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Destined for the Navy, Born to Be a Rebel

John McCain, President Richard Nixon
  The Vietnam War proved to be a life-changing experience for Arizona Sen. John McCain. (US Navy photo)


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By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2000; Page A01

First of two stories.

John McCain's reputation had finally caught up with him, or so it seemed. It was the summer of 1967 and McCain, a young naval officer awaiting orders to report to an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam, was at the Florida home of his Naval Academy classmate, Charles R. "Chuck" Larson.

As Larson recalls it, at one point he and McCain were alone in the kitchen when McCain confided, "Chuck, I may have to get out of the Navy. I really decided I want to be a serious naval officer, but when I go to a new squadron everybody starts laughing and telling John McCain stories."

Everywhere, his reputation preceded him. There were countless stories of his hi-jinks and relatively minor but persistent acts of defiance at the Academy and at flight school. There was his habitual and legendary sloppiness. And, always, there was talk of the women, like the Brazilian model with whom he cavorted during a stopover in Rio on a midshipmen's cruise, and "Marie, the Flame of Florida," the exotic dancer he dated while he was still single and learning to fly warplanes.

Six years after the kitchen conversation, McCain returned to Jacksonville, Fla., with an entirely different reputation, that of a hero and a survivor. He was, by then, recognized as a "serious naval officer," but his career in the Navy was already doomed because of the physical ailments that racked his body.

The Vietnam War forever changed McCain's life. It was an experience he could have done without, but it did have at least one long-term benefit--it gave him a celebrity status that provided the foundation for a new career in politics.

For years after his release from a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, McCain seldom spoke of his captivity and when he did, according to friends, it was almost always in a joking manner. Even when he ran for the House and later the Senate in Arizona, he did not talk about it much publicly because it was a story everyone knew: 5 1/2 years as a POW, solitary confinement, torture by his captors, survival.

But now, as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination, McCain refers often to his time in Vietnam. He has written a book about it and the wartime exploits of his father and grandfather, both famous admirals. He likes to say that it is a story of "three flawed individuals who found redemption through service to their country," but it is more than that. It is the underlying rationale for the McCain candidacy. More than any other candidate in recent memory, McCain is running for president on the basis of his own life's story, flaws and all.

A Natural Rebel

McCain, now 63, is often described as a "maverick" and his willingness to buck his own party's orthodoxy on some issues, and to feud with its leadership, is part of his political profile and an underlying theme of his presidential campaign. But McCain's contrarian streak did not begin when he entered politics by winning a House seat in the Phoenix area in 1982. Throughout his life, he has always stood slightly apart, and seemed most comfortable there.

At Episcopal High School in Alexandria, which McCain entered as a sophomore and graduated from in 1954, one of the nicknames that classmates bestowed on him was "McNasty." He was short and strong, a member of the wrestling team. Years later, those now-graying classmates said they did not recall McCain getting into all that many fights.

But they did remember him as someone who projected an aura of toughness and a willingness to buck the system at the staid, all-male boarding school. A yearbook photograph from that era shows the future crusader against the tobacco industry with his collar turned up, a cigarette dangling from his lips, in a classic 1950s "Rebel Without a Cause" pose.

"Everybody perceived him as a tough guy, but not a looking-for-a-fight tough guy," said Rives Richey, who graduated from Episcopal a year after McCain. "It was just that if you got in a fight with McCain you'd better be ready to go all the way because he had no quit in him."

The editors of McCain's senior class yearbook unwittingly hinted at the contours of his future political life. The caption beneath his photograph called him the "Punk" and said of McCain: "His magnetic personality has won for him many life-long friends. But as magnets also must repel, some have found him hard to get along with."

At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, McCain piled up demerits at an alarming rate and continued to defy authority. He was a ringleader in a group of midshipmen who proudly called themselves "the Bad Bunch," a label that conveyed the group's sense of apartness from the model officers the Academy sought to produce. Their behavior was tame by today's standards--there were no drugs or brushes with civilian law enforcement authorities--but in the regimented confines of the 1950s Naval Academy, they tested the limits of their superiors' tolerance.

In his second year at the Academy, McCain had a dining hall confrontation with an upperclassman he felt was mistreating a Navy steward. "What's your name?" the angry upperclassman demanded to know.

"John Sidney McCain the Third, what's yours?" McCain replied. The flustered upperclassman abruptly left the dining hall.

"I thought, this is the end of John McCain, because this is unheard of--you never challenge an upperclassman," said Frank Gamboa, one of McCain's Naval Academy roommates who witnessed the incident. But McCain suffered no consequences.

At flight training school in Pensacola, Fla., McCain and Larson were playing shuffleboard at the officers' club one day when they were approached by a more senior officer. Apparently disgusted by what Larson describes as McCain's "semi-disheveled" appearance, the officer invoked the name of McCain's grandfather, Adm. John S. McCain, who was never known as a spit-and-polish sailor.

