John McCain drives like he lives: with conviction, impatience and a willingness to cross dividing lines.
"JOHN, A TRUCK!" an aide yells from the back seat.
"I see it, I see it," says McCain, veering right, just missing the truck.
"Joe, you're a little jerk," McCain tells the aide. He means this lovingly.
McCain is the rare senator who drives during the workday. Other senators take a back seat -- the better to read and make calls. McCain reads and calls, too, but it doesn't preclude driving. Or admiring tulips, adjusting his sunglasses or talking with his hands about how the Senate is "literally doing nothing these days" and "is in total gridlock."
And now -- metaphor coming -- McCain himself is stopped in a traffic jam.
"Go, go, go," McCain says, tailgating a Toyota van near the Department of Labor. He slams his palms on the steering wheel while inching his Cadillac CTS toward Capitol Hill.
"Go, go, go," McCain says again, as much a credo as a command. Some people glide through life, some limp, and some -- like McCain -- careen. The Toyota jerks into the right lane, and McCain follows, inches behind.
In his 67 years, John Sidney McCain III has survived three plane crashes, all flights he piloted. He has endured, among other things, 51/2 years in a North Vietnamese prison, cancer, an almost career-killing scandal and one of the nastiest primary campaigns in GOP history. "This is all so transient," McCain says. "It could all end tomorrow. My philosophy is just to just go, go like hell. Like Teddy Roosevelt did it. Full-bore."
The Arizona Republican's version of full-bore went national in 2000, when his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination nearly wrecked George W. Bush's juggernaut. McCain's "Straight Talk Express" -- his campaign bus, featuring the candidate's unplugged and impolitic musings -- became a roving political cavalcade. Reporters swooned like schoolgirls, and many haven't stopped. He has become the exemplar of that exotic political virtue, candor.
It hardly mattered that McCain lost in 2000 -- bitterly in the end, and with lasting animosity toward Bush. He somehow has come to embody a now-perished age of bipartisan friendships and philosophies in Washington.
Other colleagues, especially Democrats, came to covet him as a public ally. John Kerry's latest TV ads feature a photo of him and McCain. Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt and John Edwards fell all over themselves during the Democratic primaries to tout their collaborations with their "good friend John McCain." In a speech last year, McCain jokingly accused the candidates of "identity theft."
"I now know why Joe Lieberman, John Edwards and John Kerry are always so anxious to co-sponsor legislation with me," McCain said. "It seems they not only want to work with me, they actually wanted to be me! I feel so violated."
But McCain has been defined as much by the enmity he draws as by the love. "His lifelong personality has won him lifelong friends," said a yearbook remembrance of John "Punk" McCain from Episcopal High School in Alexandria. "But as magnets must also repel, some have found him hard to get along with."
Today that group includes many from his own party, some of whom work in the White House and -- it's a decent bet -- one who sleeps there.
"He ought to not be allowed near sharp objects or legislation," says Grover Norquist, a conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform.
McCain is most awake amid such friction. He often invokes the "crowded hour," a term coined by Teddy Roosevelt, his political hero, to describe TR's attack on Spanish forces at San Juan Heights in Cuba. Roosevelt's "crowded hour" was a compressed time of reckoning, a headlong assault where he proved his skill and bravery on a treacherous battlefield. That, in large part, is how McCain views his time as a public man: A rough-riding joy ride careening from outrage to outrage, charge to charge, wherever the road leads.
McCain is sitting in his Russell Building office, bemoaning many things: the mess in Iraq, pork barrel spending, the power of special interests, Senate inaction, the recurring question of whether he would be Kerry's running mate.
Staffer Joe Donoghue strolls in, the aforementioned little jerk.
Unlike most Senate suites, the boss's office sits in the middle of everything -- not in some regal corner. No gatekeeper keeps his staff, junior and senior, from wandering through during the interview.
"Joe is bipolar and has had some severe alcohol problems as well," McCain tells a reporter. "He used to have hair. He has been accused several times of harassing interns. And he tried to pick me up this morning at the wrong end of goddamned National Airport."
This is a Full McCain Introduction, except that he leaves out the bit about Donoghue's prison work-release status. (Note to lawyers: He is kidding.)
