'd riot … I told everyone, 'Sit down against the wall. I don't want anyone to get killed. We're going home in a few days. I don't want anyone getting hurt'."

Admiral McCain's refusal to talk publicly about his son was rooted in a sense of service, but even in private McCain's father had difficulty with emotion. "My dad occasionally would have to punish us," says Joe. "It was almost always because we had had some kind of argument with my mother." He would strike them with a belt on the behind. "Five or six hours later the door would open and he'd be rubbing his hands and say, 'I just wanted to let you know your old dad loves you' … He was never able to quite say 'I love you' … [Showing emotion] was debilitating. For guys of that era to be strong and especially to be of even temperament was crucial."

Joe does not believe the admiral's frustrations with the war fueled his drinking, for the problem long predated Vietnam. "Dad drank, I think, for two reasons. One is, I think he had a natural biochemical need for alcohol … He was a real alcoholic … I remember that Dad was a guy who was not comfortable with small talk. I'm not sure why, but he wasn't. He was shy … I think my dad drank initially to try and ease some of that a little bit. And also the Navy, especially then, was just like fraternity culture. [It was] a drinking culture, and the rhythms were really profound. You would go out to sea or you would go into battle, no booze, and once all the stress is over, you'd come back and you'd just get really drunk."

Joe thinks that their father's drinking troubled John more than it did him because John became aware of it at a younger age. "He was [upset] because he's six years older. I didn't know that my dad was an alcoholic until I was 16. My mother used to keep it [very quiet]. The reason that was possible is because Dad wouldn't drink like a lot of alcoholics who drink every night. He'd go months and months and months without drinking, and when something would trigger it, he would stay smashed for five or six days, and my mother would call in that he was sick or whatever. And it never affected his military career because then he would feel terrible, he would sober up, and he wouldn't have a drink for a long time … My father's pattern was, he would never drink when there was stress. He would never drink when there was something important to do. It was when it was all over."

At a military dinner in the late 1970s, Admiral McCain was dangerously close to drunkenness, and Joe took him home. "It [the event] is a very big deal. The secretary of Defense is always there and these big military officers and they're all having a good time, and my father would walk up to the bar and he'd have the bartender pour him something; it was either vodka or gin, I couldn't tell. And he just tossed it off … and I remember asking him, 'Dad, why do you drink like that?' and he said, 'Why not?' and then he had a couple more and he went off to some special table and I was at another table, and about 45 minutes later some general came over and said, 'Your father wants to go home.' He wasn't falling down, he wasn't drunk, but he was a little bit buzzed, and he knew enough to ask a guy to come get me so I could get him home, and that was only the second time I'd seen him drunk. The first time I was 16 years old … I came back late from a date and my father was lying in full dress uniform on these padded stairways that we had. He'd gone out to some function and gotten really smashed." Such episodes were few and far between, but they left their mark on the admiral's sons. "When he was drunk, I didn't recognize him," John McCain has told friends on the rare occasions that the subject has come up.

The nominee's own partying days, from the Navy through his first years back in the United States after his captivity, appear to have had more to do with women and with song than with wine. "I went out and had a good time," he says, "but I was never much of a drinker." He likes Belvedere vodka, and has one or two through the course of an evening, especially when he is in Sedona, grilling and telling stories at the McCains' compound there. "He never wants to appear out of control, or be out of control," says Mark Salter, his closest aide, speechwriter and longtime coauthor. "Come to think of it, the raucous John McCain is the sober John McCain." McCain is not censorious about the drinking of others; he never begrudges anyone or chastises them if they overindulge.

When he came back from Vietnam, he destroyed his marriage, found love with a second wife and created a political career. On the domestic front, when he left his first wife, Carol (with whom he is still friendly), he refused to blame the war for his failures as a married man. "I got over Vietnam the moment we landed at Clark," McCain has said. "I wanted newspapers, magazines—I wanted to know what was going on in the world right then." Of his divorce, he has written: "Sound marriages can be hard to recover after great time and distance have separated a husband and wife. We are different people when we reunite. But my marriage's collapse was attributable to my own selfishness and immaturity more than it was to Vietnam, and I cannot escape blame by pointing a finger at the war. The blame was entirely mine."

After a stint at the War College, where he studied the lessons of Vietnam, McCain was assigned to Capitol Hill, where he served as the Navy's liaison to the Senate. He soon began to think of politics for himself. He had started giving speeches for the Navy, and liked the attention of the public and the power of the politicians. He would watch Scoop Jackson or John Tower just scribble something on a scrap of paper in the markup for a DoD bill, and it would become law. "McCain was fascinated by that kind of power, where you could have such a direct impact," says Salter.

