What McCain's Books Tell Us About Him

In the past 10 years, I've edited five books by John McCain and his longtime aide and collaborator, Mark Salter. At my urging, McCain and Salter have written a children's book of virtues, "Character Is Destiny"; a meditation on bravery, "Why Courage Matters"; a portrait of the maverick life, "Worth the Fighting For"; and an examination of decision making, "Hard Call." (Their first book, "Faith of My Fathers," recently returned to the best-seller list, where it initially spent half a year beginning in 1999.) Together, the books have helped define McCain's persona, and they've sold more than a million copies.

Critics of McCain dismiss these works as an exercise in self-mythology and career advancement; they see in them certain ideals—about rabble-rousing and honor, for example—that they say McCain the candidate has abandoned. But I see them differently—as books in which McCain, as narrator and an occasional character, shows us the way to a nobler purpose. I know from personal experience that John McCain is honorable, kind and wise. (He's the only author I've worked with who has read all six volumes of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" and Herman Wouk's "Youngblood Hawke.") Having read each of his books several times, I've noticed some themes—literary leitmotifs that may illuminate McCain's sensibility and world view:

He has long believed in the possibility of heroes, even imaginary ones. In "Faith of My Fathers," McCain writes of his boyhood love of tales of King Arthur's court. In "Worth the Fighting For," he describes his youthful fascination with two freedom fighters: Robert Jordan, a Montana professor who risks his life to battle Spanish fascists in Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and Marlon Brando's portrayal of Emiliano Zapata, in McCain's favorite movie, "Viva Zapata!" (The psychologically relevant dialogue: "It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.") McCain sees real significance in these heroes, even when they're fictional: "One man on a white horse cannot make history. He can make a difference. He can do justice. He can help force the moment when enduring change occurs, when history swings on its hinge toward a better world."

Things end badly for many of McCain ' s heroes, but their lives have lasting meaning. In "Why Courage Matters," he pays tribute to Hannah Senesh, an underground Jewish commando who endured torture and was executed rather than betray her comrades during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. "She made a choice to be heroic, but to be heroic in order to be true," McCain and Salter write. "Her purpose wasn't to die. She died for her life's purpose." While we were editing "Character Is Destiny," I had to ask the authors to rearrange the order of the chapters so the book wouldn't begin so darkly—with Thomas More's beheading, Joan of Arc's burning at the stake and Viktor Frankl's imprisonment at Auschwitz. They compromised by augmenting the first section of the book with profiles of Gandhi (who was assassinated) and Sir Ernest Shackleton (who survived a failed Arctic expedition). These were chapters in a children's book! In McCain's world, straight talk begins at an early age.

Of all the heroes in McCain ' s life, his grandfather and father loom the largest. "Faith of My Fathers" is best known for his recounting of his imprisonment in Vietnam, but the memoir is framed by the experiences and influences of his grandfather and father (the only family tandem in U.S. history to achieve the rank of four-star admiral). After reading the early pages of the manuscript in 1998 and realizing how profoundly his grandfather and father inspired him, I suggested the book be titled "Family Honor." We ultimately realized that title sounded too much like a Mafia novel, but the way McCain sought to emulate the first two John S. McCains resonates through his books. "My father was the most honest man I know," he writes in "Why Courage Matters." In "Character Is Destiny," he recalls a moment when his mother, while playing cards with his father, teasingly accused him of cheating: "He shot up from the table, in great distress, and begged her never, ever to doubt or even pretend to doubt his honesty … He simply couldn't bear the idea of being deceitful or being accused, wrongly, of deceiving anyone." But the senator speaks frankly of his father's struggle with alcoholism. He recently told NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham, "I saw him at his greatest strengths and at periods of his greatest vulnerability to a disease that changed him."

McCain ' s Vietnam and Iraq experiences are analogous. In "Faith of My Fathers," McCain and his fellow Navy aviators considered America's civilian commanders to be "complete idiots who didn't have the least notion of what it took to win the war." Later the authors describe the efforts of McCain's father, then commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific during the war, to persuade "back-channel correspondents" such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense to rethink military strategy and stop the drawdown of American forces. In publicly criticizing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's failed strategy in Iraq, and in later advocating the views of Gen. David Petraeus, McCain was once again following his father's example, though in a more public and controversial way. It's clear from reading McCain's books that he feels the sacrifice made by those sent to war and regards his commitment to them as a sacred trust, just as his grandfather and father did. In "Faith of My Fathers," McCain quotes an officer who said of his grandfather, "When there isn't anything to be done, he's the kind of fellow who does it."

