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.
"John said that one of the great burdens of his life was being John Sidney McCain III and the obligation to live up to all that -- the success of his father and his family," Ryan recalls.
* * *
But it was less his father against whom McCain was measured than his paternal grandfather, the original John Sidney McCain, better known as Adm. "Slew" McCain, who had died only days after the end of World War II and been posthumously awarded his fourth star, normally the Navy's highest rank. A heralded commander of World War II carrier task forces for whom a naval aviation field was named in his native Mississippi, Slew had been renowned as gruff, courageous, profane and inspirational. Short and skinny, he had struggled during his own academy years, graduating in the bottom third of his 1906 class while quickly winning admiration for his toughness, a natural leader of men.
During the late 1950s, when John McCain's superiors at the academy derided him for not living up to his family's example, it was generally Slew, not his father, to whom they were comparing him. After all, his father, John Sidney McCain Jr. -- better known among peers as "Jack," or, more revealingly, "Junior" -- was still a captain, toiling in Washington-based naval jobs that had won him important friends but still left him searching for the kind of widespread recognition that might enable him to rise one day to the coveted rank of four-star admiral. Jack remained decidedly "Junior" -- to be forever eclipsed, it seemed, by the fabled Slew.
It meant that Jack McCain had much in common with his eldest son: an urgency to measure up to a patriarch, a burden dating to his own struggles as a midshipman in the class of 1931. He had been plagued then by the same shortcomings as John Sidney III -- poor academy standing made worse because of his prodigious appetite for rakish rule-breaking, a risk compounded in Jack's case because he was partying and drinking during Prohibition. Few fathers and sons could have been more alike as adolescents than Jack McCain and John Sidney III: Youthful rebellion seemed encoded in their DNA. In a 1975 interview with the U.S. Naval Institute's Oral History program, Jack McCain, by then a retired admiral, discussed his personal excesses and resentments as a midshipman in terms nearly replicated during the late 1950s by his eldest son. "I can't say I enjoyed the Naval Academy all the time," observed Jack, "because it placed too many restrictions on . . . what I wanted to do."
Jack McCain had also enjoyed going over the wall, an offense that early midshipmen called "frenching out" and that Jack committed often enough to flirt with disaster. "I got into hot water," he said. "At one time, there was some question about whether I was going to graduate from the school." The battalion commander "got me and said, 'If we get one more demerit on you, McCain, we'll either turn you back into the next class, or you'll be dropped from the roll.' "
From the beginning of his life, there had never been any question that Jack McCain would attend the Naval Academy, just as there would be no doubt that, three decades later, John Sidney III would set off for Annapolis. The ambitious Slew McCain had left his family's Mississippi plantation behind for good in accepting a Navy man's itinerant life, and Jack McCain spent a great deal of his boyhood in Washington, living with his family on 20th Street NW, running a paper route in the neighborhood and attending local schools. His father, climbing the naval ladder, worked for several years in administrative jobs at the Navy's old building on Constitution Avenue and, when not there, was often away for long stretches at sea.
In a pattern that became familiar to McCain men and women over succeeding generations, parental responsibilities in Jack's family fell largely on his mother. His preoccupied father served principally as an exemplar of ideals: a duty to country, a no-nonsense leadership style and a rough-talking directness. Slew McCain was not a remote father, but neither was he around for lengthy periods of his son's youth, the distance between them injecting their relationship with a formality that manifested itself, as it later would in Jack's relationship with John, in the reflexive "Yes, sir" that the son routinely delivered to his father.
A wiry 5-foot-6-inch Jack McCain entered the Naval Academy at only 16, and his transition to life in Annapolis proved difficult, sometimes humiliating. He resented the indignities that went along with the traditional hazing of plebes, the term reserved for newcomers, who were subjected by upperclassmen to a full year's worth of mind-numbing quizzes, emotional trials and sometimes physical abuse. Jack McCain let his inquisitors know that he didn't appreciate having to deliver, on cue, the day's weather report or the name of a particular battleship. His defiance quickly made him unpopular among several upperclassmen, a trait that one day would bedevil his son. "I was known as a 'ratey' plebe, and that's the plebe who does not conform always to the specific rules and regulations of the upperclassmen," Jack McCain told the Naval Institute. "Some of these upperclassmen would . . . require you to do such things which only incited rebellion and mutiny in me, see."
His academic record had been dismal: 424th out of 441 graduating midshipmen. But fueled by his father's example, he had at least proved his toughness to skeptics at the academy. Rising as a young officer, Jack voiced his admiration for Slew's fearlessness, particularly his temerity in privately challenging the judgments of superiors: His crusty father, he said, did not try to play politics. "He tells off people at the top all the time," a fellow officer who worked with him remembers Jack McCain boasting of Slew. The officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he enjoys good relationships with members of the McCain family, said he was a touch surprised by the absence of any need in Jack to distinguish himself from Slew in temperament or leadership style. "You could tell he wanted to be Slew, or be just like him."
Even the most devoted of naval sons, observed the officer, typically looked for ways to rebel and assert independence from their fathers, in the interest of establishing their own identities. But Slew McCain was a rebel's dream, the personification of daring and swagger. He preferred contentious conflict to cozy compromise. He reveled in his vices. He worked hard and drank hard, liked to gamble, was prone to moodiness and anger, and swore like the sailors whose lives he oversaw, in between commanding carrier task forces during World War II that helped to seize the Philippines and aid in the capture of Okinawa. He was a model of early-20th-century American virility, and early-20th-century American excess. "My father was a great leader, and people loved him," Jack McCain told the Naval Institute. "My mother used to say about him that the blood of life flowed through his veins, he was so keenly interested in people."
