McCain’s Youthful Indiscretions

One running theme of John McCain’s speeches is his youthful indiscretion. He made it the centerpiece of his speech today at Annapolis on day three of his autobiography tour:

In truth, my four years at the Naval Academy were not notable for exemplary virtue or academic achievement but, rather, for the impressive catalogue of demerits I managed to accumulate. By my reckoning, at the end of my second class year, I had marched enough extra duty to take me to Baltimore and back 17 times which, if not a record, certainly ranks somewhere very near the top.

McCain has always been impressively candid about his youth. But in recent days, he hasn’t gone into detail. Speaking at his high school yesterday, he mentioned his ” unruly passions ” but left it at that. And no one has pushed him to reveal more.

Compare that to Barack Obama, whose admission in his memoir that he tried cocaine has produced reams of speculation . (The pinnacle would be the Times article accusing Obama of doing less drugs than he claims.) Why does Obama’s (relatively minor) youthful indiscretion merit so much more attention than McCain’s?

Two reasons: Because McCain’s youth happened so long ago and because it’s been well-documented. On the first count, I’d guess this is one area where McCain’s age helps him. Whereas Obama’s youthful indiscretion occurred only 25 years ago, McCain’s wildest years are twice as far gone. (Then again, McCain’s, er, indiscretions continued until he was Obama’s age.)

At the same time, plenty has been written on McCain’s past, often by McCain himself. Back in 1999, Slate ’s Jacob Weisberg summarized the most colorful episodes in McCain’s campaign memoir, Faith of My Fathers :

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.

That last part highlights the third reason McCain’s misspent youth doesn’t dog him on the campaign trail: His redemption narrative. The years he spent as a POW in Hanoi—and the epiphanies he describes having had there—have not only supplanted his drinking habits and sex life as the key part of the McCain Story, they’ve made those earlier phases seem admirable. Everyone loves a redemption story, which is why McCain can be so honest about his past. Obama’s drug story is essentially, I did coke, then I stopped . For McCain, though, the early mess-ups are necessary to tell the story of his eventual self-discovery.

Indeed, McCain’s screw-ups are central to his identity. He wouldn’t cast himself as such an ethics hawk if it hadn’t been for his involvement in the Keating Five scandal. The difficulty in admitting to more recent dalliances, however, is in convincing people that the past is really past.