The power and the story
Prison shaped his character. Scandal shaped his crusade. But is
John McCain's biography enough to take him to the White House?
By Nancy Gibbs and John F. Dickerson
December 6, 1999
Web posted at: 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT)
By the time he came out of his Hanoi prison, John McCain had
learned the power of stories. He had been raised on them. The
son and grandson of admirals forever at sea, he had spent more
time with their legends than with the men themselves. Among the
POWs, he was the prison storyteller, the one who helped pass the
days by retelling, scene by scene, his favorite Marlon Brando
movies, who offered a course he called A History of the World
from the Beginning, the one who was allowed 10 minutes with a
Bible one Christmas so he could refresh his memory of Bethlehem
and lead a service in their cell. But it was not until he was
home, a famous, crippled war hero, that he met Ronald Reagan and
learned from the master that he now had the ultimate political
Reagan was Governor of California in 1974, when he invited McCain
to a prayer breakfast in Sacramento. McCain has never been a
particularly reverent guy; but that morning he found himself
telling the silent crowd about a discovery he made when he was
thrown into solitary confinement in a 6-ft. by 9-ft. hole in the
ground. On the wall was etched a testimony, scratched into the
stone by a previous occupant: "I believe in God, the Father
Almighty," read the jagged writing. The words sustained him,
McCain told the crowd, through his 2 1/2-year solitude. When he
finished, the audience, including the Governor, was sobbing. "I
realized," he says now, "it wasn't really me that moved them. It
was the Story that did it."
The Story. You could argue that the story of McCain's remarkable
rise, to the point where he now has a chance of snatching the
G.O.P. nomination away from the $65 Million Man, is the Story of
a story. It is not just that the commentariat has concluded that
this presidential race is all about character and biography and
that McCain's, at the moment, is a best seller. It is not just
that McCain's story defines the man: You cannot scare me, I've
been scared by professionals, and I have nothing to lose because
every day is a gift I once thought I'd never have.
The story is his running mate, and has been from the day he
decided to leave the Navy for politics. It has served as both
weapon and shield, a kind of deterrent that makes him easy to
fear, hard to attack, hard sometimes even to live with.
Throughout his rise to power, it was the story that could both
win people over and shut people down. Who among his adversaries
wanted to answer the question, "So just what were you doing from
1967 till 1973, while he was being maimed and tortured in service
to his country?"
The story has helped protect him from his own faults, his ethical
lapses, his ugly outbursts, the abandoned first marriage, because
he admits to failures that sound more heroic than most people's
successes, and it is hard to judge someone who has made choices
most civilians can't even imagine. It's not just that he survived
being hung by ropes from two broken arms and beaten senseless;
it's that when his captors learned of his famous father and
offered to let him go home, he refused unless they let the rest
of the prisoners go as well. Such conduct enthralls a generation
that aches for heroes and doubts the moral detour it took during
the years John McCain was becoming the icon of Duty, Honor and
Country. So compelling is the Story that it has helped bring him
here, to a dead heat in New Hampshire with the Texas Governor:
the man to whom much has been given against the man from whom
much was taken away.
The question is whether, having come so far, he is now a prisoner
all over again, this time of his biography. He has traded on it
for so long you wonder whether he can break away from it and make
the story not about him but about us; whether, having caught his
audience, brightened the lights, earned his newsmagazine cover,
he can stand up and tell us where he wants to go and what he
wants to do. That way, voters might get to judge whether the
events that changed his life would help him change ours. Or
whether, as a longtime observer says, his bio is all he has.
It was no accident that the first four questions McCain faced in
last week's Republican debate were not about Medicare or Chechnya
or Microsoft; they were all about him. Just how bad is your
temper, Senator, and why do some of the people who know you best
dislike you most? Why are people whispering that your years in
prison left you slightly unhinged?
Well, McCain replied, as he has all along, he speaks his mind and
tells the truth: "It is very clear to all," he said Thursday
night, "the lobbyists and special-influence people who run
Washington know that if John McCain is President, things are
going to be a lot different." But there is more to the charges
than that. The whispering campaign aims to turn his story against
him: he's not really like the rest of us, give him a medal but
don't make him President. "I attribute it all to the abuse," says
a former Senator after cataloging McCain's explosions. "He has a
very short fuse and blows quickly," adds a Senate staff member,
part of the faceless choir that has haunted McCain for weeks now.