He appreciates rabble-rousers who take the long view against popular opinion. In "Worth the Fighting For," McCain describes his admiration for Army officer Billy Mitchell, who conducted a lonely and self-destructive crusade for the creation of an Air Force separate from the Army and the Navy, a campaign for which he was arrested and court-martialed. In "Hard Call," he and Salter write admiringly of young Winston Churchill's risky, expensive and controversial decision to convert the royal fleet from coal to oil. Churchill was in his 30s at the time, "challenging the weight of generations of experience and knowledge possessed by his opponents." McCain does not compare his accomplishments with those of his heroes; he identifies with their attitude (though critics now contend that McCain has shed his rebellious persona, aligning himself with the wing of the GOP that, they say, he once stood apart from). In "Worth the Fighting For," McCain assumes detractors view him as a "self-styled, self-righteous, maverick pain in the ass."

He ' s not as fatalistic as he says he is. When facing a bleak political scenario, McCain often humorously invokes a saying he attributes to Mao: "It's always darkest just before it's totally black." The detached wit underscores McCain's acceptance of whatever twist life delivers, a kind of fatalism he links to his family's assumption, dating back to the American Revolution, that all McCain men would serve in the military. "Our strong sense of predestination made us prematurely fatalistic," he says in "Faith of My Fathers." But perhaps realizing that fatalism is not an effective leadership strategy, McCain and Salter revised their definition in "Why Courage Matters": "Fatalism can be a technique to summon or hold our courage, or more accurately, to keep our nerve … When I've experienced difficult times or been in situations that portend uncertain or intimidating consequences, I usually find a little false bravado, a little affected fatalism, helpful."

He doesn ' t consider himself a fierce partisan. His books invoke Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt ("You must do the thing you think you cannot do") as well as Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan. When McCain was elected to Congress in 1982, one of his role models was Arizona legislator Morris Udall, whom McCain praises for "genuine bipartisanship." In "Worth the Fighting For," McCain declined to align himself with the "scorched-earth tactics" of the Young Turks in Congress, among them Newt Gingrich, Connie Mack and Vin Weber. Instead he formed a friendship with Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill. Later in the book, McCain describes his growing disgust with partisan politics, especially in the personal assault on Sen. John Tower during his failed nomination for secretary of defense: "I learned that partisanship taken to extremes is dishonorable and lethal to one's character."

Obama is to McCain what McCain was to Goldwater.We don't often think of presidential candidates as being profiles in humility (anyone who thinks he can run the free world has to have an ego). But McCain seems to place a premium on that quality. In "Hard Call," humility is one of his six factors in decision making. In "Character Is Destiny," McCain and Salter include a chapter on humility, personified by Dwight Eisenhower. McCain's campaign has repeatedly attacked Barack Obama for grandiosity, though McCain himself once played Obama's role as the upstart when he sought Barry Goldwater's Senate seat in 1985. "I really don't think he liked me very much," McCain writes in "Worth the Fighting For," adding, "Maybe he thought I was too junior, too little accomplished, too new to Arizona … to presume to succeed him."

He comes from a privately religious tradition, and he's not a literalist. In "Faith of My Fathers," McCain alludes to why he doesn't talk more often and openly about his own faith by describing his devout father: "He didn't proselytize. But he always kept with him a tattered, dog-eared prayer book, from which he would pray aloud for an hour, on his knees, twice every day." McCain does not proselytize either. But in "Character Is Destiny," published at a time when some social conservatives were mounting an attack on the theory of evolution, McCain and Salter included a chapter on Charles Darwin, including this polite rebuttal: "The only undeniable challenge the theory of evolution poses to Christian beliefs is its obvious contradiction of the idea that God created the world as it is in less than a week. But our faith is certainly not so weak that it can be shaken to learn that a biblical metaphor is not literal history. Nature doesn't threaten our faith."

"Hard Call" offers clues as to why the Sarah Palin pick makes sense to him. The most recent McCain-Salter book is subtitled "The Art of Great Decisions." I asked them to write it on the assumption that voters might be curious about the process by which a potential president makes up his mind. The authors begin the book by discussing the importance of "situational awareness," a tactic McCain learned as a naval aviator. (McCain's critics, of course, would argue that the selection of the vice president should not be reduced to a situational tactic.) An additional clue can be found in their analysis of another key quality in decision making—foresight. They quote Wayne Gretzky: "I skate where the puck is going to be, not where it's been." Although it's too soon to know whether picking Palin will turn out to be the right call, anyone reading "Hard Call" will quickly realize it's exactly the kind of decision McCain values—one unconcerned with conventional wisdom. In a passage written almost two years before anyone knew McCain would be running for president against Barack Obama, or that 2008 would be deemed a "change" election year, the authors stated, "Profound change doesn't always require consensus. Sometimes it is achieved when just a few people see the way ahead and decide to set in motion events that will overtake resistance, change the unsatisfactory status quo, and leave something better in its place."