Q&A With John McCain

On a flight from Orlando to Atlanta on a recent August day, John McCain spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham about the legacy of his father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., of his grandfather, Adm. John S. McCain Sr., and of his vivacious and politically astute mother, Roberta. Edited excerpts:

MEACHAM: You and Senator Obama both fit into an interesting pattern. A large number of presidents have come from essentially fatherless families, or they have had very strong, powerful relationships with their fathers. It ' s striking to have the two of you come from such different places. How important was the relationship with your dad to making you the kind of man you are right now?
MCCAIN: He was absent a lot—World War II, Korean War, when he was assigned sea duty, even in peacetime. He was gone a great deal. My mother did a good job of keeping him alive for us—your father this, your father that. She was very good at reminding us of him and of his example. And of course when he was home, not only did I get to know him but his fellow naval officers. You know, people always talk about how I am the son of an admiral, but he was not promoted to admiral until after I graduated from the Naval Academy, so it's not as if I grew up as the, quote, son of an admiral. When I was born, he was lieutenant junior grade; when I was in high school, I think he was a commander, so it's not as if he was in some exalted position. But I think my mom, who really idolized my dad, had the effect on us of kind of idolizing him.

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. I think we can all agree that alcoholism is a sickness, an illness, and I saw him fight it and I saw him when he would have a slip, as they say in AA, and he'd become a totally different person. 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.

What effect do you think your father ' s drinking had on you?
I'm not sure I can analyze myself, as you know. But I think it may have attenuated both my appreciation for his strengths and my distress at his illness. I know enough about AA and I know enough friends of mine who have been alcoholics, and I know from my mother—who attended every AA meeting with him—that it is an illness and a sickness, so I saw him at his greatest strengths and at periods of his greatest vulnerability to a disease that changed him. We all know people in our own lives who are alcoholics and the effect that it has on them.

I would imagine for any military officer that the AA thing must have been a tough thing. At what point did he start going?
I know that he started very early on. In World War II, drinking was encouraged by the military—drinking and smoking. And for a period of time, he would be on these war patrols, on a submarine, out for 60 days, and then back to Midway, a very small island, for 30 days, and they would just be encouraged to drink, and they would drink. It was socially acceptable to overindulge in alcohol from Prohibition until sometime around—I don't know—I guess the late '60s or '70s. Certainly in the military, for example, when I was a young officer, we all went to happy hour on Friday night. Period. Everybody in the squadron went to happy hour. That was just the way we lived. So in my father's era—he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1931, the post-Prohibition era—they all drank, and they drank heavily. So his problem was exacerbated by the fact that it was kind of an accepted form of behavior, which it certainly is not nowadays. It was social interaction—"Let's have a drink."

Did you ever worry about yourself [and the risk of alcoholism]?
No. 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—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.

But let me also put another perspective on it. He would sometimes go two or three years without having a drink. So 99 percent of the time, he was a man of honor, of integrity, he was the old style World War II, Herman Wouk, "Winds of War" naval officer—

Like Pug Henry.
Yes, he was just like Pug Henry in almost every way. The pre-World War II naval officer corps—this was true in the Army as well—had its strengths and its weakness. One was that they were so small that everybody knew everybody and therefore it was kind of like a large men's club. They had really high standards, and they were apolitical and all that. But at the same time, they were very insular, very insular, and there wasn't the kind of racial diversity or gender diversity or ethnic diversity [there is now]. Admiral Rickover at the Academy was ostracized because he was Jewish. I remember in my class at the Naval Academy, there was one African American graduate in my class, and that was the class of 1958. So their strength was that they had very high standards of honor and leadership, duty, honor, country, but their perspective was based on the professional Navy. That was their lives. The big event was the Army-Navy game—you know, my God, "We've got to beat Army." Well, I'd love to beat Army, but I didn't cry when we lost.

Your dad was not a political admiral by any means
No, but my mother was very politically astute. When my dad was head of the Office of Legislative Affairs, she would go over to hearings, and she liked that environment very much.

And she would fix Carl Vinson breakfast.
Yeah, Carl Vinson used to come by for breakfast very early in the morning—around 6:30, I think she said. Vinson had also known my grandfather. Again, it was kind of a small group of people in Washington, D.C., and in the military. You and I know about the Army-Navy Club, and I think I've been there five times in my life, but that was a gathering place. It was over on Farragut Square, and they'd be down there all the time.

Your grandfather seems to have been hugely important but almost ghostly in a way.
I can only remember, in World War II, seeing him once or twice when I was very young. And he died as soon as the war was over. But my father had extreme admiration for my grandfather and really revered him and always wanted to please him. You can get into a lot of psychobabble, but also, my father had just turned 16 when he entered the Naval Academy. Very young. That's very young to enter that world. Some of his classmates were 21, so he always had this social awkwardness which my mother never had—she can charm anyone. But he really looked up to my grandfather with intense admiration. My grandfather was much more gregarious, outgoing, popular—he was just an extrovert.