McCain is wearing a wrinkled gray suit. Wisps of white hair stick up from the back of his head and his small pink face is heavy with fatigue. He has been hyperactive and hypervisible of late, even by his omnipresent norms:
He interrogated Donald Rumsfeld when the defense secretary came before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday. He condemned the negative tone of the presidential campaign, and his colleague Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey for comparing Vice President Cheney to a chicken. He railed against steroids in sports, Internet taxation and the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group for refusing to air an edition of "Nightline" in which Ted Koppel read the names of the fallen in Iraq.
McCain likes to tell you how busy he is. He tallies the interviews he's sat for, speeches he's given, people he's seen. He begins by telling you how "dead tired" he is and at what ridiculously early hour he began his day.
On a recent morning -- in which he says he awoke at 5 -- McCain boasts of all he's doing to promote his new book, "Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life." "I did Hannity alone and I did Hannity and Colmes together," McCain says, "so I figured I had the obligation to do Colmes alone, too."
The previous week, McCain's wife, Cindy, suffered a brain hemorrhage. A few days later, she came home from the hospital and is expected to recover fully. McCain took a few days off from his book tour and flew to Phoenix.
Now back at full-bore, McCain shows off a schedule of that morning's radio phoners: He did 30 interviews in all, and nearly all included some variation on the question of whether he might be Kerry's running mate -- to which McCain answered with some variation on "No," followed by his laundry list of things that make him and Kerry incompatible. ("I am a pro-life, deficit hawk, free-trade Republican.") But this doesn't stop McCain from loving the nuisance of it.
"He tends to complain about a lot of things with a twinkle in his eye," says Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a close friend who says he refuses to get into a car with McCain. "You can tell a big part of him enjoys this."
A Flawed Hero
"All right, how many people we bringing with us?" McCain says, bounding from his office chair. He is heading to a news conference about a drug importation bill. As McCain waits for a Senate tram, tourists keep pointing at him, whispering to each other.
"Yep, I'm him," McCain says. "I'm that Al Gore guy."
After the news conference, a reporter approaches McCain with the running-mate question. She asks about a quote in the Boston Herald in which he said he "admired the Democratic Party."
"My words were taken completely out of context," McCain tells the reporter. His voice rises as his gait speeds. "I said I wouldn't run with Kerry because I'm a Republican, a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, and while I admire the Democratic Party, I am committed to Republicans.
Back on the tram, McCain affects a high mocking voice to mimic the question. He seems exasperated, genuinely so, except for the grin.
The running-mate trope is just the latest co-dependent transaction between the media and their good friend McCain. Intrigue is served, ratings rise (when McCain is booked on a talk show). In return, McCain gets attention.
And attention is paramount to his success. He has a sharp nose for outrage and a fast tongue for spreading it, and his maverick star power -- born in 2000 and enhanced since -- grants him a cachet that transcends traditional political alignments.
"He's acutely aware that the way he wants to be requires attention," says Mark Salter, McCain's longtime chief of staff and the co-author of his three books. "John's got to make a public fight to get stuff done."
It helps that public opinion surveys rate McCain as one of the most admired senators. In an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released last week, McCain was viewed more favorably than Bush, Kerry or Cheney. He is popular among voters in both parties, particularly those who consider themselves independent, moderate and non-ideological. These are not traditionally the people who pick Republican (or Democratic) nominees, but the survey positions McCain as No Nonsense America's favorite ambassador to Washington.
"John McCain is the closest thing American politics has to a national hero," says the Almanac of American Politics.
McCain has become a political weather system unto himself. He is the smart-mouthed kid from the back of the class, leaving his smarty-pants colleagues to compete for his reflected glory. "You think these guys would keep mentioning my name if I didn't have this national name recognition?" McCain asks. "No way."
Norquist distills McCain's political views to "whatever will get him on TV" and theorizes that McCain suffered withdrawal after getting so much attention in 2000. "He needs to keep reinventing himself, so it becomes like Madonna's business plan: He always has to do something new to get himself back on the cover of magazines."
When he returned to the Senate in 2000, McCain vowed to hold up every piece of legislation he could until he was given a fair fight on McCain-Feingold, his landmark campaign finance reform bill that passed in 2002. "He basically said, 'I'm gonna spend everything I've got, contact everyone on my e-mail list and fight fight fight until I get this done,' " Salter says.
He did. McCain-Feingold became the law and McCain a winning crusader for a resonant public issue.