Washington was a familiar milieu for him. When his own father was working for the Navy on Capitol Hill, his mother had made breakfasts in the morning for Carl Vinson, the chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, who would drop by on his way to the office. Later, in his own days as liaison, McCain would often have an afternoon drink with John Tower, the Republican senator from Texas and a powerful member (later chairman) of the Armed Services Committee. When he was thinking of running for office himself, McCain was tutored by Tower, Gary Hart and William Cohen. After he married Cindy and was thinking of where to settle, Arizona seemed a good place; it was her beloved home, and the state was growing, which meant more congressional districts were likely to be drawn up. "I was in my 40s and in a hurry, ambitious for the kind of influence I had seen wielded by the country's most accomplished politicians and worried that my chances were diminishing by the day," McCain recalled of his move west. He told his father that he was retiring, and the old man understood: it was unlikely, not least because of his five years in Hanoi, that there would be a third McCain admiral in the 20th century. "I have craved distinction in my life," McCain recalled, and now it was politics, not the Navy, that offered him the best chance to satisfy his appetite. "I have wanted renown and influence for their own sake. That is, of course, the great temptation of public life. Few are immune to its appeal. The desire to be somebody has driven many a political career much further than the intention to do something. I have never been able to conquer it permanently, but I have tried."

Politicians face a perennial tension between principle and pragmatism—without the latter, one does not often get the chance to put the former into action. And there are the inescapable elements of ego, of ambition and pride. McCain is aware of this, and of his own vulnerability to it. "Political leadership is not so great a stretch for the military officer with a career change in mind," McCain wrote. "Those who manage it do so, I suppose, because they can't imagine a life without wanting a prominent place in the nation's affairs, a place of honor in a great nation's history … Perhaps some of us come to believe that the country cannot part with us. That, of course, is a delusion, but it can be a beautiful delusion as long as it doesn't reverse the order of our allegiances."

His father had a temper and streaks of self-righteousness. One day, the admiral was testifying before Congress, Admiral Vasey recalled, when a lawmaker asked Admiral McCain a "question [that] kind of implied that the admiral was not telling the truth. Maybe exaggerating, and the admiral just exploded … and he really told them off and said, 'I'm an honorable man and I'm not gonna take that'." McCain was incensed. "He got red in the face," Vasey said. Admiral McCain "was very concerned in those days about the strength, the growing strength, of the Soviet Union, and so that was probably the area that this senator may have asked him about or questioned him on … But Admiral McCain felt very strongly then, as we all did, about this threat from the Soviet Union, and we were certainly right. He got angry, red in the face, pointed his finger. I was sitting behind him, so I just reached up and grabbed him by the back of the coat, bottom of the coat, and pulled down. He settled down."

The son is subject to similar moments. Early on, his temper flared on the campaign trail, especially when his opponents pressed the charge that he was a carpetbagger in his 1982 congressional campaign: "In truth, if you will pardon the vulgarity, I was becoming pissed off by the carpetbagger label, and my temper was getting the better of my judgment (as it often has). I felt that my family's service in the Navy and my own, which had deprived me of the comforts of a hometown, entitled me to choose any place in the country to live, and no one had good cause to question my decision."

Asked in a debate about the carpetbagger issue, McCain said: "Listen, pal … 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." In another debate, after an opponent had reached out to Carol McCain for dirt about the divorce, McCain confronted the man and said: "If you ever try to hurt anyone in my family again, I will personally beat the s––t out of you."

But he won, and McCain's reputation as a maverick ("Mavericks" was the initial title of one of his books) was born soon after his arrival in the House in 1983. He started speaking his mind right away, recalls Mike DeWine, who came to Congress the same year. "First thing I remember was John in the House, not too long after orientation, right after Reagan put the Marines in Lebanon. He goes to the House floor and shocked a lot of people saying, 'No, this is a mistake, we shouldn't do it because we can't protect them.' If he thought something, he'd tell you, and he'd go straight to the floor with it."

Around this time, DeWine says, there was a sex scandal surrounding pages and two members of the House. The question of the hour was how severe the punishment should be. DeWine walked up to McCain one day in the back of the chamber. "I remember asking him what he thought the punishment should be. He said, 'These two congressmen are superior officers, they have a high duty to the people in their charge and they violated that duty. We have to be very tough on them.' That's how he looked at that incident—that we in the House had an obligation, like superior officers in the military, to protect those under us. It's a duty, it's an honor, it's a responsibility. As soon as I asked, his answer was—boom, no hesitation—'This is how it has to be'."

When McCain's stoicism falls away—which it often does—it cedes the field to either a warm sentimentality or, sometimes, a righteous anger. In 1989, furious about what he saw as the hypocrisy and injustice of the assaults on President George H.W. Bush's nomination of his mentor John Tower to be secretary of Defense, McCain told Jim Exon, a Democrat from Nebraska, that "what you know is a lie, and you're a goddamned liar." McCain also, by his own recollection, brought "my nose to within an inch of his as I screamed out my intense displeasure over his deceit and my general frustration with the injustice that was being done to my friend." During a telephone interview with two reporters from The Arizona Republic about the Keating Five savings and loan scandal, McCain "called them idiots and worse. I shouted at them, cursed them, and eventually slammed the phone down on them."

McCain has paid a price for his more passionate outbursts. "It was always interesting that so many of his colleagues were backing Governor George Bush in 2000," says Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican senator from Rhode Island who is now an independent and has endorsed Obama. "That's an indication of something—usually your colleagues band around one of their own, but that wasn't the case in 2000."

