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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)

Then he added: "But the fact is, we did win easily. It was terribly mismanaged."

Constant Pursuit of Knowledge

McCain is a restless seeker of stimulation and information. Books are one source -- "He's a voracious reader, a constant inquirer," said Salter. McCain jokes about his lousy academic record (he finished fifth from the bottom of his class at Annapolis) but is clearly proud of what he has learned from reading and travel. And he uses Senate hearings as seminars.

"What he really enjoys, although the witnesses seldom do, is to put opposing witnesses on the same panel, and sit back and watch them fight, and see who has the best argument," Salter said. The Senate Commerce Committee chaired by McCain did this in 2001-02 during hearings on global warming, convincing the chairman that the scientific debate was settled -- the Earth is warming.

Learning from conflict is a method McCain happily defends. Asked to compare the smoothly running Obama campaign with his own, which has featured tumult and repeated changes of personnel, he said: "I'm happy with the way our campaign is run. . . . It should be chaotic, I should have Mark [Salter] and Steve and Rick and Charlie and these guys on the line arguing with each other and saying, 'Baloney!' . . ." He was referring to Steve Schmidt, who runs the campaign day-to-day; Rick Davis, who was recently displaced by Schmidt; and Charlie Black, the Washington lobbyist who is his senior counselor.

"If I win this campaign," McCain said, "historians will say, 'He was a genius' " who adapted under pressure.

McCain also seems to enjoy extracting information from individuals. In July, on the recommendation of Henry A. Kissinger, the McCain campaign invited Prof. Philip Bobbitt of Columbia Law School to discuss his new book, "Terror and Consent." This dense tome, nearly 700 pages, challenges many widely held beliefs about terrorism and how to counter it. Bobbitt, a Democrat who worked in the Carter and Clinton White Houses, said his book "demands time, discipline, imagination of a reader."

In extended conversations over two days, the senator and the professor impressed each other. McCain praised Bobbitt's intellect, and Bobbitt described the senator as a serious interlocutor who had obviously read most of his book. "McCain is quite lively and dexterous intellectually -- he seems willing to listen to criticism and reevaluate positions, and he doesn't mind being challenged," Bobbitt said.

Bobbitt's subjects were of obvious interest to McCain. Experts on the financial markets have had a different experience with the candidate. One who met with McCain earlier this summer to discuss the subprime lending crisis said McCain spoke about it only "in platitudes," relying on populist political talking points. McCain did not seem to understand economics, or to be interested in the subject, said this person, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the meeting.

McCain admitted his lack of expertise to the Wall Street Journal in 2005: "I'm going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated."

High technology has not been one of McCain's subjects, either. His curiosity did not extend to the Internet until this year, a source of criticism during this campaign. His staff has recently helped McCain learn how to read news online and political blogs. McCain dismissed the matter in the interview: "I'm on the computer all the time now." He lived without it for many years and still does not send e-mails.

McCain wrote in "Worth the Fighting For": "We can all stand a little self-improvement from time to time, but it's hard to accomplish when you have reached my age."

Apparent Contradictions in Terms

McCain's principles are clear-cut, even if, by his own account, he cannot always uphold them. His specific policy positions can be less clear, and less consistent.

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