It's instructive that McCain's biggest political triumph was rooted in his biggest shame. In the early 1990s, he was one of five senators implicated in an influence-peddling scandal involving the collapsed Lincoln Savings and Loan and its principal, Charles H. Keating Jr., a powerful Arizona developer and McCain donor. A special counsel found McCain guilty of "poor judgment," and he spent much of the 1990s browbeating himself for the transgression. He cited the matter as his signature humiliation long after people stopped mentioning it.
McCain has always leavened his hard-charging assault with doses of self-flagellation (he spoke in 2000 about how his campaign was handicapped because "we haven't got the most brilliant candidate"). It is a novel approach to persuasion -- in contrast to Bill Clinton's word-splitting evasions and George W. Bush's aversion to admitting mistakes. It is also a vital part of McCain's straight-talk bona fides.
"He's got an amazing ability to see through the fog of nuance and not get bogged down in the underbrush," Hagel says.
"He has a great sense of how to present an issue," says Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, another admirer. "He has a wonderful sense of timing."
Lieberman recalls a visit to McCain's vacation home in Sedona, Ariz., four years ago. There was a terrible thunderstorm, and smoke was visible out the window. Jimmy, McCain's youngest son, then 10, was setting off firecrackers.
"I said to John, 'That was you when you were Jimmy's age.' " Lieberman says. "John just laughed at that."
Bedwetters vs. Thumbsuckers
McCain is an insufferable back-seat driver. This should surprise no one.
"Go straight down Central," he tells staffer Paul Hickman, who is pulling out of the long driveway of McCain's home in Phoenix. "Take one street over. Fifty-one is closed. So go down Central or Jefferson."
McCain is off to appear on "Face the Nation," just after 6 on a Sunday morning. He did two book signings the day before, Tucson in the morning and Phoenix in the afternoon. Lines snaked through both stores, and by day's end, McCain has signed about 1,000 books, some with long inscriptions. ("This guy had me write, like a whole page," McCain says. " 'Good luck in Iraq, I know you'll be brave,' all that. Jeez.") Afterward, McCain repaired to a Mexican restaurant for dinner with Cindy and two of their four children (he has another three adult children from his first marriage). He sat with an ice pack on his left (signing) hand.
Now McCain sips a double cappuccino in his seat and intersperses his instructions with diverse items and commentaries:
He watched the Vitali Klitschko-Corrie Sanders fight on HBO the night before. "Ohh boy, blood everywhere."
Things are looking bad in Fallujah.
He has no idea why George Tenet still runs the CIA. "I think he must have some negatives somewhere," McCain says, meaning photo negatives.
McCain met with Tenet at Langley about a year ago. Seemed like a good guy, McCain says. Tenet made his case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and it sounded compelling.
"But it was a little like a Chinese meal," McCain recalls. "An hour later I was hungry again."
The Sunday morning Straight Talk Express pulls in. McCain goes into the studio, and a producer replaces the fake background of downtown Phoenix with a fake one of bookshelves. The senator answers questions about Iraq, calls for more troops and is back home 20 minutes after the interview ends.
The McCains live in a large house with an emerald lawn, a swimming pool and guest house and a big gate with surveillance cameras at the entrance. Cindy Hensley McCain, whose father was a wealthy Budweiser distributor, grew up here. The home is filled with sprightly flower arrangements that Cindy received after her brain hemorrhage. "Look at these," McCain says, pointing to a vase the size of a water cooler in the front hall. "It's like she died or something."
A few hours later, McCain is driving his Lexus SUV to Bank One Ballpark, where the Arizona Diamondbacks will play the San Diego Padres. His cell phone blares to the tune of a harp concerto, and he jumps each time it rings. The ride to the ballpark is leisurely by McCain standards, with no mishaps except for when he rides up onto the curb in the parking lot.
McCain loves baseball. "I'd pay to see the Bedwetters play the Thumbsuckers," he says. He sits in the third row, in a box seat that belongs to Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo. As in the car, McCain bears down on the action, fully engaged, if not in control. He leans forward with each pitch, gives free-associative commentary.
San Diego's Mark Loretta leads off, which reminds McCain of a joke that he heard on Leno. "Everyone in jail calls Robert Blake 'Baretta,' " McCain says. "Except for his roommate, who calls him 'Loretta.' "
McCain spent 51/2 years as a POW and is now sitting at a ballgame, spooning Heath bar ice cream into his mouth and belly-laughing at his joke. If any demons linger, they are perfectly hidden.
