A Family Duty

While McCain was held in Vietnam, his father would fly there every Christmas to be near him. The POW came home in 1973 after more than five years in prison camps.
While McCain was held in Vietnam, his father would fly there every Christmas to be near him. The POW came home in 1973 after more than five years in prison camps. (By James E. Markham)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007

About an hour before kickoff, the white-haired man in the crew-neck sweater pulls out his cellphone and calls his son. "Hey, where are you, Jack?" he says. "I'm at the game."

Jack, a 21-year-old Naval Academy midshipman whose formal name is John Sidney McCain IV, has just marched onto the field at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium with hundreds of classmates, wearing dark overcoats and white scarves.

It is the morning of the Army-Navy game, and the midshipman's father, John Sidney McCain III, a senator from Arizona and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is besieged in the Navy hospitality suite.

People want snapshots. People want autographs. People want to introduce their children. But the person McCain really wants to see is not here. And for a few moments on a sunny Saturday in December, the quest for the White House seems less urgent than the search for Jack.

John McCain's life has always been framed by his legendary Navy forebears -- the father and grandfather who were illustrious admirals; the tough, passionate men whose code and calling McCain was preordained to share. He is a product of almost 80 years of family service, which included his 5 1/2 years of torture and deprivation in North Vietnamese prison camps.

Now, at 71, as he seeks the Republican nomination for the second time, the dutiful Navy son who was tempered in one war has become father to sons who may be tempered in another.

Jack is a junior at the academy -- the fourth John S. McCain to attend the school, and the latest to carry the weight of the family legacy there. A younger son, James, 19, known as Jimmy, is a lance corporal in the Marine Corps and has been serving in Iraq for five months. Their father has been among the most ardent supporters of the struggle in Iraq, despite what it has cost him politically and, more important, what it could cost him personally.

"Sure, I worry about them," McCain says of his sons. "But one thing about kids when they're 19, 20, 21: They know they're bulletproof. They know they're never going to get hurt. No matter what. They're never going to get hurt."

A hint of gravity slips into the last sentence, and McCain pauses. "But I also understand their spirit of adventure," he says. The lure of danger and the desire, perhaps, to be tested.

"I think Jimmy joined the Marine Corps because he loved his country, but also because he wanted to be a Marine," McCain says. "He thought: 'Here's the adventure. Here's the action.' That's how 18-year-olds are."

It's how he was, too. War is "the great test of character," he wrote in his 1999 book, "Faith of My Fathers." His father and grandfather had both passed, and in the end, McCain did, too.

But right now, the kickoff approaches and the Navy hospitality suite is still jammed with military brass. Football legend Roger Staubach is here. Country music star Lee Greenwood is here. Only Jack McCain is still missing.

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