Meacham on McCain, the Cheerful Warrior

I knew a man who slept through the night." So begins John McCain's new book, "Hard Call," in which the former Republican front runner—he has long since ceded that place in the polls to Rudy Giuliani—explores, in the words of the subtitle, "great decisions and the extraordinary people who made them." The man who slept through the night was Air Force Maj. George (Bud) Day, who was shot down 40 years ago this month. With broken bones, a sprained knee and a battered face, Day fell into the hands of the North Vietnamese, who tied his ankles together and put him in a hole until they could send him farther north. "Tough old bird that he was," McCain writes, Day escaped, and spent two weeks moving south, in search of an American forward base. At last one came into sight. It was dark. The enemy was nearby. But Day decided to wait to make his final break for freedom. "He had the presence of mind and discipline in the most trying of circumstances to weigh the risks of hurried action," McCain writes. "He assumed that the perimeter of the airfield was mined. And he worried that in the dark, a limping, crooked, sun-darkened scarecrow of a man hastily making his way toward the base might be mistaken for someone other than an American pilot by a wary sentry with a loaded M-1 and an aversion to taking chances." But when dawn came, he was recaptured by the North Vietnamese and spent the next six years as a POW.

Day's story is a revealing way for McCain to open his book, for the success of the decision is far from obvious. In the very long run, it proved right—Day lived through the war, was an inspiring figure for McCain and others in captivity and ultimately came home to his family—but it was a very long run indeed. The lesson McCain takes from Day's experience is that you make the best call you can given the facts of the moment, and then you take your chances, come what may. Sometimes things work out sooner, sometimes later, sometimes never—and in the last case one has to be always open to changing facts and new arguments. Day's informed courage appeals to McCain, and that appeal sheds some light on McCain's own stoicism.

He has staked his presidential ambitions on the success of President Bush's surge strategy—and not only on its success, but on the prospect that enough Americans will agree that progress is being made. He seems comfortable with, or at least resigned to, the implications of his decision. "I believe that in September and October we will have a chance to prove our mettle again, and that's what campaigns are all about," he tells NEWSWEEK. "I'm comfortable in an insurgent's role."

McCain is a cheerful political warrior—ironic and very often charming—but he has a tragic sensibility. He likes to quote John F. Kennedy's remark that "life is unfair," and few men know that so well. Things fall apart. Planes are shot out of the sky. Prisoners of war are tortured. To McCain, the world is dark and difficult, but can also be sunlit and redemptive; a man who endured five years in a North Vietnamese prison understandably tends to see the vicissitudes of American politics in their proper perspective.

Still, he is a politician, driven by a mix of ambition and altruism, and though he is humbler than many other politicians, he sometimes seems to hear the trumpets. "I don't want to be too melodramatic, but I think it's clear that I've had too many narrow escapes not to believe that there is some purpose for me," he says, then quickly adds: "While one of the things I think about when we are in this difficult period is that there are reasons beyond my personal and political ambitions why I should seek the office, in no way do I think I am here because God wants me to president."

In a chapter on wartime decisions, McCain (with his longtime coauthor, Mark Salter) quotes Fred C. Weyand, a veteran officer of Korea and Vietnam, who said: "The American Army really is a people's army in the sense that it belongs to the American people, who take a jealous and proprietary interest in its involvement. When the Army is committed, the American people are committed; when the American people lose their commitment, it is futile to try to keep the Army committed."

Do these words apply to Iraq and America today? "Oh, yeah," says McCain. "Unless there is measurable and tangible evidence of success—which I think there is—that can penetrate to the American public, then the result is inevitable. What I am hoping is, what I continue to believe is, that the strategy we now have in place is succeeding sufficiently to convince the American people to give it some more time. We are going to have a really seminal debate in September."

To those wistful for the McCain of 2000, the apparent iconoclast who seemed free from partisan orthodoxy, he says: "I haven't changed, and I feel the same way. I am the same guy. I'm not complaining about it—don't get me wrong. This is what campaigns are for. But I have to do what I think is right." McCain, it seems safe to say, is a man who sleeps through the night.