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A Turbulent Youth Under a Strong Father's Shadow

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By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008; 2:19 PM

One night in 1957, during his junior year at the U.S. Naval Academy, John Sidney McCain III found himself in trouble, an incident that destined him for yet another tense discussion with his frustrated father. While on liberty, he and a couple of classmates had gotten into an argument at a Washington park with a group of guys from nearby Georgetown University who'd tried crashing an impromptu party that McCain and his friends were having with a few girls. An exchange of insults escalated to pugnacious challenges, then shoves, with McCain in the center of the confrontation. One participant remembers the dispute as bloodless, a simple case of testosterone briefly running amok among rival alpha males.

But a witness had called authorities. Hearing that some of the young men appeared to be in the distinctive dress blues of midshipmen, the authorities notified the Navy's Shore Patrol, whose duties included rounding up midshipmen misbehaving away from campus. Detaining McCain and his buddies, the Shore Patrol contacted McCain's father, a naval officer who, living in Washington with McCain's mother, was rousted from bed to pick up his son and at least one other midshipman involved in the incident.

Arriving in uniform, with his trademark cigar in his mouth, Jack McCain came to get the boys and drove home. Midshipman Walt Ryan sat sheepishly in the back seat, staring at silent father and son for a few moments. "It was 2 in the morning or so, and it seemed like John's father had been sleeping before it happened," he said. "He got to the point pretty quickly after we got moving."

"Gentlemen, this will not happen again," Capt. McCain said.

"Yes, sir," his son responded.

"Captain McCain was upset, but he didn't go on talking about it very long," Ryan remembers. "He wanted to get home. He just said, 'No more of that.' The important thing was that we not jeopardize anything for ourselves."

McCain's father, then the Navy liaison to Congress, one more steppingstone to his eventual promotion to four-star admiral, kept careful track of his eldest son's mistakes. In time, the young man's maverick nature would fuel his political climb. But in his early adulthood, the McCain family feared that his frequent unruliness was already threatening to derail his future. Sometimes Jack McCain visited the academy and reprimanded him for his transgressions, hopeful that his lectures would keep his boy on track toward a stellar naval career and, in the process, extend the McCain family's tradition of acquiring prestigious military commands. McCain forebears had served on Gen. George Washington's staff and chased Pancho Villa. Jack McCain's own father had been a distinguished four-star admiral, and one of his uncles was an Army brigadier general.

Since his birth, it had been assumed that John Sidney McCain III would follow his ancestors' paths, something he sought to do for 23 years following his graduation from the Naval Academy, until shortly after his father's death in 1981. As he has risen in elective politics toward the Republican presidential nomination, his speeches and writing have illuminated the careful attention his parents paid to planning his life's mission: No other presidential standard-bearer during the past half-century ever had an early adulthood as thoroughly mapped out for him as John McCain.

His Navy career, like his choice of college, was a function of his parents' wishes, and his early life had a foreordained quality rare even among precocious political wunderkinds. His childhood stands in striking contrast with those of presidents utterly self-invented, such as the hardscrabble Bill Clinton and the Southern California grocer's son Richard M. Nixon, who sometimes went to bed hearing train whistles and dreaming of the wonders awaiting the lucky in the eastern metropolises where the trains were headed. And while John F. Kennedy and the presidential Bushes bore the expectations of patrician families preaching tenets of high achievement and noblesse oblige, never did their parents' early dreams for them include a push on a specific career path.

At its start, McCain's professional life was shaped for him by a family whose Washington-centric base, with its insider connections to high-ranking military officials and powerful politicians, belied the Washington-outsider persona for which he became celebrated as his political career soared. But, at the start, his success would depend on not getting kicked out of the Naval Academy, which was no sure thing.

Since his boyhood, the rebel in McCain had chafed against rules, and the academy venerated rules. Sometimes McCain didn't wait for official liberty to arrive before leaving the school's grounds, stealthily hopping over its walls and taking classmates with him, a Class A offense. McCain had eluded academy authorities on several occasions, but suspicions about his activities had been steadily building with a Marine captain who served as his immediate superior. Capt. R.G. Hunt, a Naval Academy graduate a decade earlier, told several midshipmen that McCain's inattentiveness to his appearance, his classes and the rigors of academy life marked him as unworthy of being a midshipman, and that he was deserving of being booted if a case could be made against him. His academic struggles left him near the bottom of his class, and he had accumulated demerits for everything from failed tasks to his slovenly appearance. Expulsion was within the realm of possibility, particularly if he was caught scaling the wall. "He didn't have a death wish, I don't think," Ryan recalls. "But he skirted pretty close to the edge."

On his visits to the academy, Jack McCain often reminded his son of his precarious standing. His lectures were sometimes blistering. "He kicked my ass," a classmate remembers McCain forlornly remarking after his father departed his room one weekend afternoon. "Bilging out," the academy's term for expulsion, was unthinkable, McCain told several friends, particularly given his father's and grandfather's naval successes. Expulsion would mean dishonoring his family.


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