McCain Begins Complicated Quest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 1999; Page A1
John McCain, a complex man facing a complicated task in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, has taken a simple idea and leveraged himself a place in the big GOP field.
From the opening day of the NATO campaign in Kosovo, McCain has argued that there is no substitute for victory and victory requires at least the threat of a ground war -- and perhaps the reality. It has not won favor, even among his fellow Republicans, but by endlessly expounding it in hundreds of television and print interviews, McCain has elevated his visibility and boosted his reputation, without anyone suggesting that he was exploiting the struggle for political purposes.
Having canceled his announcement tour when the Kosovo hostilities began, McCain now is not likely to make his formal entry until October, said campaign manager Rick Davis. But he is fund-raising and stumping and in September will be touring 15 cities to promote his book, "Faith of Our Fathers," a saga of three generations of McCain men and their Navy careers.
The simple version of John McCain's story is a tale of unchallenged courage in a man who survived the horrors of a Vietnam POW camp and now leads uphill battles to curb smoking, shut down the flow of special interest cash into campaigns and defeat Slobodan Milosevic.
But the paradoxes in his career and personality -- which he insists are as much a part of him as the episodes for which he is famous -- could complicate his task in carving out a constituency in this race. Before he can overhaul the early poll leaders, McCain will have to explain himself.
Torie Clarke, his former press secretary, said, "One of the great strengths and weaknesses about John McCain is that he cares deeply about things. There are not too many shades of gray in his life -- on issues or with people."
But contradictions abound. The most hawkish of all the GOP contenders when it comes to Kosovo is the same man who, as a freshman House member, stood up to his political hero, Ronald Reagan, and opposed sending Marines to Lebanon.
The most outspoken opponent of unregulated "soft money" campaign contributions is the same man who was drawn into the Keating Five financial scandal and, though essentially exonerated, insists "it will always be part of my biography."
A senator whose displays of temper cause some colleagues to give him a wide berth is also a man who has reached out in friendship and forgiveness to some of the sharpest opponents of the Vietnam War.
The contender who regularly receives the most laudatory columns from the Washington press corps has conducted a feud for years with the leading paper in his home state.
A candidate who promises supporters, "You may disagree with me often, but I will never embarrass you," readily confesses to periods in his earlier life when his actions met no one's standards of responsibility, including his own.
And, most notably, the man whose stoic refusal to accept early release from the beatings and torture of a Hanoi prison camp made him a national hero rarely talks about that part of his past and insists "there are a lot more important things in my life."
"He's the least managed candidate I've every worked with," said Bill McInturff, McCain's pollster, "but if we can connect the dots of his personal story and his passion for reform of government, the effect can be dramatic."
"We're not there yet," McInturff said. On a recent day of stumping in New Hampshire, McCain refused to give the scripted stump speech, preferring to comment on the issues of the day.
"At the moment," McInturff said, "John does not connect his biography to his positions. When he says he'll veto every piece of pork-barrel legislation Congress sends him, it doesn't move people. But when you show them that for five years in a row, he refused every day to bow to his captors and got smashed in the face, they make the leap: If this guy says he's gonna do it, he means it."
His colleagues have learned how stubborn a battler McCain can be. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), McCain's choice for the 1996 nomination but a bitter foe on tobacco and campaign finance bills, said, "The toughness I've seen in John is the willingness to stay with something when all the peer-group pressure tries to bend him. McCain is not worried about being alone. He's just not."
"As with any strong character definition," Gramm added, "there's a bright side and a dark," an allusion to McCain's celebrated temper. "But having convictions and being willing to stand up for them is so important now, especially when the public is so distrustful of politicians, this guy is a hero."
If anyone could be said to have been bred for heroism, it is John McCain. His grandfather and his father were admirals, and McCain went to the Naval Academy burdened by great expectations. He dealt with the pressure by becoming the biggest hell-raiser in Annapolis, graduated fifth from the bottom in his class and learned to fly Navy jets in Pensacola, Fla., where his social exploits are as celebrated as his aviation skills.
On Oct. 26, 1967, as he likes to say, "I intercepted a ground-to-air missile with my A-4 Skyhawk, which is no mean feat," ejected and landed in a Hanoi lake with a broken leg and two broken arms. The 5 1/2 years that followed have been recounted in a best-selling book, "The Nightingale's Song," a dramatic A&E television biography and scores of feature stories telling how McCain refused his captors' offer of early release for the son of the top Navy admiral in the Pacific and instead defied their efforts to break him with torture.
McCain insists he did nothing special, is adamant that imprisonment was not the defining experience of his life and even gibes at his reputation. At the recent Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, McCain came to the microphone in a jacket ridiculously jammed with phony ribbons and medals and, tongue in cheek, declared: "The question I ask myself every morning while shaving in front of the mirror is: 'Okay, John, you're an incredible war hero, an inspiration to all Americans. But what qualifies you to be president of the United States?' "
His political career began taking form soon after McCain recovered sufficiently to go back to work. Assigned as Navy liaison to the Senate, he palled around with such ambitious young defense reformers as Gary Hart and William S. Cohen and decided to leave the Navy. "It became apparent I wasn't going to be able to pass my next physical for flying status," he said in an interview. "I wouldn't be able to command a carrier or a carrier group. . . . It was clear to me I would not be able to have the successful Navy career I'd hoped for. I wasn't going to be able to match up with my father and grandfather -- which I might not have anyway, even if I'd been in perfect health."