"That would bother me in a President, who has to be disciplined.
I do not believe his temper is controlled."
And so last week, the McCain campaign caught the grenade and
tossed it back. McCain's medical records, including psychiatric
reports and a virtual orthopedic encyclopedia of his broken
bones, were released. "Patient seems to have made an excellent
readjustment over the past year," read his mental evaluation just
a year after his return. "There is no sign of emotional
difficulty." Years of subsequent evaluations found no clue that
anything was rattling around in McCain's cupboards. Besides
answering the critics, the campaign knew the release of the
records brought a second benefit: We've had the book and the
documentary; now comes the unabridged version, a chance to tell
the Story one more time.
The funny thing about McCain's story is that it has always worked
better on other people than it has worked on him. The whole hero
mantle, he claims, makes his skin crawl. That may be carefully
calculated modesty, but it may also reflect a nagging problem.
"It doesn't take a lot of talent," he says, every chance he gets,
"to intercept a surface-to-air missile with your own airplane."
And yet that failure as a pilot meant that he joined the truly
tiny group of men who returned home from a reviled war and were
welcomed with parades and medals and a handshake from the
That he survived at all gave the country reason to consecrate
him. But McCain, a rascal midshipman who graduated near the
bottom of his class, had found his faith in a different standard,
where glory is measured by commitment to causes larger than
oneself. And if everyone around him was saying he had brought
honor to his family name, he didn't yet have reason to believe
it. "They are treating us like heroes," he told his Naval Academy
roommate Chuck Larson when he got back to the States, "and all I
did was get shot down and try to survive the best I could. I
really want to put that behind me. What's important to me is what
I do from now on. I don't want to live and be nothing but a POW."
It's not that the story was a lie; it's just that no one
understood it the way he did.
And so all the parades and the praise just made McCain more
impatient to live up to the expectations that had been set for
him practically at birth. He didn't have time to lash out at the
political system that had abandoned him or the counterculture
that called his comrades baby killers. His cause was more
immediate and personal. "The years he was in prison were like
cutting out the fillet of a T-bone steak," says Nancy Reynolds, a
longtime Reagan aide who befriended McCain during those years.
"After that, John was always playing catch-up."
The one place where McCain could not make up lost time, the one
arena where his story in a strange way carried the least weight,
was in the military. When he came back from Vietnam, he toyed
briefly with "alternative plans in civilian life in politics,"
according to doctors who debriefed him. But McCain only toyed
with the idea, choosing instead to study at the War College,
become a Navy flight instructor in 1974, and then, in 1977, to
take a job his father had held 20 years before, as the Navy's
liaison to the Senate. In this last role, the road forked. Even
as he took that job, it was clear that his Navy career was
stalled. His war injuries were still bad enough to rule out a sea
command. It had taken years of physical therapy for him to be
able to bend his knee again, and to this day he can't raise
either arm above his head. Though his father and grandfather had
been the only father-and-son four-star admirals in U.S. history,
McCain was passed over by a promotions board.
Yet even as one door closed, another was opening. Here he was, a
rookie staff member on Capitol Hill, and Senators were asking to
have their picture taken with him. They came to his tiny office
for a drink at the end of the day and often wound up talking long
into the night. "Youthfulness, combat experience ... and as
unmilitary a manner as possible," is how McCain once explained
the requirements of the job.
"He was just so damn engaging and fun to be with," said former
Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who would be a groomsman at McCain's
second marriage in 1980. "I was amazed at his total experience
and his emotional management." The admiration and familiarity not
only made McCain a very effective advocate for the Navy; it also
got him thinking about himself as the Distinguished Gentleman
from Somewhere. "He looked at those guys," says Jay Smith,
McCain's early political guru, "and said, I can do this job."
And so there came a warm, cloudy spring day in 1981 when John
McCain buried his father in Arlington National cemetery, next to
his grandfather's grave, the latest McCain, in a line dating back
to the Revolutionary War, to march from training to combat to
valor and into the ground at Arlington. It would be a day of two
ceremonies. That afternoon McCain signed his final discharge
papers, turned in his identification card and wore his uniform
for the last time. "It seemed to me that I was disconnected from
my previous life," he says of that day. "I was concerned whether
I would be able to continue their tradition."
