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.
Finally, tracked down by one of his father's aides, he is spotted maneuvering through the crowd. An amiable young man with his mother's fair coloring and sharp features, he is clad in a white shirt, a black tie and a black service coat with golden anchors on the collar. He is wearing a nameplate that reads "McCain '09," a reference to his graduating class.
Father and son head for a quieter part of the room. McCain again takes out his cellphone and calls his wife, Cindy, who is recuperating from knee surgery back home in Phoenix. She hasn't missed an Army-Navy game in years and is feeling low. McCain puts his son on the phone.
"Hey, Mom," Jack says. "How are you?"
The senator rubs the midshipman's chin and asks whether he has shaved.
"I shaved this morning!" he says with a laugh.
A well-wisher approaches. McCain takes a step back and says what he has been waiting to say all morning: "This is my son Jack."
* * *
One summer when he was a student at the Naval Academy, John McCain went to his parents' home on Capitol Hill and asked his father to describe his experiences in World War II.
McCain was 5 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. His grandfather John Sidney McCain Sr. was a crusty, Popeye-like figure known as "Slew" who rolled his own cigarettes and drank, swore and gambled "at every opportunity," McCain wrote in his book. A pioneer and leader in naval aviation, Slew McCain was on the deck of the USS Missouri during the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.
McCain's father, meanwhile, had been a commander of submarines and had stories of his own. But McCain seldom asked him about the war. It was a form of silent protest. He knew he was destined for the Navy and says he was rebelling against the forces that were propelling him there.
"When I was growing up," McCain says, "it was expected I was going to go to the Naval Academy. It was just one of those things. I can remember as a little kid friends of my dad saying, 'Well, what class is he going to be?' "
In high school, McCain mentioned that he might like to go to Princeton. "It was out of the question," he says. His father drove him to the academy for orientation, according to McCain biographer Robert Timberg.
But McCain's tenure at the academy was turbulent. "I was really rebellious," he says. "I mean, really rebellious." He partied, piled up demerits for misconduct, romanced a Brazilian fashion model, almost quit school and wound up graduating fifth from the bottom of his class. "I hated the place," he wrote.
Frank Gamboa, a retired Navy captain who roomed with McCain at the academy for three years, watched him struggle with his father's expectations. "He resisted the weight of the legacy," says Gamboa, who, as the son of Mexican immigrants from a small town in California, couldn't have come from a more different background. At the same time, Gamboa adds, McCain was proud of his family.
His pride finally won out over his resentment, McCain says, as he matured. As a student, he was steeped in naval warfare in history class, and he rubbed shoulders with the aging heroes of World War II who taught and worked at the academy. His father had fought in that war, too, "and I wanted to know what it was like," McCain says.
His father, a diminutive, cigar-smoking man who was also known as Jack, told him about the three submarines he had commanded. He told him about hunting Japanese warships and being hunted by them. He told him about being depth-charged for hours amid the foul air and tension of a cramped submerged sub.
In one battle, his father's boat remained underwater for 18 hours, eluding enemy warships. Almost out of oxygen, it surfaced with its suffocating crew to fight it out, only to find that the Japanese had given up the chase.
His father told the stories in a matter-of-fact manner, which McCain took as a sign of respect. "I had his trust that I would prepare myself for my turn at war," McCain wrote. "I admired him, and wanted badly to be admired by him."
* * *
McCain's test would come as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, when an antiaircraft missile blew the right wing off his jet on Oct. 26, 1967, and he had to eject over Hanoi. His ordeal would last years, break his body and mind, drive him to attempt suicide, make him a national hero, and help ruin his first marriage.
It would also expose his father to an exquisite agony.
McCain's capture generated headlines across the United States. His picture ran on the front page of The Washington Post, with the headline "Held in Hanoi." He was filmed in an enemy hospital, and a copy of the footage was shown to his anguished parents. His father, McCain says, "got down every night and prayed."
A few months into McCain's imprisonment, his father was named the Pentagon's commander in chief for the Pacific, a job that essentially put him in charge of prosecuting the war. His father insisted that his change-of-command ceremony be held aboard the USS Oriskany, the carrier for McCain's squadron.