"Mr. McCain, you're a disgrace," the officer said. "What do you think your grandfather would think?"

"Frankly, Commander, I don't think he'd give a rat's ass," McCain shot back. Except for training sessions, the newly commissioned Ensign McCain was confined to his quarters for the next three days, Larson said.

The rebelliousness came naturally to McCain, for he was born into a world that was set apart. It was the world of the 1930s Navy, a small and insular community of career officers who worked together, socialized together, and raised their families together. They led a nomadic life. McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone, estimates that he attended as many as 20 schools before the Naval Academy, including three in one year. One reason his parents enrolled him at Episcopal, he said, was to provide him with a semblance of educational continuity and stability.

Navy Family, Navy Life

This had been the way of life of the McCain family for two generations. McCain's grandfather, a colorful figure who finished in the bottom quarter of his class at the Naval Academy and who was widely known for his smoking, drinking, gambling and cursing, commanded aircraft carrier task forces in the Pacific during World War II and was on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered in 1945. His father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., who finished 18th from the bottom of his Academy class, rose to command all U.S. forces in the Pacific. When President Richard M. Nixon ordered the resumption of sustained bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, it was McCain Jr. who issued the operational directives as his son, John S. III, languished in a prisoner-of-war camp in Hanoi.

By then, the youngest McCain had continued the family's dismal and steadily downward spiral in academic performance, finishing fifth from the bottom in the Naval Academy class of 1958. He did well in subjects that interested him, such as history and literature. As for other subjects in a curriculum heavily weighted toward science and mathematics, McCain became an expert in the art of cramming and relied on the tutoring skills of his more diligent classmates. He got by.

It is not difficult to understand why others were willing to help McCain. He was always fun to be around. Whenever the midshipmen had free time, "it was always a big deal--what are we going to do, what places are we going to go at night," said John J. Dittrick, another of McCain's Annapolis roommates. "Invariably, he always seemed to take charge of that. It was sort of a natural thing. You just did what John suggested."

"We see much less of our fathers than do other children," McCain wrote of the children of the military in his bestselling book, "Faith of My Fathers." "Our mothers run the households, pay the bills, and manage most of our upbringing. For long stretches of time they are required to be both mother and father. . . . It is no surprise then that the personalities of children who have grown up in the Navy often resemble those of their mothers more than those of their fathers."

McCain's mother, Roberta, is in her eighties, a still vibrant woman who travels frequently to Europe and other international destinations with her twin sister, Rowena. She was the daughter of a successful businessman from a well-off family, but she eagerly embraced the Navy life. She was a clear asset to her husband as he climbed the ladder of command, gracefully entertaining members of Congress and others from the world of politics and government at their home on Capitol Hill when her husband served as the Navy's liaison officer to Congress.

Still, the father loomed large in the lives of McCain, his older sister, Sandy, and his younger brother, Joe. "By your father's calling, you are born into an exclusive, noble tradition," McCain wrote in his book. "Its standards require your father to dutifully serve a cause greater than his self-interest, and everyone around you, your mother, other relatives, the whole Navy world, drafts you to the cause as well."

Testing the Boundaries

If McCain stood apart at Episcopal--a rootless Navy tough amid the more polished scions of affluent Southern families--his grandfather's salty reputation and his father's steady rise in the ranks set him apart in another way at the Naval Academy. Visiting admirals and other senior officers often asked to meet privately with the young midshipman. McCain was something of an undisciplined rebel and academically undistinguished, but he was still Navy "family."

After his A-4 Skyhawk bomber was shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967, McCain stood apart from his fellow prisoners of war. He was so severely injured that the North Vietnamese at first told him it was "too late" for medical treatment to do any good. But when they learned that he was the son of an important U.S. admiral and potentially a valuable propaganda tool, the North Vietnamese provided rudimentary treatment and put him in a cell with other American POWs, who gradually nursed him back to health.

They also announced his capture, sparing his family the months or years of uncertainty endured by the families of other airmen who were shot down and listed as missing in action.

A Preordained Career

McCain did not always welcome this special place in the Navy that seemed to have been reserved for him from birth. At times he resented it, but he and his parents never discussed his destiny--the Naval Academy and a career in the family business. "It was just a fact," McCain recalled.

So he rebelled with acts of defiance against authority figures other than his parents, but it was always rebellion within limits.

"John was always a guy who pushed the boundary, but he always knew where that boundary was," said his brother Joe. "He never got thrown out of anything. He never flunked out of anything. He came as close as you can, but he always had that sense of what was going to be too much."

"He knew he came from a distinguished naval family and he knew what the limits were in behavior," said Gamboa, his Naval Academy roommate. "I think that made him a little more independent. We didn't want to tempt the system, but he felt pretty confident he could tempt the system and get away with it. He'd push the line, he'd push the edge, but he never went over the edge."