He may have departed the military for politics that day,
but he never really stopped fighting. McCain's political career,
from Congress to the Senate to a presidential campaign, can seem
like a seamless extension of his Navy background, even of his
genetic code. "He came from his grandfather and father," says
high school friend Malcolm Matheson. "Both of them were small men
and tough and scrappy. This man can do no other than that." His
campaigns were less about issues and ideas than about hard work
and grit. For him, the political is personal. He didn't much care
whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, only whether you
were with him or against him. His first tutor in politics, in
fact, was Arizona's Democratic Senator Morris Udall. And with a
prisoner's hungry reflex, McCain always had an eye for an
opportunity. "I see an opening," he says, "and I go through
it"--first into Congress, then the Senate, and now the political
He succeeded not only because he had a great story to tell; other
war heroes, from Bob Kerrey to Bob Dole, have failed to transfer
the luster of their medals to the grimy battle for the
presidency. Is McCain, who insists that he is no hero, just
cannier and more ruthless about marketing his heroism? Or was he
born with instincts, which prison sharpened, for seizing
advantage and riding it as far as it might take him? "No one will
work harder," says McCain, as if that will be enough.
If a politician's first campaign has a way of shaping him
forever, then you can trace the patterns of his current New
Hampshire ground war back to 1982 and the newly poured asphalt of
Arizona's rapidly growing First District. Arizona may have been
new to McCain, but he was not new to the state. In 1980 he had
married Cindy Hensley, 18 years his junior and the daughter of
one of the largest beer distributors in the country. "His history
as a POW preceded him out here," she admits, "because my father
was so proud of him." McCain went to work for his father-in-law
as head of public relations, a job designed to increase his
exposure. McCain met every local politician and businessman and
community leader he could, joining in such activities as a local
anti-litter campaign to make his face known. But in the end it
took some luck for him to find his opening. John Rhodes, the
20-year Republican minority leader from Phoenix, decided not to
seek re-election, and the McCains closed on a new house in his
district on the very same day.
McCain hit the streets. In the 110[degree] Arizona summer heat,
he went door to door, block by block, meeting people, wowing
them with his easy charm and his great story. He told voters he
had served in Washington, how his relationship with Armed
Services chairman John Tower had helped bring a contract to
build helicopters to a company in the First District. In the
course of the slog, he contracted skin cancer and wore through
three pairs of shoes, inspiring his wife to bronze the third.
His supporters were called McCain's navy, and the new civilian
still remembered how to inspire the crew. Talking to a group of
truck drivers at the beer distributorship where he worked, he
joked, "You guys need to put my bumper stickers on your trucks,
you need to tell your wives and you need to spread the word.
Because if I lose, I'm going to be running this company someday
and I'll fire half of you and the other half will be miserable."
It was in this race that McCain first tested his powers of
inoculation, which have served him well ever since. He didn't
have to worry about critics raising the question of his
womanizing and the collapse of his first marriage because McCain
had said flat out, as he does to this day, that these failures
were his fault. He instructed his adviser Smith not to constantly
harp on the Story. "He wasn't comfortable exploiting it," Smith
recalls. "'Whatever you do, be tasteful,' he would say. 'I don't
want to be the POW candidate. I want to be John McCain from
Arizona.'" Yet he was prepared to roll out the artillery himself
when he needed it.
From the start, McCain was attacked as an opportunist and a
carpetbagger. His high-priced Washington consultants, big war
chest and television ads did nothing to alter that image. At a
debate with his three Republican primary opponents, he took aim
at the issue and killed it dead. "Listen, pal," he replied to a
challenge to his status as an Arizonan. "I spent 22 years in the
Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy.
We in the military service tend to move a lot. I wish I could
have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and
spending my entire life in a 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." The issue didn't come up much after that.
McCain was enough of a celebrity among freshman Representatives
that they elected him President of their 1982 class. And to the
extent that he focused on anything, it was helping lawmakers who
had never worn a uniform make smarter decisions about what
American soldiers should and should not be asked to do. He spoke
out passionately about the need to aid the Nicaraguan contras.