It would be hard for a son to escape such a man's shadow. Even as young Jack McCain became a proficient officer, colleagues and friends generally referred to him as Junior rather than by Jack, which he preferred. But Jack McCain slowly became his father's equal in many respects, and sometimes outdid him. As he rose, he swore so much that he acquired another in a string of nicknames: Good Goddamn McCain. His regular greeting at a day's start was crisp: "Good goddamn morning." He could be hard on subordinates. He smoked long cigars that he wielded like scepters during his profane military briefings and, during fits of anger, hurled. For a time, he had a pet alligator, Spike, which he let out of its cage occasionally to have taken on walks among his cheering men. He had a roguish sense of humor, and when asked how he told his beautiful wife, Roberta, apart from her beautiful twin sister, Rowena, he replied mischievously, "That's their problem."
And he drank so much that finally, according to the officer who knew his family, a supportive superior warned him that his drinking threatened his advancement, in response to which Jack McCain slowed his imbibing enough to safeguard his career, though he still ran into occasional bouts of trouble with liquor. "He drank too much, which did not become him," John McCain later wrote about his father. "When he was drunk, I did not recognize him. . . . On occasions, friends cautioned him that his drinking was harming his career, but he never let it get so out of hand that it ruined his fitness for command. His aspirations were dear to him, and his determination to achieve them more formidable than the allure of any vice."
In all this, Jack McCain was Slew McCain's boy. He learned his most important life lessons from Slew, the key to which had come long before World War II, when he consulted his father while poised to make a career decision that would place him on a different naval path from the patriarch. Jack said he was going to be a submariner rather than pursue a career in his father's beloved naval air.
Slew's response was immediate. "It doesn't make any difference where you go," Jack McCain recalled his father saying. Then he got to his real point, revealing what he thought was the key to a naval officer's fulfillment. "You've got to command."
Achieving high command was the McCain ethos, as Jack McCain emphasized to the Naval Institute in 1975. "I learned from [my father] the importance of command," he said. "I don't think my father cared too much whether I went into naval air or submarines, as long as I made a good job out of the thing, see."
Half a century later, John Sidney McCain III, by then a U.S. senator representing Arizona, reflected on the importance of the moment. He noted his grandfather's advice, writing that his father faithfully followed it "in his relentless pursuit of a command."
His pursuit took Jack McCain all over the world. He was a submarine commander during World War II, before coming back, in 1950, for a decade-long stint in the city of his youth. He went to work in the office of the chief of naval operations, known as the CNO, before becoming chief of the Navy's legislative affairs office.
The post meant serving as the Navy's top liaison to Congress, a job for which Jack McCain was ideally suited, having established connections with congressmen and senators who determined the size and shape of the Navy's budget.
With his wife and their three children, he lived on Capitol Hill, virtually kitty-corner from the Cannon House Office Building. The McCains' home on First Street SE quickly became a political salon for key lawmakers, who had standing invitations on most workdays to drop by, make themselves at home, have a drink and chat with their colleagues. Roberta McCain, who regularly mingled with legislators and their spouses in the House and Senate galleries, came to be recognized as Jack McCain's charming political partner, a garrulous ally who entertained frequently and sometimes cooked breakfast for politicos crucial to her husband's success, including House Armed Services Chairman Carl Vinson of Georgia. Richard Russell Jr., a powerful senator from Georgia, was an occasional visitor, as was Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who, a friend remembers, had sometimes given his attention to the eldest McCain boy, whom he'd enjoyed bouncing on his knee years before, during then-Capt. McCain's days in the CNO office.
Jack McCain was by then a veteran Washington insider, another player in an insular world where politics was a round-the-clock exercise, and a young liaison's political friendships were his lifeblood. But his profession never left much time for his children during the 1950s. Long before Jack became the official liaison to Capitol Hill, his long hours at the CNO, coupled with his service away from home for lengthy periods, meant that, like his own father, John McCain was reared almost entirely by his mother.
Roberta McCain, whose well-to-do Southern California family had made a fortune in the oil-catting business, possessed a fierce determination and defiant nature that rivaled her husband's and presaged her eldest son's. "She was a willful, rebellious girl," wrote John McCain, who believed, as he grew older, that he had acquired much of her personality -- particularly her gregariousness.
He remembered long family trips with her at the steering wheel, his father gone, busy on the job or off in another part of the world. "As any other child would, I resented my father's absences, interpreting them as a sign that he loved his work more than his children," he wrote in his book "Faith of My Fathers."
Eventually, McCain came to embrace his father's life, rejecting his old resentments. "I regret having felt that way," he wrote in the book. My father "wanted me to know also that a man's life should be big enough to encompass both duty to family and duty to country. That can be a hard lesson for a boy to learn. It was a hard lesson for me."
* * *
In 1951, McCain was sent off to boarding school at Episcopal High School in Alexandria. He had already attended about 20 schools by then. For John McCain -- then "Johnny" to most people who knew him -- his educational career mirrored his nomadic existence: No sooner would he feel like a part of one school than he would be uprooted and left to fend for himself at a new one. Without cliques of his own, bereft of established friends, he developed a habit of fighting to get respect, raising his fists "at the drop of a hat," as he later put it.