Throughout McCain's imprisonment, his father never penned him a letter, knowing that the enemy would use it for propaganda. But every Christmas, the elder McCain would fly to Vietnam and visit Marines near the demilitarized zone that then separated North and South Vietnam. At some point, McCain wrote, the admiral would walk off by himself and look out to the north over the frontier. He was searching for his son.
Early in McCain's captivity, the North Vietnamese, well aware of who their prisoner was, offered to release him. He refused, sensing it would shame his father and demoralize his comrades.
In 1972, the admiral was called on to implement B-52 bombing raids on Hanoi, where he knew his son was being held. "B-52s in those days were not exactly totally precision bombing," McCain says. "There was never a doubt in his mind what he would do. But still, you know your kid's there, and you're ordering the bombing of the area."
According to his book, McCain and his fellow POWs rejoiced at the bombings. "Thank you!" the Americans shouted as the ground shook and their guards scrambled for cover.
By then, their ordeal was almost over.
Peace accords ending the war were signed in January 1973, and McCain was released in March. His father, who had already retired and was in failing health, was invited to the welcome-home ceremony in the Philippines. He asked whether the parents of other POWs were invited. Told they were not, he declined.
Father and son were reunited a few weeks later in Jacksonville, Fla. "It was a very touching reunion," McCain says, between the war-weary, old-school admiral and the son he might have killed.
"He had aged," McCain says.
Before his son's release, Jack McCain had asked to stay in his post to see the war to its conclusion, but he was turned down. His father was lost without the Navy. And he believes that despair helped produce the heart attack that killed him in 1981.
On the day of his father's funeral, McCain retired from the Navy. "It was the first time in the 20th century," he wrote, that "the name John McCain was missing from Navy rosters."
* * *
Twelve years later, on May 26, 1993, McCain spoke to the Naval Academy's graduating class, an address that Timberg recounts in his book. McCain had just been elected to a second term in the Senate. Friends from around the country had come to hear his speech at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
It was a warm, breezy day and a triumphant moment. McCain's father had spoken at the academy's commencement in 1970, while McCain was a POW in Hanoi.
Among those present that day in 1993 were 1,050 academy graduates -- and 6-year-old Jack.
"For much of my life," McCain told the crowd, "the Navy was the only world I knew. It is still the world I know best and love most.
"Here we learned to dread dishonor above all other temptations," he said. He reviewed the achievements of past Navy heroes -- pilots and gunners and submariners -- and then spoke of his own ordeal.
"I have watched men suffer the anguish of imprisonment, defy appalling human cruelty . . . break for a moment, then recover inhuman strength to defy their enemies once more. All these things and more, I have seen," he said. "And so will you. My time is slipping by. Yours is fast approaching. You will know where your duty lies. You will know."
Jack remembers the day vividly, not so much his father's words, but the sight of all the graduates throwing their hats in the air in celebration. Even at 6, he felt a connection to the young officers in their Navy whites.
* * *
John McCain's white hair looks thin and wispy as he jokes with his son before the football game. His voice sounds gravelly as he tells stories and greets friends.
His presidential bid has been battered by money woes and a staff meltdown. It has also been hurt by McCain's stubborn support for the war in Iraq and by his vocal compassion for the plight of illegal immigrants.
"I don't believe I was intended to be president," he says. "I don't even believe I was intended to be a senator. But I do believe I was intended to do some thing, or things, that are a cause greater than my own self-interest."
As he chats in the hospitality suite, his son stands beside him, 50 years his junior.
McCain says he didn't pressure Jack to become a midshipman. "I never brought it up," he says, because "I was pushed very hard, and I was worried about the negative reaction." Still, McCain says, "I'm sure it was obvious to him that I'd be proud if he went."
For Jack, there was no resistance. No struggle with his father's legacy. When it came time to choose a college, he announced that he was applying to only one: the Naval Academy.
"It's a family tradition," says Jack, who thinks he might want to become a pilot like his father. "For most of my life, I've seen what Naval Academy graduates carry. I've seen the way they act, and how people value their opinion. . . . I've always been inspired toward a life of service. I don't believe that there's anything more noble than serving your country in whatever capacity you can."
Recently, he says, while passing through the academy's history department on the third "deck" of Sampson Hall, he spotted a bust of a famous admiral. The face looked familiar. He paused, looked closer and realized who it was: his great-grandfather John Sidney McCain.