Ballot Box

Campaign Book Report: John McCain

Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir
By John McCain with Mark Salter
Random House, 349 pages, $25
(Click here to buy the book.)

Book cover Declining to offer details about his misspent youth, George W. Bush commented, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” His Republican presidential rival John McCain takes a slightly different tack: Let me tell you about when I was young and irresponsible.

There is, for instance the time McCain, on leave from the U.S. Naval Academy, went to visit his latest girlfriend in a classy suburb of Philadelphia. After knocking back a few too many at the train station, he collapsed drunk through the screen door of her parents house. Or the time during his pilot training in Pensacola when he dated a stripper called “Marie, the Flame of Florida.” Marie shocked the polite society of his married officer friends and their wives by pulling a switchblade out of her purse and cleaning her nails. Or, in a far more serious vein, the time when, as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, McCain attempted to hang himself with his shirt.

In a culture where most politicians scurry to minimize any hint of behavior that might be deemed scandalous, McCain reminds you of the Seinfeld episode in which George resolves to do “the opposite.” He offers up his youthful indiscretions in detail and without feigned regret. He’s proud of the bashes he threw, the babes he bedded, and the stunts he pulled. But McCain’s purpose in sharing all this isn’t, or isn’t merely, to boast. It’s to paint a truthful portrait of his earlier life, before he was transformed by his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Like many political reporters, I have long admired McCain for his extraordinary frankness and independence. After reading his gripping book, I’m more convinced than ever that his abnormal honesty isn’t a calculated strategy for winning over the press. It has that effect, of course, but it’s the authentic expression of a remarkable personality.

McCain’s story has been told well before, namely by Robert Timberg in The Nightingale’s Song, a 1995 book about five Naval Academy graduates. (The sections on McCain have been culled for a separate paperback, just issued, entitled John McCain: An American Odyssey.) But even if you’ve read that book, the tale gains something in McCain’s telling, or more precisely in the ghost-telling of Mark Salter, the Senator’s long-time aide. Where Timberg looks at McCain’s career in relation to the Naval Academy, Vietnam, and the Reagan era, McCain examines his own history in the more personal context of his family’s military tradition. For that reason, his story ends in 1973, when the POWs returned home.

John McCain’s father and grandfather, John Sidney McCain Jr. and Sr., were distinguished naval officers who rose to become four-star admirals. As men, Senator McCain indicates, they fell far short of sainthood. They drank, gambled and swore like, well, sailors. But both understood what being an officer meant. The McCain men were fiercely devoted to an unwritten code of military honor. An officer, McCain explains, “keeps his word, whatever the cost. He must not shirk his duties no matter how difficult or dangerous they are. His life is ransomed to his duty. An officer must trust his fellow officers, and expect their trust in return. He must not expect others to bear what he will not.”

At the U.S. Naval Academy, McCain the youngest followed in his grandfather’s and father’s rascally steps by performing poorly as a student and chafing under the hazing that “plebes” were expected to accept. “I resisted not by refusing the hazing but by letting my resentment show, and by failing to conform fully to the convention of the squared-away midshipman,” he writes. “… I wanted the lords of the first and second class to know my compliance was grudging and in no way implied respect for them.” Constantly breaking the rules and provoking his instructors, he nearly “bilged out,” but managed to hang on, graduating fifth from the bottom of his class in 1958.

That McCain got by, barely, is typical of his oddly charmed life. As a pilot in training, he crashed an A-1 Skyhawk into Corpus Christi Bay, and lost consciousness on impact. But he came to underwater and surfaced unharmed. He was at ground zero of a catastrophic explosion and fire aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal that claimed 134 lives, but suffered only superficial injuries. You might say he was unlucky to be shot down over the center of Hanoi–or you might say he was lucky as hell to survive the crash, despite breaking three of four limbs, and to avoid being finished off by an angry mob. McCain attributes his survival in prison camp to the fortuitous discovery by his captors that his father was a high-ranking figure in the U.S. military. Sensing McCain’s potential propaganda value, the North Vietnamese gave him enough medical attention to keep him alive.

The account of the five and half years McCain spent in captivity, which occupies the second half of his book, is wonderful: vivid, unsentimental, and very moving. As a POW, McCain kept up his habit of surly resistance, constantly drawing beatings and time in solitary confinement for communicating with other prisoners and taunting his jailers. “Resisting, being uncooperative and a general pain in the ass, proved, as it had in the past, to be a morale booster for me,” he writes. His most heroic act of insubordination was declining to be released from maggot-infested captivity ahead of other POWs who were captured before he was–an offer others accepted, in violation of military rules. As extraordinary as his decision to remain a prisoner seems, it was entirely in character. McCain, one begins to understand, has been essentially the same person throughout his life. The unwillingness to bend to hazing as a midshipman, to the threat of torture in Hanoi, and to the marching orders of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott are all of a piece. He is a subversive through and through.

Why does McCain rebel against authority? The answer that emerges from his book is that insubordination is a way of establishing moral independence. By being contrary and difficult, McCain demonstrates that no one owns or controls him. He reached his point of deepest crisis in Vietnam when he discovered that his actions weren’t fully under his own power–he could be, and was, broken by torture. McCain’s rather feeble suicide attempts came after he could no longer resist and prepared to sign a confession saying he was a “black criminal” and an “air pirate.”

Before reading this book, I didn’t quite understand why McCain so regretted affixing his name to an absurd-sounding Stalinist confession. No one else would criticize him for caving to torture–why did he beat himself up about it? In McCain’s version of events, his obsession with his surrender starts to make sense: It was the moment he realized that he was beyond his own control. “I felt it blemished my record permanently, and even today I find it hard to suppress feelings of remorse,” he writes. “In truth, I don’t even bother to try to suppress them anymore. My remorse shows me the limits of my zealously guarded autonomy.” He couldn’t hold out alone, and wouldn’t have held up at all without the solidarity of his fellow inmates. Today McCain is still a rebel, but he’s no longer an adolescent rebel.

If there’s a criticism to be made of this fine book, it’s that McCain doesn’t grapple with the morality of the Vietnam War in any serious way. In his concluding chapter, he casually refers to America’s involvement as a terrible mistake. Two pages later, he describes it as a worthy cause. At another point he suggests that we were wrong to be in Vietnam because the American people didn’t support the war sufficiently. This is perfectly circular reasoning: The war was immoral because unpopular, and unpopular because immoral. I’m surprised that he says this. McCain, who recently stood nearly alone in advocating the use of ground forces in Kosovo, obviously doesn’t think that public opinion should determine the course of American military intervention.

Pulling down another cliché about Vietnam, McCain suggests that the United States should have fought the war harder or not at all. This is the approved wisdom of the Powell Doctrine, but doesn’t get you very far as a judgment in hindsight. What should we have done in Vietnam–fight harder, or not at all? Even the outspoken John McCain seems not to want to answer that question.