John McCain: rebel with an iron willA Navy Brat's Navy Brat /Hell-Raiser Into Hero
By Edward Walsh
Paris, Friday, January 21, 2000
John McCain's reputation had finally caught up with him, or so it seemed. It was the summer of 1967 and Mr. McCain, a young naval officer awaiting orders to report to an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam, was at the Florida home of his Naval Academy classmate, Charles (Chuck) Larson.
As Mr. Larson recalls it, at one point he and Mr. McCain were alone in the kitchen when Mr. McCain confided, "Chuck, I may have to get out of the navy. I really decided I want to be a serious naval officer, but when I go to a new squadron everybody starts laughing and telling John McCain stories."
Everywhere, his reputation preceded him. There were countless stories of his high jinks and relatively minor but persistent acts of defiance at the academy and at flight school. There was his habitual and legendary sloppiness. And, always, there was talk of the women, like the Brazilian model with whom he cavorted during a stopover in Rio on a midshipmen's cruise, and "Marie, the Flame of Florida," the exotic dancer he dated while he was still single and learning to fly warplanes.
Six years after the kitchen conversation, Mr. McCain returned to Jacksonville, Florida, with an entirely different reputation, that of a hero and a survivor. He was, by then, recognized as a "serious naval officer," but his career in the navy was already doomed because of the physical ailments that racked his body.
The Vietnam War forever changed Mr. McCain's life. It was an experience he could have done without, but it did have at least one long-term benefit: It gave him a celebrity status that provided the foundation for a new career in politics.
For years after his release from a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, Mr. McCain seldom spoke of his captivity. When he did, according to friends, it was almost always in a joking manner. Even when he ran for the House and later the Senate in Arizona, he did not talk about it much publicly because it was a story everyone knew: five and a half years as a POW, solitary confinement, torture by his captors, survival.
But now, as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. McCain refers often to his time in Vietnam. He has written a book about the experience and the wartime exploits of his father and grandfather, both famous admirals. He likes to say that it is a story of "three flawed individuals who found redemption through service to their country." But it is more than that. It is the underlying rationale for the McCain candidacy. More than any other candidate in recent memory, Mr. McCain is running for president on the basis of his own life's story, flaws and all.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, now 63, is often described as a "maverick," and his willingness to buck his own party's orthodoxy on some issues, and to feud with its leadership, is part of his political profile and an underlying theme of his presidential campaign. But Mr. McCain's contrarian streak did not begin when he entered politics by winning a House seat in the Phoenix area in 1982. Throughout his life, he has always stood slightly apart, and seemed most comfortable there.
At Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, which Mr. McCain entered as a sophomore and graduated from in 1954, one of the nicknames that classmates bestowed on him was "McNasty." He was short and strong, a member of the wrestling team. Years later, those now-graying classmates said they did not recall his getting into all that many fights.
But they did remember him as someone who projected an aura of toughness and a willingness to buck the system at the staid, all-male boarding school. A yearbook photograph from that era shows the future crusader against the tobacco industry with his collar turned up, a cigarette dangling from his lips, in a classic 1950s "Rebel Without a Cause" pose.
"Everybody perceived him as a tough guy, but not a looking-for-a-fight tough guy," said Rives Richey, who graduated from Episcopal a year after Mr. McCain. "It was just that if you got in a fight with McCain you'd better be ready to go all the way because he had no quit in him."
The editors of Mr. McCain's senior class yearbook unwittingly hinted at the contours of his future political life. The caption beneath his photograph called him the "Punk" and said: "His magnetic personality has won for him many lifelong friends. But as magnets also must repel, some have found him hard to get along with."
At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Mr. McCain piled up demerits at an alarming rate and continued to defy authority. He was a ringleader in a group of midshipmen who proudly called themselves "the Bad Bunch," a label that conveyed the group's sense of apartness from the model officers the academy sought to produce. Their behavior was tame by today's standards - there were no drugs or brushes with civilian law enforcement authorities - but in the regimented confines of the 1950s Naval Academy, they tested the limits of their superiors' tolerance.
The rebelliousness came naturally to Mr. McCain, for he was born into a world that was set apart. It was the world of the 1930s navy, a small and insular community of career officers who worked together, socialized together and raised their families together. They led a nomadic life. Mr. McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone, estimates that he attended as many as 20 schools before the Naval Academy, including three in one year. One reason his parents enrolled him at Episcopal, he said, was to provide him with a semblance of educational continuity and stability.
This had been the way of life of the McCain family for two generations. Mr. McCain's grandfather, a colorful figure who finished in the bottom quarter of his class at the Naval Academy and who was widely known for his smoking, drinking, gambling and cursing, commanded aircraft carrier task forces in the Pacific during World War II and was on the deck of the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered in 1945. The senator's father, Admiral John S. McCain Jr., who finished 18th from the bottom of his academy class, rose to command all U.S. forces in the Pacific. When President Richard Nixon ordered the resumption of sustained bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, it was Admiral McCain Jr. who issued the operational directives as his son, John S. 3d, languished in a prisoner-of-war camp in Hanoi.
By then, the youngest McCain had continued the family's dismal and steadily downward spiral in academic performance, finishing fifth from the bottom in the Naval Academy class of 1958. He did well in subjects that interested him, such as history and literature. As for other subjects in a curriculum heavily weighted toward science and mathematics, Mr. McCain became an expert in the art of cramming and relied on the tutoring skills of his more diligent classmates. He got by.