At Episcopal, a small school whose ranks included the tightknit scions of well-heeled Southern families, his alienation was immediate and acute. Episcopal embraced the hazing of first-year students, who were referred to as "rats." Rather than stoically enduring the upperclassmen's insults and enthusiastically opening doors for them, McCain fast became known as the odd boy who responded with insolence to the established order. He earned the sobriquet of "worst rat" in a vote of the student body. Even among his fellow rats, he was widely regarded as a slouching, swaggering figure who, as one former classmate put it, "acted like he had a chip on his shoulder."
But McCain, nicknamed "Punk" by upperclassmen, behaved as though he didn't care at all about his reputation. "A boarding school can be a pretty unforgiving environment," observes Rives Richey, a friend of McCain's who was a fellow member of the wrestling team. "There's a lot of teasing, sarcasm; you have to fend for yourself socially. John wasn't at ease at repelling people in verbal situations. Instead of throwing off people with a smile and a quick comeback, he would get testy. Some people thought it was feistiness. I thought it was more awkwardness. He'd insult somebody terribly, and afterward you'd say, 'Oh, Mac, why did you say that?' "
McCain was closer to Richey than to any other Episcopal student, and during a summer night after McCain's sophomore year, the two found themselves cruising in a car, with Richey behind the wheel. As Richey remembers, he and McCain spotted a couple of older girls near Arlington and called out to them, asking if they wanted company. The girls laughed. Insulted, McCain leaned across the driver's-side window and shouted an expletive at them. "Our feelings were hurt. They unveiled our masks and revealed us for the boys we were," Richey says.
Minutes later, a car stopped them on the road. Police were called, and McCain and Richey were ticketed for what Richey remembers as public nuisance and profanity. Soon they were standing in an Arlington court, with Richey hoping that McCain would tell the truth: that he alone, not Richey, had shouted the profanity at the girls. As Richey recalls, McCain said nothing -- explaining to Richey later that he didn't know what good it would have done to speak up.
"I was annoyed for a little while with John, I guess," Richey recounts. "But I understood his not talking -- we were both paralyzed. What I remember most about the day is the humiliation. John's mother was really upset. I don't even remember if John's father was there. I just remember his mother, and how angry she was."
By then, McCain had told Richey what school he would be attending next: the Naval Academy. "He just said it matter-of-factly," remembers Richey, who was surprised by the news. "I thought, 'Why the hell do you want to go there?' I'd have thought, given John's ways, he would have wanted more liberty and freedom at a college. I know I said something to him about it. And he just said, well, his father had gone there, and his grandfather, too."
McCain later wrote: "There were times in my youth when I harbored a secret resentment that my life's course seemed so preordained. I often wondered if my father had ever felt the same way."
His college future was out of his hands, and his days ahead at Episcopal were devoid of surprises. Sometimes he sneaked off campus to have a drink and listen to music at a favorite jazz club in Washington, but the diversions weren't nearly enough to stem his disdain for the school's rules. He piled up demerits for conduct violations, which Episcopal students generally erased by marching on the athletic field or doing chores for faculty members. McCain chose the latter.
It was about the time he had met an English and literature teacher named William Ravenel III, a World War II veteran who had served in the Third Army under Gen. George S. Patton and who, in his late 30s, was managing to do what no other teacher could at Episcopal: reach McCain in some place so deep that the churlish boy sought out the man. McCain volunteered to work off his demerits at the Ravenel residence on campus. On cold autumn mornings, he arrived there in a dark bomber jacket and dirty jeans, his hands stuffed in his pockets until the moment came when he began walking amid trees by himself and raking leaves into huge piles.
Staring out from a window, Bill Ravenel's 10-year-old daughter, Katharine, watched him. He had intense blue eyes, she thought, and wavy dark hair that, shockingly for a boy so young, had wisps of gray. He looked totally and defiantly comfortable to her in his isolation, the very thing that others at the school viewed as evidence of McCain's surliness. She dared to join him outside. "I was a pre-pubescent rebel, and it seemed he was a rebel, too," she remembers. "He'd rake and talk, blah-blah-blah about rules and how he felt constrained. He didn't divulge exactly what he had done wrong at the school. It was just more of a grumble that his life was boxed up, pent up, that he felt so frustrated that he had to do certain things and that he would be expected to do more things. 'Let me tell you: boxed up,' he'd say. His whole life looked like it was going to be more of the same to him."
At some point in the raking, her father usually strolled outside to speak to McCain. "I think he saw in John McCain a Navy brat who had moved around a lot and was not part of the school's country-club set," Katharine Ravenel says. "McCain was unhappy -- unhappy with his circumstances -- and my father noticed that."
That unhappiness often revealed itself in livid outbursts around the school, in response to which the teacher sought to put McCain in touch with McCain. He spent long hours with the rebel, mentoring the boy before the term existed. "My father believed in the rewards of mental discipline and tried to convey all that to John, give him a little peace," Katharine Ravenel says. "I think he altered McCain's perception of himself."
No one else knew what the man and boy said to each other in their private encounters. But McCain later wrote glowingly of Bill Ravenel in his memoirs, and Katharine recalls a day when McCain, who played on the school's junior varsity football team that Ravenel coached, made a breakthrough in the estimation of the mentor. When another player faced the possibility of being thrown off for breaking a team rule, McCain asked for the opportunity to speak to the players and coaches. "McCain said they should keep the kid," Katharine recounts, in a story passed along to her by her father. "Something about giving the kid a second chance and forgiving his mistake. My father was impressed. He saw in McCain a person with potential in all that feistiness."