By that time, McCain's first marriage had ended in divorce -- something in which he says his post-Vietnam philandering was a major factor -- and he had remarried. So he headed out to Arizona, looking for a House seat for which he could run.
Less than a year later, in 1981, John Rhodes, the House GOP leader, decided to retire in the Phoenix suburbs and McCain went after the vacancy and won. "John was a dark, dark horse in that primary," said his consultant, J. Brian Rhodes. "No poll, including our own, had him finishing anywhere higher than third. But the great thing about John is he can have a 3 in 10 shot and be thrilled."
In 1986, Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.) retired, creating a vacancy at the end of McCain's second term in the House. Democrat Bruce Babbitt, then governor, considered the race, but McCain looked so strong Babbitt decided not to run -- and McCain has not faced a tough opponent since.
McCain's Senate career got off to a rough start when he and four Democratic colleagues were lumped together as "the Keating Five," a quintet of lawmakers investigated for leaning on federal regulatory officials on behalf of a big contributor, savings and loan chief Charles Keating. Transcripts of the meeting showed McCain far more reticent than the others, and a motion to dismiss the charges against him failed on a party-line vote in committee.
Fred Wertheimer, then head of Common Cause and an instigator of the investigation, now says, "No question, McCain was held hostage by the Democrats." But McCain, characteristically self-critical, says, "Anybody who takes a look at my record, the Keating Five will pop out, like the breakup of my first marriage and, I guess, other things in my life. And rightfully so. No matter what the tape recording said, my going to that meeting created the wrong impression."
Even with the power that seniority has given him as chairman of the Commerce Committee and third-ranking Republican on Armed Services, McCain has gone his independent way. He cast the lone GOP vote against the Telecommunications Act of 1996, insisting that the deregulation measure "was written by every interest in the world except the consumers." He lent his moral support and political cover to President Clinton's decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Vietnam and worked with the White House on the tobacco bill defeated in the last Congress.
He has annoyed colleagues by forcing recorded votes on dubious spending provisions, including those for weapons requested by the Pentagon. And, to the intense irritation of his party leaders, he has joined Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) in sponsoring the main campaign finance bill.
All this has won him praise from liberal columnists -- something of an irony for a man who in the 1980s supported aid to the contras and opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and who still gets high conservative ratings.
At home, McCain has endured -- some would say caused -- a long-standing feud with the Arizona Republic, the state's largest and staunchly Republican newspaper. The estrangement has many roots, including cartoons and coverage when it was revealed that Cindy McCain, the senator's second wife, had become addicted to painkillers after back surgery and had stolen supplies from a medical charity she helped run.
McCain said, "I think there's been some improvement in our relationship. It's arm's-length now, rather than antagonistic." But the potential of having negative stories in his hometown paper is sufficiently worrying that campaign manager Davis recently met with reporters and editors at the Republic.
For a time last year, McCain told friends he was not sure Cindy McCain would approve his running for president. The mother of four children ranging in age from 14 to 7, she has remained in Phoenix during his years in Congress. "She is really not interested in politics," McCain said, "so naturally, this whole thing [the presidential race] she is very apprehensive about, and then the thought of this whole drug thing coming up again still has her very concerned. . . . But I think she'll be fine."
As for himself, McCain said, "Look, I am 62 years old. There will not be another point in my life. If I didn't run and somebody else won the race, I would always wonder if I could have done it. But, I would hasten to add, this is not the Alpha and Omega to me. I will do what is necessary, but if I don't succeed, fine. I'm not a fatalist, but any objective observer would know there's no good reason for me to be alive after what I've been through. So I think this is an opportunity I have to take."
How big that opportunity may be McCain does not profess to know. "If [Texas Gov. George W.] Bush wins [the early contests in] Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, he will be our nominee, and I will happily be a surrogate campaigner," said McCain, who has pledged to run no negative ads and has challenged others to do the same.
McCain ranked second to Bush in fund-raising during the first quarter of 1999. He has cadres of support in New Hampshire, where former senator Warren B. Rudman is his booster, and in South Carolina. Both states have significant numbers of retired veterans. Iowa is a bigger hurdle. Conservative Christians often play a significant role there, and McCain's abortion position -- he opposes abortion but says he will have no litmus test for judicial appointees -- is far less rigid than that those of many of his rivals. "It's just not clear to me how Iowa will play," McCain said.
What is clear is that, in the meantime, he will continue to make Kosovo and Clinton's foreign policy part of his campaign dialogue. In a speech in Washington Thursday, McCain said the administration's foreign policy failures pose a threat to America's continued international and domestic economic growth.
The campaign's hope is that McCain will "catch fire" as an insurgent underdog in one of the two early primaries and then ride a wave of free media stories -- retelling the saga of his heroism and "connecting the dots" for voters of his pledge to "restore respect to the presidency and reform the government" -- into the decisive contests in California and other states on March 7.
Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), a close friend of McCain's but a supporter of former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, said, "John really does believe in certain core things, and he has the courage to act on them. That might have a helluva national appeal. The American people clearly are longing for leadership. And John may be the only Washington guy who has a chance to convince them he has it."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company