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The Curious Mind of John McCain

John McCain, who retrenched after his failed 2000 presidential bid, said this attempt is going well: "If I win this campaign, "historians will say, 'He was a genius' " who adapted under pressure.
John McCain, who retrenched after his failed 2000 presidential bid, said this attempt is going well: "If I win this campaign, "historians will say, 'He was a genius' " who adapted under pressure. (By Scott Olson -- Getty Images)

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By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2008

In his 2002 book, "Worth the Fighting For," John McCain offered this confession -- an acknowledgment of a restless mind: "Although I seem to tolerate introspection better the older I am, there are still too many claims on my attention to permit more than the briefest excursions down the path of self-awareness. When I am no longer busy with politics, and with my own ambitions, I hope to have more time to examine what I have done and failed to do with my career, and why."

A telling observation, or so it seems, and refreshingly candid for a public figure. But the words are not John McCain's. They were written by his longtime aide Mark Salter, McCain's literary alter ego. "Worth the Fighting For," like McCain's other four books, is by "John McCain With Mark Salter," as they all say on their covers. This comment on McCain's disinclination to commit introspection was "my surmise," Salter said in a recent interview in his windowless office at McCain headquarters in Crystal City. He explained his technique:

"It's his voice, but I'm going inside his head to speak some psychological truth about him. I'm drawing a conclusion based on my observation of him. I always show him: 'This is what I've written. This is what I think about you. Is this fair?' " No one is closer to McCain than Salter, who has been with him since 1989. Their associates describe a "mind meld" that has created an extraordinarily close partnership. But even Salter sometimes has to guess what McCain might be thinking, particularly on sensitive subjects. "Things go on inside McCain's head that rarely or never come out," Salter explained.

Yet much of what goes on inside McCain's head is neither mysterious nor hidden. There is an elaborate record of the principles and beliefs that govern McCain's thinking about politics and policy in the five books he and Salter have written, scores of speeches they have collaborated on over nearly two decades, and countless interviews, including one last week for this article.

That record reveals a complicated man whose approach to the world cannot be summed up in an aphorism or two. He is a striver and a combatant, often at war with himself, who has conducted a lifelong struggle "to prove to myself that I was the man I had always wanted to be," as he has written. Multiple influences have shaped his thinking, from his famous grandfather and father, both four-star Navy admirals, to his travels and his extensive reading of history and literature.

On many points, the thinking is clear and consistent. For example, McCain believes in a muscular mission for America. As he has put it: "Our nation has a unique place in the world. We are the greatest force for good on earth. We chart history's course. Yes, we must be involved in the destiny of other nations." His favorite president is Theodore Roosevelt, reformer at home, activist wielder of a big stick abroad. He has read Edward Gibbon's six-volume "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" -- twice. But his favorite book is Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," whose protagonist, Robert Jordan, has been McCain's hero since he was 13.

In the novel, Jordan, an American volunteer on the anti-fascist side of the Spanish Civil War, finds love, then chooses death in service to a hopeless cause he believes in. In last week's interview, conducted in the leather-covered first-class seats of his campaign plane, McCain was asked if he, like Jordan, is a "romantic fatalist." McCain answered quickly and forcefully: "Yes, yes." Salter described his boss's fatalistic philosophy: "Life sucks, but it's worth doing something about anyway."

McCain is a figure from an old-fashioned America that is out of fashion in our most cosmopolitan precincts -- the America of "Gunsmoke" and Gary Cooper, not "The Daily Show" and George Clooney. For McCain, "Duty, Honor, Country" isn't patriotic pablum but a credo to live by. And he has worked out a way to apply the credo to politics. He summarized it in a commencement address at Johns Hopkins in 1999, when he gave the graduates this advice:

"Enter public life determined to tell the truth; to put problem-solving ahead of partisanship; to defend the public interest against the special interests; to risk your personal ambitions for the sake of the country and the ideals that make her great. Keep your promise to America, and you will keep your honor. You will know a happiness far more sublime than pleasure."

"That's what it's all about," McCain said in the interview.

But such high-mindedness can be difficult to sustain, and when he fails to do so, McCain's self-criticism can be devastating.

Within months of delivering that commencement address, McCain was running for president for the first time, and violating his own credo. After losing the 2000 Republican presidential nomination , McCain and Salter wrote "Worth the Fighting For" (the title is taken from a line of Robert Jordan's in the Hemingway novel ), which gave McCain an opportunity to confess his shortcomings:


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