Those who love him, though, really love him. John Warner of Virginia, who was a friend of McCain's parents, says the son is both smart and sentimental. "John has an academic side to him, and he's a voracious reader," says Warner. "I've sat next to him hour upon hour at hearings, and I've seen him go through eight- to 12-page memorandums and still keep track of what everyone is saying." And he has the personal instinct to reach out. "He may have a backbone of steel, but he's very sensitive to people," says Warner. "I've had health problems this past year or two, and he's always the first to call and ask what he can do for me. He's got a soft side. He wouldn't admit it, but he's got it."

About a year ago, McCain went to the Senate floor after visiting a wounded Marine at Bethesda Naval Hospital. The man was terribly injured, and Susan Collins of Maine says McCain told her and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina about the meeting. "His evident compassion for this wounded Marine was so heartfelt, his eyes welled up when he was describing him," says Collins. "That's John McCain. He only told a few of us who were close to him about this. He didn't call in the press. He cares deeply about our troops, visits wounded Marines and soldiers all the time … and does it quietly."

Those who believe him to be a single-minded soldier who is not open to the force of fact misread his history. He is curious, particularly for a man of his years—and his mother, at 96, is the same way, which suggests he may have another quarter century ahead of him. "Life is like a constant surprise to both of them," says Salter of McCain and his mother. "It's why he reads so much. And when you travel with him, it's just a brutal pace. Seven countries in 10 days—you wake up and have no idea where you are, but McCain knows." During a congressional trip to Asia, McCain and a fellow senator wandered into a local market. The other senator could not wait to get back to the hotel, remarking: "Well, this is the s––t they buy, let's go," while McCain was fascinated by everything.

His political and personal adaptability can be traced to how he viewed his father, but it is also rooted in his experience as the subject of scandal two decades ago. McCain and four other senators faced allegations that they had improperly lobbied for Charles Keating, the Arizona developer at the center of a savings and loan disaster. McCain was cleared, but believed his honor was under attack. "I never saw anybody work as hard as John McCain did to try and restore his reputation," says Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State professor who was a McCain pollster in the early 1980s. "He worked 20-hour days. John has always understood the media. He would drive an hour to Kingman, Arizona, for 10 minutes of radio time [to clear his name]. He was working so hard to overcome this." And, in the long run—for McCain, there is no other kind of run—he did.

He accomplished this partly by drawing on the examples of tenacity and courage from his imagination, the realms of warriors who won through. In 2001, Jonathan Karp, then an editor at Random House, reached out to Salter with a book idea for McCain. Karp had published "Faith of My Fathers," McCain's 1999 memoir, and it had been a critical and commercial success. Thinking of a second book, Karp asked whether the senator might be interested in answering the question: who are your heroes, and why? Salter mentioned the proposal to McCain one day. Heroes, McCain thought, who are my heroes? "And the first guy out of his mouth was Robert Jordan," Salter recalls—the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway's novel of the Spanish Civil War, "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

"He's fictional," Salter replied.

"Yeah, I know," McCain said, "but he was everything a man would want to be."

Hemingway's Jordan is a college professor from Montana who goes to Spain as a freedom fighter in the war against the Fascists in 1937. He does his duty, falls in love and, at the climax of the novel, suffers a seemingly fatal wound from a shell. Left alone with his machine gun on a hill to die, waiting to kill a pursuing enemy before he himself succumbs, he muses on love and fate and duty and death. "You have had much luck," he thinks. "There are many worse things than this. Every one has to do this, one day or another. You are not afraid of it once you know you have to do it, are you? No, he said, truly … He looked down the hill slope again and he thought, I hate to leave it, is all. I hate to leave it very much and I hope I have done some good in it. I have tried to with what talent I had. Have, you mean. All right, have." Then comes the line McCain remembers best: "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it."

In talking about the book—which he does often—McCain seems to thrill to Jordan's fatalism, the stoic acceptance of sacrifice in a larger cause, the image of a good man playing his part in the battles of his time, dying nobly in the knowledge that nothing on earth will ever be precisely the way we want it to be, but that we must fight on, for such is the lot of man. A careful reading of the conclusion of Hemingway's novel, though, does not quite fit so neatly with the fatalist interpretation McCain—like many other readers—favors. The final image in the book is not of a death but of a man on a mission, still fighting. His target, Lieutenant Berrendo, unaware that Jordan is lying in wait, is riding into range. "Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady," Hemingway writes. "He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow." Jordan prepares to take his shot—and the novel ends with these words: "He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest." Robert Jordan may be dying, but he does not die. A tragic ending, then, is in fact a romantic one, for Hemingway leaves his hero alive, at least for another moment, on the forest floor, preparing to do one last noble thing. McCain's hero may hate to leave the world, but we do not see him do it: what we see, instead, is a good man hanging on, clinging to life, always fighting. Closing the book, which McCain first did as a boy in his father's study in Washington, the reader is left with a sense of life, not death, of light, not darkness. The conclusion is ambivalent, and holds out a bit of hope. Little wonder McCain loves it so.

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