Bill Ravenel died in 1968 while McCain was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. After his release in 1973, McCain came home to discover that his mentor was gone. Stunned, he confided to a friend that Ravenel was virtually the only person with whom he wanted to discuss his ordeal. Decades later, McCain wrote a note to Katharine Ravenel's mother, Ruth, who showed it to Katharine. "Bill Ravenel is the greatest man who ever lived," McCain wrote, according to Katharine, whose family never had a great deal of contact with McCain after he left Episcopal.
That was like McCain, too. He'd led a transient life, and even intense relationships had generally been fleeting.
* * *
McCain remembers dreading his arrival in Annapolis, admitting that had his father and grandfather entered different professions it is unlikely he would have ever set foot in the Naval Academy. As classes and the hazing of plebes began, "I reverted to form and embarked on a four-year course of insubordination and rebellion," he recalls in his memoir.
Another set of upperclassmen in yet another school despised him. But something had changed since the days when he alienated even fellow rats at Episcopal: McCain suddenly exhibited leadership abilities, if almost accidentally. Two events during his sophomore year -- which the academy calls "youngster" year -- forever altered his reputation among the 40 or so classmates who knew him best, in the academy's 17th Company. The first occurred in the mess hall, where he sternly chastised an upperclassman who was berating a helpless steward for having been unable to give him a second helping. Word spread that McCain had challenged an older student with the authority to report him for insubordination -- and that his elder had blinked.
Yet McCain's stature at the academy didn't take full shape until the afternoon he returned to his room in Bancroft Hall to find his bedsheets and blanket lying in a heap on his bare mattress. Roommates informed him that their company commander, Capt. Hunt, had pulled off the bedding as punishment for McCain's failure to make his bed properly. Viewing Hunt's action as an abuse of his authority, a furious McCain stormed into his office and told him that, in the future, he'd prefer to be written up on report rather than remake a bed; that he didn't have time to repeat such a chore. Then, just as abruptly as McCain had entered Hunt's office, he contemptuously left it. It was a rank act of insubordination, but McCain escaped punishment again, leaving most of his 17th Company classmates to marvel over what they viewed as yet another arguably self-destructive but breathtakingly gutsy move.
"Challenging an officer like that was almost suicidal -- it was shocking to me," recalls Frank Gamboa, one of McCain's roommates and closest friends at the academy. "Hunt had clear authority over us. But after a while, I saw it as an act of courage. It enhanced John's moral authority in our company, just like when he told that [upperclassman] to stop picking on the steward. We didn't refer to that as political skill then, but when I think back on it, that's what it was. John was demonstrating an ability to draw people."
What he did next was nothing that could be found in an academy guidebook -- it was the way the rebel built upon his budding role as an ad hoc leader. Like his father and grandfather before him, he had a subversive's charm, leading classmates over the wall and on other escapades that violated the school's most serious regulations. "Consequences didn't scare him," Gamboa remembers.
"The Bad Bunch," he called their clique. He had a talent for appealing to a wavering man's sense of courage. "If you're a real man, you'll go," he said to classmate Chuck Larson, in daring him to go over the wall.
The stations of the two midshipmen could scarcely have been more different. McCain was en route to graduating five spots from the bottom of the 899 members of the class of 1958, while Larson was emerging as the academy's undisputed star -- holding the school's two top student positions, as a brigade commander and class president. During the next decade, Larson would become a White House fellow in Lyndon B. Johnson's administration and the naval aide to Richard Nixon. Eventually, he would become the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, the CINCPAC, and serve two stints as superintendent of the Naval Academy.
Larson had a glittering future to protect, and McCain looked like a candidate for academic oblivion. "I went over the wall with him, too," Larson says.
While fast becoming a leader among the Bad Bunch, McCain still possessed the temper that had been on display at Episcopal. Although his 5-foot-9-inch frame carried no more than 140 pounds, he was powerfully built, a skilled intramural wrestler and boxer who had fought well at Naval Academy fight nights called smokers. Patience and diplomacy were not his strong suits, especially when he took exception to what he regarded as someone's breach of manners. "John was one of my closest friends at the academy, and I admired his consistency about things," remembers James Hamrick, a member of the 17th Company and the Bad Bunch who rose to become an admiral. "But he also didn't care what people thought when he got angry. He'd pick fights with midshipmen and even officers if he felt he was in the right about something."
During the summer between his sophomore and junior years, McCain and Hamrick were taking a break from training at a military base in Virginia when, as Hamrick recalls, McCain observed what he thought was a big young officer harassing a smaller subordinate. McCain told the officer to knock it off. The officer responded with an expletive. "The big guy stepped outside with John," Hamrick remembers. "John beat him up pretty good."
Not everyone in the 17th Company was comfortable around a classmate so often involved in heated confrontations. "His personality annoyed some people," Hamrick says. "Some people perceived that he thought he was special because of his grandfather and father, and that he thought he could do whatever he wanted."