McCain offers one other reason for his internal sense of where to draw the line, a subject he mentions briefly in his book.

"My father drank too much," he said. "It was really unsettling to me to see the effects of alcohol on him. So even though I did all this wild stuff of going over the wall and having beers, I never drank to excess. People may have thought I was because I'd be singing and yelling, but I was always careful not to lose control of myself. I would always pace myself so that I didn't become incapacitated because it was so distressing to me to see my father--the noblest, strongest, most principled person I had ever known--exhibit the symptoms of a binge drinker."

Combat and Captivity

America's most controversial war underscored McCain's seriousness about a career in the Navy. Others may have sought refuge from the war in graduate school or even Canada; for an ambitious young Navy lieutenant commander, the war was an opportunity.

He volunteered for combat duty and was assigned to the USS Forrestal, where in the summer of 1967 he first witnessed the ghastly side of the family business. As McCain was preparing to take off, a rocket discharged from a nearby plane and struck his aircraft. The freak accident created an inferno of jet fuel and set off munitions on the deck, killing 134 sailors.

McCain was lucky to be alive, but with the Forrestal out of commission he volunteered for duty on the USS Oriskany. It was from the deck of the Oriskany that he took off on his 23rd and final bombing mission in October 1967.

McCain spent the next 5 1/2 years in a variety of North Vietnamese prisons, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He was severely injured when shot down--the ejection from his aircraft broke both of his arms and his right knee--and this was followed by beatings and torture administered by his captors. Like many POWs, he reached a breaking point and signed a phony confession of "war crimes." Shortly before that, he made a feeble attempt at suicide.

But McCain steadfastly refused offers of early release ahead of others who had been held captive longer because that would violate the military code of conduct and because he feared that the North Vietnamese would use his special status as the son of an admiral for propaganda purposes. The North Vietnamese called him "the crown prince."

Air Force Maj. George "Bud" Day remembers his first prison encounter with McCain shortly after McCain was shot down.

'He Was Going to Die'

"His hair is snow white," Day said. "He's filthy. He's really emaciated, weighs maybe 90 pounds. I was just certain he was going to die and certain the gooks dumped him on us so they could claim that we let him die."

Another prisoner was Orson Swindle, a Marine fighter pilot who was shot down in 1966 and who is now a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. He remembers his first conversation with McCain, whose spirit clearly had not been broken. They were in separate cells, able to hear but not see each other as their voices bounced off a nearby wall.

"He said, 'I wanted to be a Marine like you but I couldn't handle the qualifications,' " Swindle recalled. "I said, 'What qualifications?' And he said, 'Well, my parents were married, to begin with.' "

Today, McCain is known for an almost reckless candor, especially for a politician. That may be part of his nature, but the trait was certainly reinforced by his prisoner-of-war experience. Communicating with each other was the key to survival and sanity for the prisoners. Swindle described what happened when a prisoner was returned to his cell after an interrogation and, metal cup in hand, he began communicating by code with other prisoners.

"You'd get on the wall and start tapping," he said. "Okay, this is what I just went through, here is what they wanted, here is what I gave them, here is what they did to me. In other words, total honesty. We had to be truthful with one another because we had nothing else to rely on other than ourselves. So we had to be just utterly, frankly truthful."

Early in his captivity, McCain shared a cell with Day and another Air Force major, Norris Overly. It was Overly, the only one of the three who was not severely injured, who nursed McCain back to health. He fed him, washed him, carried him to a corner of the cell where a bucket served as a toilet. Then he cleaned up after him.

"If you crossed him, you just didn't get close to him again," Gamboa said of his Annapolis roommate, and Overly, whom McCain credits with saving his life, later learned this.

Unlike McCain, Overly did accept early release from the prison camp. When McCain finally returned to the United States in 1973, Overly called him to welcome him home. They had a brief, perfunctory conversation and did not speak again until about six months ago, when McCain, who by this time had decided to run for president, inexplicably called his former cellmate and said that if Overly was ever in Washington they should get together.

McCain has never really explained why he shunned Overly for so many years, but a perceived disloyalty to the POWs who stayed behind and to the code of military conduct is a plausible reason.

"Bud [Day] told me one time that he and John had gotten together for dinner, talked a little bit about me and John said, 'I really ought to call that guy,' " Overly recalled. "I take it from that that it was on his mind but that he couldn't come to grips with it. But that doesn't bother me. I have no ill feelings about it. I guess I can understand it."

McCain, who seems almost eager to confess his shortcomings, is less forgiving of himself. Asked recently why he decided to call Overly after ignoring him for more than 25 years, McCain did not answer directly.

"The only reason I lived was because of Norris Overly," he said. "I think it is a very justified criticism of me that I didn't talk to him. It's a significant failure on my part."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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