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)
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
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
--By James Carney/Washington
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Cover Date: September 6, 1999