MOMENTS OF TRUTH | McCain Moves Into Politics

Seeing White House From a Cell in Hanoi

By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008

To endure their long ordeal, John McCain and the other U.S. servicemen held as prisoners of war in North Vietnam in the 1960s developed a number of survival techniques. None was quite as effective as the one former Navy pilot Richard Stratton remembers: "If you kept your mind occupied, you were going to be okay."

Stratton would imagine meticulously assembling a large glider and flying it over the Alps. Another prisoner imagined himself fishing. But McCain had the most audacious dream of all, and he shared his vision one day with a group of fellow POWs. "He was talking about his father to us and then he said: 'I want to be president of the United States. Someday I'm going to be president,' " Stratton recalls. "If the cell wasn't so small, we'd have been rolling around laughing."

His friend, thought Stratton, ought to be concentrating far less on his fantasy and more on how to redirect a naval career that had been adrift before he was shot down over Hanoi. "We reminded him that he had dug himself a big hole with his demerits in the past and nearly being the bottom man of his class at the Naval Academy," Stratton recalls. "And now he was talking about being president? 'Come on, John. Get your career straightened out.' "

Not at all dissuaded, McCain offered his view on the meaning of real command, shaped in part by his father's perspective on genuine power. He wanted to be the one who made the decisions, McCain said, and his father had taught him that even such impressive-sounding jobs as chief of naval operations, the service's highest uniformed position, didn't always provide that opportunity. The only job that guaranteed it was that of president, McCain believed.

"Pursuit of command," as McCain often referred to it, was an ethos bordering on obsession in his family, and it was in Vietnam that he embraced it. But though McCain was the son and grandson of admirals, he decided his pursuit would be in another arena -- politics, where he would come to define success not in terms of ideas or legislation but in fulfilling his family's ideals of leadership and character.

Over the next few years, according to the recollections of men who knew him well, McCain didn't vacillate over conflicting career paths as much as lurch from one to the other, depending on how much he was despairing at a given moment about his reputation in the Navy, or how he was gauging his relative chances for leadership in politics vs. the military.

He hadn't come any closer to deciding on his future when, in March 1973, a peace accord gave the POWs their freedom and McCain was suddenly flying home toward a reunion with his wife, Carol, and their three children in Florida. Even before their plane reached the mainland, McCain and the other POWs received an inkling of the country's fascination with them: When they made a stop in Hawaii, the tarmac was bathed in lights and ringed by television cameras.

The national jubilation and intense media coverage that greeted the returning men only heightened McCain's indecision about his future. He discovered he had new status, new friends and, potentially, new career opportunities outside the military. A president, a magnate and a powerful governor all wanted to fete him and the other POWs. President Richard M. Nixon issued orders to arrange for a gala White House dinner. Ross Perot, a Naval Academy graduate and billionaire entrepreneur, followed up on the financial assistance he had given to Carol McCain and some other POW wives during their husbands' captivity by throwing a huge party for the freed men.

California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who had developed a keen interest in the POWs, chose McCain to be the principal speaker at a prayer breakfast that he was having in Sacramento for about 1,000 businessmen and civic leaders. Reagan introduced him as a war hero and personal inspiration, and McCain spent most of his short speech recounting how he'd been held for a while in a stiflingly hot box placed outside under a broiling sun.

"He talked about the desperation of the situation, and about the box being the size of nothing more than a couple of coffins," remembers Nancy Clark Reynolds, a former Reagan aide. "Then he said something about finding a prayer scratched on the side of this box by a previous prisoner and how much that'd helped him. . . . He recited the prayer. By then everybody in there was crying. Ronald Reagan, too. If you were watching it, you realized the power of John McCain's story."

During the whirlwind of well-wishers and media that greeted his return to his Florida home, McCain told neighbors he was eager to get back to active duty. But within a few weeks, he confided to another naval officer that he planned to retire from the Navy as soon as he reached the 20-year mark necessary for obtaining a pension. He had new plans, he said cryptically.

Bob Fitzsimmons, who had served as a liaison between the Navy and Carol McCain during her husband's captivity, expressed surprise. "John, why the hell would you want to do anything like that? Your father and grandfather are four-star admirals -- you could do a lot in the Navy," he recalls saying.

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