As would be the case decades later, during his political career, the many sides of Midshipman McCain sparked strikingly divergent views of his behavior, depending on what side had touched or burned an observer. One of only three Mexican Americans in the class of 1958, Frank Gamboa was nicknamed "The Mex" by McCain and others in the 17th Company -- "an endearing nickname," Gamboa recalls -- though by then he'd already encountered prejudice as a plebe. A classmate had lashed out at him, as he recalls: "'What are you doing here? You don't belong here. You're Mexican.' "
Gamboa believed that his relationship with McCain was close in part because it was free of tortured, patronizing discussions about ethnicity. "I can only really remember the subject of my background coming up once, and kind of indirectly," he recalls. One morning, a sad-looking Gamboa had returned to the room he shared with McCain and two other roommates. "I can't even remember what I was sad about anymore," he says. But McCain, who had tried guessing what might be bothering his friend, put his arm around Gamboa. "'Look, pal, I am sorry if I ever hurt your feelings when I tease you and call you 'The Mex,' " McCain said to him, as Gamboa recalls. " 'You know I mean you no harm. But I want you to be able to take it when we leave here in case you are not treated well.'
"And that's as close as we ever got to even [talking] about that kind of thing," Gamboa recalls. "He was just a good friend who included me in everything. He really drew me out while we were at the academy. People were always looking to be around him exactly for that very reason."
But McCain was also struggling, knew Gamboa, who saw his roommate's listless academic performance and many rebellions as clues to his conflicted feelings about the academy. "He didn't resent it, but he knew he had to be there," Gamboa says. "I saw the pressure."
Meanwhile, Jack McCain was monitoring his son's academic and disciplinary difficulties. One Saturday afternoon there was a knock at John McCain door, and another midshipman opened it to reveal a short man in an officer's uniform, an unlighted cigar dangling from his mouth. "Gentlemen, will you please leave?" Jack McCain said. "I want to have a conversation alone with my son."
A couple of stupefied midshipmen who had never before seen Capt. McCain just stared: Aside from their height, father and son had no visible features in common. The son already had flecks of silver in his hair, on his way to going prematurely gray, like his beautiful and silvery-haired mother. And while the father was skinny and a little bent over, the son was ramrod straight, with a barrel chest. Their family connection revealed itself in other ways, particularly a somewhat nasally bark they shared, and their no-nonsense, profane directness. Consciously or not, the son was fast in the process of acquiring some of his father's favorite speech patterns and devices, such as Jack McCain's tendency, in conversing with someone, to use the phrase "my friend" at the end of a sharp or stern point that he thought was deserving of emphasis. Each man radiated authority, one of the observers said, even though one of them was middle-aged and strutting around in an officer's regal blue and gold sleeves, and the other was standing at attention in his underwear. "He read me the riot act again," McCain told one of his friends later. "He said I better pay attention."
Usually, McCain waited until the final day or so before a major examination to begin cramming, turning for help to the 17th Company's brightest students, especially Ron Fisher, a science and engineering whiz. Fisher tutored him in such subjects as physics and electrical engineering, the two sometimes waiting until lights in Bancroft Hall had been turned out for the night before secretly heading off to an alcove where Fisher would instruct by flashlight.
But even passing grades wouldn't have kept McCain in the academy had Capt. Hunt, who died in 2000, had his way. Hunt viewed McCain as a disgrace, voicing his indignation to 17th Company Midshipman Jim Higgins, who, as the student battalion operations officer, was responsible for interceding on behalf of struggling students. "My job was essentially to keep Captain Hunt off John's back, to speak up on John's behalf if I could," Higgins recalls. "Hunt wanted John out. He'd say to me, 'McCain doesn't deserve to be here.' Hunt thought John was getting away with murder, and that perhaps he was getting away with it because of his family name. He wanted to see that McCain was caught and thrown out if something warranted it."
A stodgy figure who saluted his wife when she dropped him off each morning at the Naval Academy, Hunt had become a figure of derision among many of the midshipmen he supervised. McCain despised him as an unfeeling, vindictive superior. "The bastard" was out to get him, McCain told classmates. Even Hunt's decision not to report him for insubordination after McCain's stormy visit to his office became fodder for McCain's loathing: It was proof of Hunt's mediocrity as an officer, he insisted.
But the captain had his defenders in the 17th Company. Weary of McCain's complaints, Midshipmen Henry Vargo rose to Hunt's defense one day and told McCain to knock it off. Vargo, nicknamed "Hard Guy" by his classmates, didn't back down from confrontations either. "I'd gotten tired of John's bitching and moaning," Vargo remembers. "McCain had just been put on report for something -- untidy room or something -- and so he was getting demerits again. And he was saying, 'The bastard got me.' And I said to him, 'If you'd done what you were supposed to do, you wouldn't have gotten demerits in the first place.' "
Tensions between McCain and Hunt had escalated. By then, McCain realized the depth of Hunt's contempt for him, as it was reflected in the low marks that Hunt gave him for "grease" -- the academy's reference to such things as a midshipman's capacity for military leadership. Later, McCain wrote that Hunt had judged his "aptitude for the [Navy] to be the poorest in the company." He added: "In fact, by Hunt's reckoning, I possessed no aptitude at all."
One afternoon in Annapolis, Gamboa accompanied McCain to lunch with his visiting father. Hunt had just placed the rebel on report for another conduct violation, and McCain vented his pain and fury to his father, expressing his full contempt for Hunt's leadership, his voice rising as his story did not elicit the reaction that he sought. Jack McCain, by then in his late 40s, was no longer a rebel and bad boy. He had climbed the ranks, particularly over the past decade, by pleasing old naval superiors and not alienating new ones. His view of leadership, and rebels, had evolved. That he knew next to nothing about Capt. Hunt was irrelevant to him. What mattered was that, in openly voicing his disrespect for an established officer, his eldest son was courting professional catastrophe.