The Diamondbacks score four runs in the third inning. Outfielder Luis Gonzalez waves to McCain from the on-deck circle. "You see that, Luis-Luis waved to me," McCain says.
Between pitches, the following tidbits of McCainiana are gleaned:
* He would hate to live in Milwaukee.
* He has been unimpressed with Kerry's recent performances: "Kerry's gotta stop nuancing everything."
* John Edwards would have been a tougher nominee to beat.
"This is your pitch, Richie, c'mon, c'mon," McCain yells at Diamondbacks slugger Richie Sexson. Sexson is facing San Diego's Jason Szuminski, a rookie pitcher who attended MIT.
"NASA, here we come," McCain says after Sexson hits a towering home run. Szuminski leaves the mound after giving up five runs.
"That's why we don't have more pitchers from MIT," McCain says, speaking loudly enough for fans nearby to hear. He is showing a version of himself unseen to this point, but one which suits him: senator as heckler.
A Crowded Hour
McCain was flushed with satisfaction on a recent afternoon after the Senate voted 93-3 to extend a ban on taxing Internet access. It is a bill he fought hard for. "We're actually getting something accomplished," he says. "Whaddya know."
He steps onto a porch just off the Senate floor. He is talking again about transience, the fleetingness of his romp. "I've been here 22 years and it feels like I just got here yesterday," McCain says, reiterating his mandate to maximize every moment, zoom full-bore, "so when your crowded hour is over you can look back and say, 'I have no regrets.' "
With that, McCain brandishes his schedule and reads aloud.
"Hearing on telecom reform. Going to speak at Pat Tillman's funeral on Monday. Tomorrow speak at University of Florida graduation. Saturday I'll be home for my son Jack's birthday. Meeting with the director of the 9/11 commission. Met with Condi at the White House this morning. NPR's 'Morning Edition.' Dinner tonight with Stephanopoulos, Claire Shipman.
"So it's a crowded hour, crowded hour. It's wonderful."
McCain is not a man of excessive reflection. He treats adversity with the balm of perpetual motion. Within a few months of his loss to Bush in 2000, he was diagnosed with melanoma that could have killed him and leaves a vast scar on his neck and up his temple.
"He handled that like he handled everything," Salter says. "Just get back here and get busy. The more downtime he has, the jumpier he gets."
McCain instructs a reporter to visit the Senate Commerce Committee room. Notice all the pictures of the past chairmen on the wall, he says. "You've got to have a pretty astute knowledge of history to recognize any one of those guys other than Warren Magnuson."
Message: It's all transient. Few are remembered here.
You hear speculation in Arizona and Washington about how McCain will spend his capital next. Colleagues keep mentioning that global warming could be his next signature issue. He's currently chairman of the Commerce Committee and is in line to be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in two years, a prospect he says he relishes. He is up for reelection in November and, as of now, faces no serious competition. But McCain watchers keep mentioning another presidential campaign. McCain, who will be 72 in 2008, downplays the notion, at least publicly. Sources close to him say at the very least the matter has been discussed among his advisers. When asked about it at the Diamondbacks game, he gives the "I can envision no scenario" denial.
Asked again last week about 2008, McCain says it would be foolish. He fears losing the stature he gained in 2000 by running a bad race in 2008. He mentions perennial candidates Harold Stassen, Ralph Nader, "all these guys who, you know, don't know when to quit."
"I want to keep a reputation which makes young people come up to me and say, 'I admire you, Senator McCain,' rather than being some old political hack who keeps running for president."
McCain is playing his sheepish game, lumping himself with hacks, when in fact many politicians have run for president twice and several were elected.
But McCain shakes his head and repeats his fear of becoming marginal. It is an odd explanation, given that his new book offers a how-to meditation on "the capacity for action despite our fears."
He shrugs again. He is happy enough now. Why? "Because we are getting stuff done," he says, which contradicts his lament the week before that the Senate is "literally doing nothing these days." All's transient in life and Washington.
He strolls back back toward the Senate floor and tells two dirty jokes that could never be printed in this newspaper. He back-slaps as he goes, stopping to greet the parents of a young staff member and poses for a photo.
The parents mention how much they admire McCain, and that America needs him more than ever, and for what it's worth, they're from New Hampshire.