But even early on, he was not just Reagan's pet. In September
1983, barely nine months after taking office, he loudly opposed
keeping U.S. Marines in Lebanon an additional 18 months. Though
lots of speakers referred to Vietnam, McCain was among the few
who had actually been there. Still, he lost, the Marines
stayed--and a month later, when the bombing of the barracks left
241 servicemen dead, McCain was vindicated, as his party got its
first taste of how willing he was to go his own way.
War is hell, and politics can be too when you treat it like one.
Home-state politicians complain that as he rose to power, McCain
worked to turn the Arizona Republican Party into his personal
fleet, tacking to his orders and subject to his discipline.
Anyone who stepped out of line would find McCain out recruiting
primary challengers, even down to the city-council races. "You
are either with him," says a local politician who supports
McCain, "or you're wearing the black hat." Says his former
administrative assistant Grant Woods, with whom relations have
gone sour: "As a maverick McCain doesn't tolerate mavericks
It was not until he fought for and won Barry Goldwater's Senate
seat in 1986 that McCain began to search for a broader mission.
"In the Senate you have greater freedom," recalls former
administrative assistant Chris Koch. "It's not that he had a
specific agenda of A, B, C. He just wanted to get out of being
perceived as just a Navy guy and war hero who is good on
national security." And soon enough he had a chance to fight for
a cause closer to his constituents' hearts--when he resisted a
rise in Medicare premiums. It was his greatest political victory
to date--and, as it happened, the next day brought the worst
Cindy McCain remembers exactly how she heard the news. She was in
the hospital, recovering from painful back surgery. "A resident
came in and threw the newspaper on the bed," she recalls. The
headlines revealed that McCain had received $112,000 in campaign
contributions from Charles Keating, the sleazy S&L owner whose
collapsed empire cost taxpayers more than $3 billion and wiped
out the stockholdings of thousands of small investors. "I guess
your husband is not such a great guy after all," the resident
McCain and four other Senators--all Democrats--were charged with
meeting with Keating as he sought some protection from
regulators who were closing in on his crumbling empire. In
McCain's case, the charge was especially galling. When Keating
asked for a favor and McCain resisted, Keating told another
Senator that McCain was a wimp. The next time Keating appeared
in McCain's office, the Senator took him apart. "I did not serve
5 1/2 years in a POW camp to have my integrity questioned," Koch
recalls him saying.
Never mind that the Senate Ethics Committee's Democratic counsel
urged that the charges against McCain be dropped. Or that in the
end he got a slap on the wrist for showing "poor judgment."
Nearly half the voters in his home state said they thought he
should resign. The scandal was so damaging that it all but erased
the Story. Now McCain's homeric epithet was no longer War Hero.
It was Member of the Keating Five, as though his medals had been
publicly stripped from his chest.
That investigation, McCain has said, closing the loop, was every
bit as painful as imprisonment. It was during that time his wife
became addicted to painkillers--and he did not notice. His allies
say the rough passage carved his political identity. "People get
inspired to do great things by bad things," suggests Torie
Clarke, his former press secretary. "In many ways being a POW was
the best thing that happened to him as a person. And Keating was
the best thing to happen to him as a public servant."
In retrospect, McCain claims that the lesson he learned from the
Keating scandal was that in politics, appearances matter. Even if
he hadn't done anything wrong, guilt by association was enough to
ruin even his image. But it's hard to see that as the main
lesson, given how careless he still is about appearances. He
denounces big-spending special interests and yet accepts flights
on corporate jets; he puts the speaker of the Arizona house of
representatives on his campaign payroll despite a flurry of
ethics charges around him; he neglects to recuse himself from
debates about measures that would affect his family beer
Far from making him more sensitive, the Keating Five scandal was
a near death experience that changed the way he saw himself and
the system. McCain had been at best a reformer junior grade. In
fact, he voted against campaign-reform measures before being
sucked into the sewer himself. He used to brag about the pork he
brought home to Arizona. When an opponent in the 1986 Senate race
pointed out the massive campaign contributions that McCain was
receiving from defense contractors, McCain accused him of running
"one of the most sloppy and dirty campaigns in Arizona's
history." But all the while, he was chasing much needed campaign
cash, just like any other pol. "I think he brushed up against
it," says Clarke of the whole influence-peddling swamp, "and the
horror of brushing up against it inspired him to become the
reformer he is."