Jack McCain's voice rose, too. Gamboa looked on, fascinated. "It was the only time I'd ever heard a heated conversation between them," he recalls. "It was no shouting match; there was always respect there, but it was an intense discussion. They were very strong personalities. His father made it clear that John had to respect this officer. John didn't back down. I kind of remember the discussion continuing as we walked back from lunch. His father was saying, 'He's your superior officer and you're obligated to obey and support him, and it's very important for you to do this.' There was just this standoff between the two of them."
* * *
Jack McCain was in the midst of a professional ascendancy that had depended on his ability to make people happy and get them what they wanted. As the Navy's head of legislative affairs, he was developing a reputation as an indefatigable advocate in the Washington labyrinth of cocktail parties, late-night Capitol dealmaking sessions, and congressional committee hearings.
An impressed Jim Holloway, then the executive assistant for a vice admiral and later a four-star admiral and CNO himself, watched as McCain, his trademark cigar resting between his index finger and thumb, regularly lectured lawmakers on the importance of global sea power. "He was a very effective orator with a unique style . . .," Holloway remembers. "Every now and then, he'd pause right in the middle of a point he was making and take a long drag on [his] cigar to increase the drama. Legislators and other groups loved it."
Away from the Capitol, McCain simply kept working. Thanks to his wife, his home became another venue in which to lobby at all hours with powerful men who liked to drink and drink some more. "Jack made sure to have a second brandy ready after dinner for a congressman there who was being difficult," Holloway remembers.
By the mid-1960s, the rising McCain was commanding the Navy's amphibious forces in the Atlantic. Among his superiors was Adm. Tom Moorer, who in 1965 directed McCain to look after a diplomat in the strife-torn Dominican Republic during a U.S. military invasion there. Ellsworth Bunker, the American ambassador to the Organization of American States, had been dispatched by President Lyndon Johnson to make peace between rival Dominican factions, and Moorer wanted McCain to keep Bunker safe and provide him with whatever he needed. "Well, Jack McCain being Jack McCain, the next thing I knew he was having breakfast with Mr. Bunker every morning," Moorer told the Naval Institute.
By the time he became commander in chief of the Atlantic fleet in 1966, some of his naval colleagues referred sardonically to McCain as "Mr. Sea Power," a reference to his stump speech about the importance of U.S. naval power. Jack was still called Junior by colleagues, but only out of habit now -- he had escaped the shadow of Slew, demonstrating a savvy with politicians and the military brass that his father had never tried to acquire. He was a McCain for a new era.
In the late 1960s, still looking for a final promotion, McCain tried boosting the potency of his speech about sea power. He turned for assistance to his public affairs aide, Navy Capt. Herbert Hetu, who thought McCain was becoming frazzled under the pressure of trying to impress superiors and keep climbing. McCain "was a consummate politician," Hetu told the Naval Institute in a 1996 interview for the Oral History program. "It was during this period when tensions were running high that he pretty much accused me of being -- I don't know if 'spy' is the right word, but reporting back to Washington. Toward the end, he became so driven. I mean, he was on the phone more than ever back to connections and people, and talking with congressmen."
And sometimes Jack McCain fell back on his old vices, according to Hetu, who told the Naval Institute: "The admiral didn't drink but occasionally. When he did, he couldn't handle it. McCain couldn't drink. I should just say [that] in his defense, because he drank like he did everything else. If he had a drink, he'd chug-a-lug it."
Only a year after leaving for London to take over the Atlantic fleet, McCain suddenly became a contender for a job he'd long coveted: the commander in chief of the Pacific forces, CINCPAC, who oversaw all the military branches in the Pacific, and more than a million sailors, soldiers and Air Force personnel. The new CINCPAC would be intimately involved in dealing with Vietnam, where war was raging. McCain's old friend Tom Moorer, by then the chief of naval operations and on his way to becoming the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended McCain to White House aides.
There was a snag: Word came back that McCain had no support within the White House. Rather than recommend a new candidate, Moorer made a point of attending a White House diplomatic event where he knew that Ellsworth Bunker would be in the company of Lyndon Johnson. Spotting Moorer, Johnson asked him, "Do you think McCain should be CINCPAC?"
Moorer said yes, and he suggested that the president pose the same question to Bunker, who was standing nearby.
Johnson strolled over to the ambassador. Jack McCain's old breakfast partner in the Dominican Republic did not disappoint. "Bunker was very high on McCain," Moorer recounts. "Johnson went right upstairs and walked in the press room and announced McCain's appointment."
The next morning, according to Herbert Hetu, a euphoric McCain was "dancing around" his London office. Three decades earlier, Slew McCain had pushed him toward "command," and, at last, Junior had met and exceeded his father's challenge. "He was relaxed as I'd ever seen him," Hetu said. "Finally, that monkey was off his back."
Years later, John McCain would write of the special day: "I have always believed that for that one moment, my father, so hard driven by his often oppressive desire to honor his father's name, looked on his career with tranquility and satisfaction."
But that could not stop some colleagues from sniping at Jack McCain in the years that followed. A few prominent naval officers viewed the four-star admiral as an ambitious "politician" who had climbed by carefully embracing the political orthodoxy of the times, in the process currying the favor of superiors and offending no high-ranking governmental official.
In writing "Faith of My Fathers," John McCain offered his own view of his father's leadership: "My father was not a political admiral -- a term of derision accorded to successful officers whose records lacked combat experiences comparable to those of the war fighters who disapproved of them." It was a sensitive point for McCain, though his father's critics never had asserted a paucity of combat experience, but merely that Jack McCain's climb was hastened by his political skills. McCain went on: "He was, as his father had been, a man of strong views who spoke his mind bluntly."
