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McCain's True Voice

John McCain in Sparks, Nev., on Tuesday.
John McCain in Sparks, Nev., on Tuesday. (By Max Whittaker -- Getty Images)
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By David Ignatius
Thursday, July 31, 2008

In the dog days of summer, John McCain's political personality has become so fuzzy that even some Republicans are worrying about his viability. But if you want a reminder of why McCain should be a formidable candidate, take another look at his remarkable 1999 autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers."

McCain's account is as revealing as Barack Obama's memoir, "Dreams From My Father." Both candidates have written powerful accounts of their formative experiences. Each tale is woven around the universal theme of fathers and sons. Given the psychological torments that often drive politicians, it's a blessing to have two candidates who have examined their lives carefully and appear to understand their inner demons.

But these two memoirists couldn't have more different stories to tell, and that's what should make the 2008 campaign so interesting. Where Obama describes a quest for an absent father and an African American identity, McCain's early story is about learning to accept the legacy of a famous family where both his father and grandfather were four-star admirals.

McCain was a wild man in his youth, drinking and chasing women like a renegade prince of Navy royalty. He is brutally frank in his description of this protracted adolescence, describing his years at the Naval Academy as "a four-year course of insubordination and rebellion."

McCain's burden, and ultimately his salvation, was the military code of honor that his forefathers embodied. He was from a family of professional warriors, as far back as he could trace his ancestors, and he says this gave him a "reckless confidence" and a sense of fatalism. But it also produced an unshakable bond with his fellow officers and enlisted men -- and to the nation they had pledged to serve. Leadership, the art of guiding men courageously in war, was the family business.

The McCain story converges on his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. In the conventional telling, it is a tale of heroism -- how McCain refused an offer of early release, how he braved torture year after year, how he turned his insolent anger against his captors.

Certainly all those heroic details are present in McCain's memoir, and in his political appeal this year. The Vietnam legacy of steadfastness motivated him to resist American failure in Iraq and to agitate, sometimes almost alone, for what came to be called the "surge" of U.S. troops. When he says he preferred political defeat for himself to military defeat for his country, he is telling the truth. With an ex-POW's stubbornness, he could not abide the notion of failure and dishonor for U.S. forces.

But what makes McCain's account of his captivity truly remarkable is not the heroism but the humility. In page after page, he praises men who he insists were braver than he was. Though even the toughest prisoners were broken by torture, he cannot forgive himself for signing his own confession: "I shook, as if my disgrace were a fever." He survived through solidarity with other prisoners who were "a lantern of courage and faith that illuminated the way home with honor."

McCain's triumph, finally, was that he got over Vietnam. He didn't fulminate against antiwar activists. ("I have made far too many mistakes in my own life to forever disparage people.") He accepted the ways America had changed in his absence. He didn't bear grudges. He had finally grown up. McCain wrote in a magazine article soon after his homecoming in March 1973: "Now that I'm back, I find a lot of hand-wringing about this country. I don't buy that. I think America today is a better country than the one I left nearly six years ago."

That healing gift is what McCain, at his best, brings to the presidential race -- not the brass marching band of military valor but the tolerance of someone who has truly suffered. It's evident in his achievements as a senator: He had been tortured himself, so he campaigned, against intense pressure from the Bush administration, for a ban on torture; he had been caught as one of the "Keating Five" in a sleazy campaign finance scandal, so he defied his party and became a crusader for campaign finance and ethics reforms.

What's damaging the McCain campaign now, I suspect, is that this fiercely independent man is trying to please other people -- especially a Republican leadership that doesn't really trust him. He should give that up and be the person whose voice shines through the pages of his life story.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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