It is not difficult to understand why others were willing to help Mr. McCain. He was always fun to be around. Whenever the midshipmen had free time, "it was always a big deal - what are we going to do, what places are we going to go at night," said John Dittrick, another of Mr. McCain's Annapolis roommates. "Invariably, he always seemed to take charge of that. It was sort of a natural thing. You just did what John suggested."
After his A-4 Skyhawk bomber was shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967, Mr. McCain stood apart from his fellow prisoners of war. He was so severely injured that the North Vietnamese at first told him it was "too late" for medical treatment to do any good. But when they learned that he was the son of an important U.S. admiral and potentially a valuable propaganda tool, the North Vietnamese provided rudimentary treatment and put him in a cell with other American POWs, who gradually nursed him back to health.
THEY ALSO announced his capture, sparing his family the months or years of uncertainty endured by the families of other airmen who were shot down and listed as missing in action.
Mr. McCain did not always welcome this special place in the navy that seemed to have been reserved for him from birth. At times he resented it, but he and his parents never discussed his destiny: the Naval Academy and a career in the family business. "It was just a fact," Mr. McCain recalled.
So he rebelled with acts of defiance against authority figures other than his parents, but it was always rebellion within limits.
"John was always a guy who pushed the boundary, but he always knew where that boundary was," said his brother Joe. "He never got thrown out of anything. He never flunked out of anything. He came as close as you can, but he always had that sense of what was going to be too much."
"He knew he came from a distinguished naval family, and he knew what the limits were in behavior," said Frank Gamboa, his Naval Academy roommate. "I think that made him a little more independent. We didn't want to tempt the system, but he felt pretty confident he could tempt the system and get away with it. He'd push the line, he'd push the edge, but he never went over the edge."
Mr. McCain offers one other reason for his internal sense of where to draw the line, a subject he mentions in his book.
"My father drank too much," he said. "It was really unsettling to me to see the effects of alcohol on him. So even though I did all this wild stuff of going over the wall and having beers, I never drank to excess. People may have thought I was because I'd be singing and yelling, but I was always careful not to lose control of myself. I would always pace myself so that I didn't become incapacitated because it was so distressing to me to see my father - the noblest, strongest, most principled person I had ever known - exhibit the symptoms of a binge drinker."
America's most controversial war underscored Mr. McCain's seriousness about a career in the navy. Others may have sought refuge from the war in graduate school or even Canada; for an ambitious young navy lieutenant commander, the war was an opportunity.
He volunteered for combat duty and was assigned to the aircraft carrier Forrestal, where in the summer of 1967 he first witnessed the ghastly side of the family business. As Mr. McCain was preparing to take off, a rocket discharged from a nearby plane and struck his aircraft. The freak accident created an inferno of jet fuel and set off munitions on the deck, killing 134 sailors.
Mr. McCain was lucky to be alive, but with the Forrestal out of commission he volunteered for duty on the aircraft carrier Oriskany. It was from the deck of the Oriskany that he took off on his 23d and final bombing mission in October 1967.
Mr. McCain spent the next five and a half years in a variety of North Vietnamese prisons, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He was severely injured when shot down - the ejection from his aircraft broke both of his arms and his right knee - and this was followed by beatings and torture administered by his captors. Like many POWs, he reached a breaking point and signed a phony confession of "war crimes."
But Mr. McCain steadfastly refused offers of early release ahead of others who had been held captive longer because that would violate the military code of conduct and because he feared that the North Vietnamese would use his special status as the son of an admiral for propaganda purposes.
An air force major, George Day, remembers his first prison encounter with Mr. McCain shortly after Mr. McCain was shot down.
"His hair is snow white," Major Day said. "He's filthy. He's really emaciated, weighs maybe 90 pounds."
ANOTHER prisoner was Orson Swindle, a Marine fighter pilot who was shot down in 1966 and who is now a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. He remembers his first conversation with Mr. McCain, whose spirit clearly had not been broken. They were in separate cells, able to hear but not see each other as their voices bounced off a nearby wall.
"He said, 'I wanted to be a Marine like you but I couldn't handle the qualifications,"' Mr. Swindle recalled. "I said, 'What qualifications?' And he said, 'Well, my parents were married, to begin with."'
Today, Mr. McCain is known for an almost reckless candor, especially for a politician. That may be part of his nature, but the trait was certainly reinforced by his prisoner-of-war experience. Communicating with each other was the key to survival and sanity for the prisoners.
Mr. McCain is also, according to Mr. Gamboa, someone who once crossed would not be quick to forget.
Early in his captivity, Mr. McCain shared a cell with Major Day and another Air Force major, Norris Overly. It was Mr. Overly, the only one of the three who was not severely injured, who nursed Mr. McCain back to health. He fed him, washed him, carried him to a corner of the cell where a bucket served as a toilet. Then he cleaned up after him.
Unlike Mr. McCain, Mr. Overly did accept early release from the prison camp. When Mr. McCain finally returned to the United States in 1973, Mr. Overly called him to welcome him home. They had a brief, perfunctory conversation and did not speak again until about six months ago, when Mr. McCain called his former cellmate and said that if Mr. Overly was ever in Washington they should get together.
Mr. McCain has never really explained why he shunned Mr. Overly for so many years, but a perceived disloyalty to the POWs who stayed behind and to the code of military conduct is a plausible reason.
Asked recently why he decided to call, Mr. McCain did not answer directly.
"The only reason I lived was because of Norris Overly," he said. "I think it is a very justified criticism of me that I didn't talk to him. It's a significant failure on my part."
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