Nearly every military official who assessed Jack McCain's career agreed on the wiry man's two great strengths: selling and inspiring. He demonstrated his deftest touch in the company of the powerful, particularly as he came to understand what they wanted. In 1970, as CINCPAC, McCain delivered a briefing for President Nixon as Chuck Larson, the president's naval aide and John McCain's longtime friend, looked on.
"Admiral McCain was politically astute and also very careful," Larson recalls. "He worried about using profanity with Nixon, with the result that, very uncharacteristically, he gave Nixon a quite stilted briefing. I doubt it had the impact that Admiral McCain had hoped. But the admiral learned from it; he studied situations and people. The next time he briefed Nixon, he was just himself -- he knew, I think, that he had Nixon with him. He was banging on his paper with his unlit cigar and using some profanity. He was talking of 'goddamn gooks,' and talking of Cambodia and how we could go in there and clean up the sanctuaries there. He knew he had support on that from Nixon. And Henry Kissinger later said to me, 'We have to be careful about having McCain around the president too much, because he fires up the president.' . . .
"Admiral McCain had his own kind of charisma, earthy, blunt," Larson added. "But whatever else anyone could ever have said about Admiral McCain, he was able to influence and lead."
And that's what counted most, Jack McCain always told people.
Admirers pointed out that he had defied others' paltry expectations of him. It was a fact that inspired his eldest son as well. Barely having made it out the Naval Academy but buoyed by his successful father's and grandfather's tenacity, John McCain began chasing a command worthy of their legacy, entering flight training in Pensacola in late 1958. No sooner had he arrived in Florida, however, than he seem to be falling into his old habits, failing to excel in the judgment of superiors, who, just as at the academy, thought he should be paying more attention to his work.
* * *
In Pensacola, as a new ensign, John McCain had begun his flight instruction at Saufley Field under Woodward "Woody" Clum, an ensign himself and only a few months older than McCain. Clum was also instructing McCain's classmate George Myers, who had graduated in the top 10 percent at the academy. Myers swiftly impressed Clum as impeccably prepared, having read his assigned manuals and memorized the essentials of when in a training flight to be at a particular altitude, so as not to endanger other planes.
But McCain sometimes frustrated the instructor. "John was a wee bit difficult," Chum remembers. "John's maturity came later. I said to him, 'You got to study the procedures more, apply yourself to the books more.' It could be a problem if someone was at the wrong altitude or wasn't fully acquainted with procedures. I said to him, 'You're smart and you have guts. . . . You need to get more serious here.' "
McCain roomed with another flight trainee, Chuck Larson, the great star of the class of 1958 and his former Bad Bunch comrade with whom he'd set up a poker table in his room, the start to many late-night games and trips into town. Progressing nicely in flight school and living large after hours, Larson was thoroughly happy in Pensacola. But he noticed his buddy already chafing under the old grind of regimentation. One night, while out on liberty, they ran into a young naval flight instructor who was in the company of some women. The instructor gave them an order that a disdainful McCain viewed as a transparent effort by the officer to show off. As Larson remembers, McCain's temper flared and he presented the instructor with an order of his own, followed by an ultimatum: " 'This is not flight training now, pal; this is liberty. And we're both ensigns, so knock it off. If you continue with this, I'll ask you to step outside and prove yourself.' "
Older officers, troubled by his attitude and appearance, rebuked McCain for what they regarded as his failure, as Larson remembers, to match the example of his revered grandfather. His hair askew, his clothes wrinkled, a cigarette typically dangling from his mouth, the young McCain who showed up at the officers' club cut a sullen, rebellious figure, Larson remembers.
McCain had a much better time away from the officers' club. Often he went into town and drank at a popular bar and strip joint called Trader John's, where he began dating a stripper named Marie, who was known as "The Flame of Florida." On other nights, he went to the dog track, played poker, and cruised with Larson around Pensacola in his new silver Corvette or Larson's new Austin Healey, making the rounds of bars. When closing hour arrived and the mood struck them, Larson remembers, he and McCain drove across the state line into Alabama, where their partying resumed.
McCain's fun compensated for his desultory performance in the air, where he had been judged at best an average pilot. He would not be slotted for the elite air units like the fighter jocks. A few months later, gone from Pensacola and having entered a new stage of their flight training in Corpus Christi, Tex., McCain and Larson spent many of their free hours playing craps and roulette at nearby clubs.
McCain was paying no more attention to his manuals at his new base than he had in Pensacola, but it was there in Corpus Christi, while other trainees rigorously applied themselves to their aviation studies, that Larson noticed McCain reading thick, unfamiliar-looking books for hours at a time, several days straight -- engrossed, Larson discovered, in a collection recommended by his father: the multi-volume collection of Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
Impressed, Larson was also a touch saddened. This was the inquisitive side of his friend that few people knew, particularly superiors, who were preoccupied by the image of the wisecracking, sometimes insolent flyboy and partier -- in part, unfortunately, because McCain so aggressively pushed the persona.
"I watched him in Corpus Christi and I knew that John wasn't trying to be an intellectual in reading those books -- that just wasn't John," Larson reflects. "It was that he and his father felt that to be any good as an officer, you needed a global perspective that came from an understanding of history, that there were military and political lessons that came from being well read in important history. . . . That was the part of John no one could see in a place like Corpus Christi or anywhere else then. . . . He just had an image he couldn't get away from."