That's the film version, anyway. You could also argue that McCain
spun around and embraced reform as a desperate bid to win back
his strength and standing. But a funny thing happened on the way
to his deathbed conversion: he really converted. By 1994 he was
calling Democrat Russ Feingold, arguably the least powerful man
in the Senate, and proposing that they join forces to reinvent
the whole way money worked in politics. No pac money. Free TV. No
soft money. It was a crusade that was guaranteed to lose friends
and alienate people, especially the ones he would need if he ever
wanted to get anything else done.
But it was also perfect for John McCain, citizen soldier,
maverick hell raiser. Whatever self-image he brings to the table,
campaign reform taps every theme. Only a truly brave politician
would take on the whole system that had brought his party to
power in the first place. This cause isn't just Greater Than His
Own Self-Interest--it goes directly against his self-interest. His
party is in power, after all, so it controls the spigots.
Campaign-finance reform has become McCain's Unified Field Theory
of Politics. All problems--HMO reform, education, military waste,
the 44,000-page tax code--come down to this one problem: help me
fix it, and we'll be able to fix everything else.
In a campaign of big ideas, that may be a big enough idea to
carry him a long way. There is the problem that if McCain, the
Renegade Challenger, actually manages to topple Bush, the
Establishment Kid, he disproves his reason for running. Money
would not have made all the difference, after all. And there is
the problem, which he himself acknowledges, about basing a
campaign on reform. "Most people," he says, "are busy thinking
about other things. They don't think government makes much
difference in their lives." It would be easy if they were as
angry as he is; but instead, they're mainly just detached from a
system that seemed to stop speaking to them years ago.
And McCain, for all his candor and accessibility, seems somehow
detached from them. Senators, like sailors, live strange lives,
far from home. But McCain has a special handicap when it comes to
reaching out to voters and understanding what really matters to
them. Heroes don't live at sea level; they live on pedestals. And
he has been to places few others have. "Pain makes it difficult
to see," says his friend Bob Kerrey, another Vietnam hero who
once tried to connect with New Hampshire voters. "It can blind
you and narrow you, whether it's the pain of loneliness, or
physical pain or the pain of loss."
So McCain, more than any other politician in America, works hard
to pull people in, a constant reminder that he's not in solitary
anymore. There is no entourage, no bubble of staff members around
him keeping voters and reporters at bay. And then there are the
stories he tells--to which, if there's a pattern, it's to exalt
other people and deflate himself. A presidential candidate is not
supposed to talk at length and on the record about the rules he
broke or the strippers he dated, or the time he arrived so drunk
that he fell through the screen door of the young lady he was
wooing. The candor tells you more than the content, and reporters
sometimes just decide to take him off the record because they
don't want to see him flame out and burn up a great story.
The problem is that up on the stage, when he tries to tell
stories not about his reckless youth or his heroic comrades but
about average Americans and their everyday lives, he is working
with much dryer clay. He is best when he is angry, not empathic.
He blazes with indignation that 12,000 military families are on
food stamps while Congress approves a $325 million aircraft
carrier the Pentagon doesn't want. But when the subject turns to
the dining-room-table issues that top every list of voter
concerns--education, health care, moral values--McCain seems to
lose some fire. In last week's debate, he took a question about
how to fix HMOs--an issue as salient as they come--and not once but
twice pivoted to talk instead about Internet taxation.
His advisers justify their early emphasis on biography by noting
that George W. Bush entered the race with 100% name recognition,
even if some folks still get him confused with his father. McCain
came in a relative unknown, and so has had to introduce himself.
Only by telling his story will he have any credibility when he
starts saying what he would fight for, given the chance.
But they know he has to move on now, build a bridge from the bio
to the issues. Starting last week, with a foreign-policy speech
Wednesday, McCain began to roll out his positions--national
security this week, then health care, education and the economy.
For once, the focus will be less on who he is than what he says
This is a much harder story to tell, not just for McCain but for
all the candidates trying to capture voters' attention in a
campaign season in which the markets are up and the world is
peaceful and folks have so many other things on their mind. Even
for a man with a great story, it's a hard sell. Maybe McCain is
right to try to capture their imagination instead.
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: December 13, 1999