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Playing the POW Card

John McCain's campaign bio is compelling, even inspiring. But does it mean he'll be President?

By James Carney/Washington

August 30, 1999
Web posted at: 12:00 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT)

TIME magazine

On the crowded shelf of political autobiographies, John McCain's new book, Faith of My Fathers (Random House; 349 pages; $25), stands out in at least one way: it ends when the hero is only 36. It's not surprising that the Republican presidential hopeful would want to end the story there, with his release from a Vietnamese POW camp after 5 1/2 years of captivity. His Vietnam saga is, to say the least, riveting: try to imagine being strung up by your broken arms, beaten senseless by your captors and, then, when they offer you the chance to go home, saying no because it would be dishonorable to leave ahead of those captured before you. Despite a 17-year career in Congress, during which he has championed issues such as campaign-finance reform, McCain's defining life experience came three decades ago at a Hanoi prison. And his POW history is the essence of his argument to voters that he possesses the character to be Commander in Chief.

Biography is not a certain indicator of presidential excellence. Some men of great accomplishment, like General Douglas MacArthur, would have made terrible Presidents. Others who showed little promise before winning the White House--Abraham Lincoln was a mere one-term Congressman and failed Senate candidate--blossomed into greatness once they got there. One exception is Teddy Roosevelt, who took San Juan Hill before taking the White House. T.R., not surprisingly, is one of McCain's heroes.

Faith of My Fathers is ostensibly a three-generation family memoir, the story not just of McCain but also of his father and grandfather, both of whom were four-star admirals. But McCain is the subject. Co-written by Mark Salter, the Senator's longtime aide, the book portrays a rebellious youth who reveres his family's military tradition but chafes against authority. As a child, McCain displays a petulance that leads him, when angry, to hold his breath until he blacks out. As a student, McCain recounts, "I grew more determined to assert my crude individualism." At the Naval Academy he is a self-described "arrogant, undisciplined, insolent midshipman" who graduates near the bottom of his class.

Like so much of military literature, from the Iliad on, the book shows how adversity breeds character and replaces selfishness with esprit de corps. Even now, McCain, 63, seems unable to forgive himself for his "failure" to resist longer before signing a confession, declaring himself a "black criminal." "In prison," he writes, "where my cherished independence was mocked and assaulted, I found my self-respect in a shared fidelity to my country."

There's a subtext to this story: I have the character to lead. But McCain's tale suggests flaws as well as attributes. The "crude individualism" of his youth has translated into a go-it-alone political style that has produced little legislation. And when McCain waffles--appearing to back down on his staunch pro-life position, for example, by suggesting recently that he would not push for the repeal of Roe v. Wade--it seems worse than typical polspeak. McCain's biography makes a compelling read, but it may not guarantee presidential greatness.

--By James Carney/Washington

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: September 6, 1999

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