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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

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

Time magazine

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 weapon.

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 President.

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 World Series.

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 well."

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 defeat.

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 told her.

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 business.

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 he'll do.

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

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