It didn't help McCain's reputation that, just as in Pensacola, he wasn't thriving during his training in Texas. Working on his landings one day, he felt his engine die and, within seconds, was plummeting into the Corpus Christi Bay. Momentarily knocked out when his plane struck the water, he regained consciousness just in time to escape from the cockpit and be rescued.
It wouldn't be his last mishap while on air duty. After completing flight training and being deployed to the Mediterranean, he was flying over southern Spain one day when he decided to have some fun. He dropped very low, engaged in "daredevil clowning," as he later described it. Unable to see power lines ahead, he knocked them down, cutting off electricity to homes in the area and creating "a small international incident," he later wrote.
He seemed to be going nowhere. Among his peers, he became known as a charming underachiever. During the early 1960s, stationed in Norfolk while serving on the carriers Intrepid and Enterprise, he lived in a beach house with a few other pilots who shared his zest for after-hours life. Dubbed "The House on 37th Street" by Navy partygoers, McCain's Virginia Beach pad, as he later wrote, "enjoyed a reputation for hosting the most raucous and longest beach parties of any squadron in the Navy."
And yet his career seemed to be stuck, McCain told people. Like others from his academy class, he had risen to the rank of lieutenant commander, but he wasn't receiving the high-profile assignments of other grads, particularly his class's stars.
In 1964, he found reason for excitement. Returning to Pensacola for a short stint before heading on assignment to Mississippi, he struck up a relationship with a visiting woman he had known at Annapolis, where she had dated one of his midshipman classmates, Al Swanson, a football and basketball star. Dark-haired Carol Shepp was beautiful, tall, slim and a part-time swimsuit model before marrying Swanson, with whom she had two sons. She got a divorce in June 1964 and that same year was dating the 27-year-old McCain. They wed in July 1965, in her native Pennsylvania, and McCain soon adopted her two children.
Late in 1965, McCain encountered another near-disaster when his engine quit while he was flying from Philadelphia to Norfolk after an Army-Navy football game. He ejected and safely landed on a beach as the plane crashed into trees. Soon he returned to Meridian, Miss., where he was receiving positive evaluations as a flight instructor at a Navy field named after his grandfather. But he did not help himself by adding to his image as a cocky upstart. One day, irritated because he could not land as quickly as he wanted at McCain Field, he quipped: "Let me land, or I'll take my field and go home." The remark earned him a reprimand from his commanding officer.
He had never gotten out from under the shadow of Slew and his father, or the weight of his own subpar reputation, he told friends. He was deeply concerned about shaming his family. "I worried that my deserved reputation for foolishness would make command of a squadron or a carrier, the pinnacle of a young pilot's aspiration, too grand an ambition for an obstreperous admiral's son, and my failure to reach command would dishonor me and my family," he later wrote. "The best way to raise my profile as an aviator, perhaps the only way, was to achieve a creditable combat record. Nearly all the men in my family had made their reputations at war."
* * *
Shortly after the September 1966 birth of his first child, a daughter named Sidney, McCain left for Jacksonville, Fla., to join a squadron scheduled to deploy to Vietnam. During the following year, he at last became a combat pilot, flying bombing missions over North Vietnam. He had already completed five missions when, in July 1967, while sitting in his cockpit on the carrier Forrestal, a missile was accidentally launched from another aircraft on the Forrestal and struck McCain's A-4E Skyhawk attack jet. McCain escaped his burning aircraft by climbing out of the cockpit and scurrying down the jet's nose, until he jumped to temporary safety. But in the next minute, the fire ignited a bomb beneath the plane. The ensuing conflagration killed 134 sailors. McCain had shrapnel buried in his chest and thighs.
Back home, recovering from his wounds in the Jacksonville area, he pondered his future, which looked bleaker than ever to him. About four weeks after the Forrestal disaster, he poured out his worries to Chuck Larson. "I'm really wondering if I should stay in the Navy," McCain said, as Larson recalls.
Larson realized that his friend had become haunted by all the stories about the Bad Bunch, the wild-John-over-the-wall escapades, his towering demerits, his insolent wisecracks, the late wild nights in Pensacola and Corpus Christi -- rebel McCain on the loose. "I want to be a serious officer, and I'm having problems getting people to take me seriously," McCain told Larson.
He had no one to blame -- no obvious foe such as Capt. Hunt against whom he could train his fury. His problems now were invisible and as numerous as there were higher-ranking naval officers privately bad-mouthing him. He felt himself running out of time, felt the family's shame pressing closer. McCain couldn't see any realistic hope. Perhaps he needed a new career. "I may have to leave," he told Larson.
Larson tried to encourage his friend. "You're going back into combat, and you will prove yourself," he told McCain.
McCain was unconvinced. Although he probably could have received several more months to recover from his wounds, he volunteered to return quickly to the war. By Sept. 30, 1967, he was aboard the carrier USS Oriskany, poised off the shores of Vietnam, taking his place in an attack squadron. Less than four weeks later, on Oct. 26, as he flew over Hanoi on his 23rd bombing mission, a surface-to-air missile blew off the right wing of his plane. He floated toward a lake in a parachute, his pursuit of command terminated for the indefinite future.
His 5 1/2 years as a POW had begun, his prospects for measuring up to his family's legacy appearing dimmer than ever. He began contemplating an alternative future for himself, one in which his rebel persona would prove to be his most formidable asset.