Page 5 of 5   <      

Seeing White House From a Cell in Hanoi

In January 1982, with the Rhodes retirement rumors at their peak, Smith was monitoring a Rhodes news conference while talking on the phone with McCain. Learning that Rhodes would not be seeking reelection, the two men shouted excitedly. Later that same day, during another phone conversation, Smith could hear McCain talking to his wife in the background. "Did you buy the house?" McCain asked her.

In the next instant, McCain told Smith, "Cindy just bought us a house in the 1st District."

Eager to pay a courtesy visit to Rhodes before announcing his candidacy, McCain traveled back to Washington. Rhodes was a Washington anomaly: an unflashy workhorse who resisted Sunday-morning TV appearances in favor of policy study and family time. His mastery of the legislative labyrinth had made Rhodes a devout believer in the benefits of experience -- and patience.

Rhodes shook McCain's hand and told him that he had a promising future in Arizona politics. But, just as a few Florida Republicans had done in 1976 when McCain pondered a run there, Rhodes raised the subject of McCain's lack of political seasoning. "Have you considered running for the state legislature, so you can get a little more experience?" Rhodes asked.

At the meeting's end, as soon as he made it out of Rhodes's office, McCain leaned over to a companion, Rep. Robin Beard of Tennessee, and delivered his response to Rhodes's suggestion: "No way." He was running for Congress, whether the legend approved or not.

McCain ended up having three primary-election opponents, but he enjoyed the advantages that counted most in the race: the largest campaign war chest; support from his father-in-law's and wife's well-heeled friends and associates, including a Phoenix real estate developer named Charles Keating, who would help to raise more than $100,000; a skillful TV ad campaign from Jay Smith that featured a clip of a limping McCain taking his first steps on American soil after his release from Hanoi; glowing video testimonials from national figures such as Cohen and Tower, the latter of whom came into the 1st District to campaign for McCain; and flattering media attention.

In an irony for the man whose future presidential campaigns would cast him as a Washington outsider dedicated to slashing pork-barrel spending, McCain asserted that his Capitol connections had already been put to good use in protecting the flow of federal money into the 1st District. Alluding to his work as naval liaison and his influence since with powerful Washington lawmakers, he said he had already helped to preserve defense-related jobs for the district.

"The campaign didn't really have a big issue dividing the candidates," Smith recalls. "Everyone was kind of running as a Reagan Republican. So the question became who was best qualified. John made a big deal of the point that he was the only one with Washington experience."

But problems arose. Detractors began privately raising questions about his personal life. Quietly contemptuous about McCain's candidacy, an aide to a prominent Arizona Republican contacted a McCain primary opponent, state Sen. Jim Mack, and said that Carol McCain wanted to speak to Mack about what it had been like to be married to John McCain.

As Mack remembers, he called Carol McCain one evening at the Reagan White House, where she worked as the director of the visitors' office. When Mack broached the subject of her former spouse and their marriage, an outraged Carol McCain asked him what kind of man would stoop so low as to try drawing a woman into such a conversation. "As soon as I heard her voice, I knew something was wrong," Mack recalls. "John got upset. I don't blame him."

Any public discussion of Carol McCain carried the potential of a costly political embarrassment for McCain. He responded to the news of Mack's call in the same style that he had often employed during high school and college confrontations, delivering a private warning to the rival. "If you ever do that again, or contact any other member of my family, I'll beat the [expletive] out of you," Mack recalls McCain saying to him.

Reports of Mack's call to Carol McCain, and an oblique reference to McCain's subsequent threat, made it into a local paper. "I think it might have helped John, actually," Smith recalls. "He looked like a strong family guy."

A pleased McCain casually mentioned to aides that Mack had failed to show at some subsequent candidate forums. Privately, McCain scorned Mack, viewing the rival's political credentials as sparse when measured against his own experiences on Capitol Hill and in the Navy, a former aide remembers.

Already, McCain had come to see political races, like politics itself, in terms of virtue vs. vice -- virtue deriving from what he regarded as his demonstrable background of leadership vs. the vice of opponents' political expediency and their paucity of meaningful experience. He viewed the 1982 campaign less as an ideological battle than a test of which candidate was most worthy of command. "He needs to make enemies of the people he's going against in order to get fired up," says Jon Hinz, a former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party.

As the campaign neared its end, McCain appeared to be a slight favorite. Then real trouble struck. Critics charged that he had taken credit for the legislative accomplishments of others, particularly Barry Goldwater, the state's iconic senior senator who had remained neutral in the 1st District race. His foes cited the McCain campaign's assertion that, with the use of his Washington connections, he had helped to save hundreds of job at the Hughes Helicopters facility in the 1st District city of Mesa, by protecting a lucrative Army contract from a congressional budgetary ax.

Reports began circulating that Goldwater and several of his aides thought that McCain had grossly exaggerated his role in protecting the key helicopter project at Hughes. During the last weekend before the September primary, the senator's office sent out a telegram to McCain's three opponents that detailed Goldwater's efforts on behalf of the helicopter contract while dismissing McCain's influence. The telegram betrayed Goldwater's mixed feelings about McCain, whose military service he deeply admired but whose overnight leap into a campaign for the 1st District seat offended him as undeserved, friends say. "Goldwater said privately that McCain was a carpetbagger," recalls Nixon White House counsel John Dean, a close family friend of the Goldwaters.

On the eve of the 1982 primary, the Goldwater telegram had the makings of a crisis, testing McCain's ability to make effective use of his political connections and defuse a political bomb. As Smith remembers, after Goldwater's office released the telegram, McCain called Tower, who happened to be in Europe with Goldwater and other members of a congressional delegation. Tower, who already had credited McCain with helping to save the helicopter project, now came to his friend's rescue.

"Tower got to Goldwater, and Goldwater said that he had authorized the telegram, though not personally drafted it," Smith recounts. "Tower extracted a promise from Goldwater that he would not make himself available for any discussion with Arizona media."

Catastrophe was averted. On primary day, McCain won with just 32 percent in the crowded Republican field. Victory over the Democratic nominee in November would be a mere formality. Grant Woods, a key aide who had already been selected as McCain's chief congressional aide for Arizona, reminded McCain of the latest political scuttlebutt: Goldwater was virtually certain to retire from his Senate seat at the end of his term in 1986. "We ought to be thinking of that race," Woods told his new boss, and McCain heartily agreed.

Four years later, enjoying a big lead in the polls on the eve of that Senate election, McCain turned to an aide who had asked whether, all things being equal, he'd rather be the commander of a naval fleet squadron than a senator. "Well, all things aren't equal," McCain began. "But if I keep this lead, win and become senator, maybe my mother will finally get off my back for leaving the Navy."

Ahead was something he couldn't see, the crucible of his life, a brush with a political nightmare that would come to be known as the Keating Five scandal. For the moment he could envision nothing but a shimmering future. He had already permitted himself to dream aloud to aides about the possibility of being tapped as a vice presidential nominee in 1988, if his winning margin in the 1986 Senate race were large enough. If he became vice president, a presidential race would certainly be in the offing. And if he lost at any point, they would all simply keep moving forward, doggedly. The pursuit of command had just begun.

<                5

© 2008 The Washington Post Company