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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

In the name of their fathers

As famous sons, McCain and Bush reveal much about their character

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

October 4, 1999
Web posted at: 12:29 p.m. EDT (1629 GMT)

At dawn on the day he launched his official presidential-announcement tour, Senator John McCain went home again to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he promised 4,000 cheering midshipmen that, win or lose, he would "keep faith with the values I learned here. I hope I make you as proud of me as I am proud of you." He sounded the same theme before a noontime crowd in Nashua, N.H., as he conjured up the moment when a President has to divine "the reasons for, and the risks of, committing our children to our defense." He reminded those gathered that "no matter how many others are involved in the decision, the President is a lonely man in a dark room when the casualty reports come in."

This is the marker McCain is laying down in his quest to be President: his life. He doesn't spell out that he knows what it is like to be that lonely man, having spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, half of it in solitary confinement. His book, Faith of My Fathers, tells the story of how he aspired to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both four-star admirals, and is No. 2 on the best-seller list.

His biography is a bayonet aimed straight at the candidacy of George W. Bush, who resembles more closely at times the indulged baby boomer who currently occupies the Oval Office than the restorative repository of moral authority he purports to be. In an interview with Talk magazine, he bragged about not liking to read heavy public-policy tomes and mimicked convicted killer Karla Faye Tucker's begging for her life on Larry King Live (which she never did). He then blew off his foreign policy shortfalls (referring to Greeks as "Grecians," confusing Slovenia with Slovakia) by suggesting he could hire people for that sort of thing. He recently boasted to a class in Bedford, N.H., that "some people are saying I prove that if you can get a C average, you can end up being successful in life." Even conservative columnist George Will has fretted publicly about Bush's "lack of gravitas...born of things having gone a bit too easily so far."

The difference between McCain and Bush is evident in how they have handled being the sons of accomplished men. Last Monday a powerful Republican former speaker of the house in Texas testified in an obscure lawsuit that he had pulled strings to get the young Bush into the state's Air National Guard, though he had not been directly pressured to do so by Bush's father. However he did it, Bush was able to avoid Vietnam, like so many sons of the well-connected, while McCain became a POW, having his teeth and head and broken bones smashed in until, fevered and racked by dysentery, he considered suicide. Imagine that this could all be made to stop by your father, the commander of the Pacific fleet, and that your captors were insisting you take early release. But McCain refused special treatment and spent another another 4 1/2 years in prison.

It's no sin to take Daddy's help, but Bush, who received it at every turn, concedes only grudgingly that his success had anything to do with it, saying "Being George Bush's son has its pluses and negatives." His father's name and connections were crucial, from his stake in the oil fields of Texas to his run for Congress to getting first crack at buying the Texas Rangers. If McCain's book is titled Faith of My Fathers, Bush's should be called Friends of My Father.

Bush provided fresh contrasts to McCain last week. While McCain blasted fellow Republican Pat Buchanan for arguing that America did not have to take on Hitler, Bush appeased him, explaining that "I need all the votes" he could get. While McCain says he is running "because I owe America more than she has ever owed me," Bush sometimes seems motivated by a need to redeem his father's defeat. He keeps bringing it up in a way that suggests it has been his life's deepest wound. Last Wednesday he said that Buchanan's 1992 candidacy had had a role in derailing his father, and suggested that Ross Perot carried a "vendetta" against his family. In McCain's story his father comes across as a source of humility and as inspiration for public service. Bush, on the other hand, seems to have inherited his sense of entitlement from his father, and after the President's defeat, an ongoing personal cause.

A week ago Saturday, the Governor could be found with Dad at the Ryder Cup golf tournament, having skipped the tedium of the California Republican Party's convention. To spur the American team on to its jingoistic, fist-pumping victory, Bush gave a pep talk in which he compared the brave golfers fighting to win a noisome corporate-infested sporting event to the brave men who fought to save the Alamo--the use of the profound in service of the mundane.

McCain is no saint (he will tick off the reasons he isn't, if you don't beg him to stop), but he is the natural, solid alternative should there be second thoughts about Bush's pre-emptive coronation. Many people at the rally in Nashua clutched McCain's book and approached him for his signature with something like reverence. One man carefully removed his copy from a Ziploc bag to get the Senator's autograph, then carefully tucked it back in the bag. He didn't want any smudges or dog-eared pages. It's not a coffee-table book, but that's where he planned to display it.


Cover Date: October 11, 1999

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