John McCain is wrong about so much. He's against abortion, gun control, voted to convict Bill Clinton on two impeachment counts and thinks--all these years later--that it was a mistake to give the Panama Canal to Panama. Still, no one's perfect. I like him anyway.

Of course, I am not alone. McCain is the darling of the press--has been since journalists started reading a remarkable book called "The Nightingale's Song" and discovered, if they did not know it before, that McCain was not like you and me. He was shot down over North Vietnam, captured, imprisoned for 5 1/2 years, held in solitary and tortured--mostly because he refused to be freed ahead of other prisoners. His father was a top admiral, and the North Vietnamese were seeking a propaganda coup.

The hero still does things his own way. Unlike most other candidates, he does not ration his time with the press. Reporters sit with him in the back of his campaign bus and ask him anything they want. We talked about the Vietnam War and Kosovo, Chechnya and gun control, abortion, homosexuality, campaign finance, Marlon Brando movies, great books, flying off a carrier, reciting movie plots to his fellow POWs, going over the wall at the Naval Academy lo those many years ago, and that dish from Rio, the fashion model he had such a crush on. For a while he wanted to find her but then someone told him, no--it's best to remember her as she was.

All this, hour after hour of conversation stretching through two days, was on the record--a breathtaking high-wire act for a serious presidential candidate. After all, this was the same John McCain who once told an incredibly tasteless joke about the Clintons. Wasn't he being a bit reckless? I asked.

"Life's too short," he said. "I enjoy this. I have to be who I am."

And exactly who is that? To some, McCain is a loose cannon, a self-righteous, intemperate grandstander with a fearsome temper. His crusades against soft money and pork-barrel projects are star-turns in futility, his critics say, and his attempts to turn his temper into an attribute of authenticity is, in itself, inauthentic. The McCain of this formulation is hardly fit to drive a car, never mind guide the entire nation.

But that is not the man on display in the back of the bus. Instead, he is instantly winning, garrulous and genuinely funny. He confesses to occasional doubt, small corners of ignorance and suggests--Is this just wishful thinking?--that he is on an intellectual journey. In a Vanity Fair piece by Carl Bernstein, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) calls McCain "a thousand percent anti-gay," yet when I raise the subject, he is hardly homophobic--not rigid, not zealous and, seemingly, amenable to persuasion.

Similarly, when talking about school violence, he says the answer to the problem has "to begin with families"--not, mind you, gun control. A nice sentiment, I say, but not very practical. Almost instantly, he concedes that when he comes home he finds his younger kids (he has a total of seven) glued to their individual computer screens, he has no idea what they're watching. "I should know what my kids are doing," he says.

The word that occurs to me after several hours listening to McCain is "naked." "The man is naked," I kept thinking. He shows so much of himself. We hear him take a call from his wife. We hear him long for Tom Ott, a petty officer on the USS Forrestal who was consumed by flames before McCain's eyes. We hear him blame himself for the dissolution of his first marriage and hear also his scathing--and, to me, jarring--denunciation of government grants to the arts.

A few times at some campaign stop, we would hear McCain described as a hero. Yes, of course--but not in the sense of someone who had a surge of courage, a moment of virtual insanity, and won a medal as a result. No, McCain's heroism was a day-by-day affair, a marathon of agony, terror and despair over a matter of principle. That says something. That says everything.

In one New Hampshire poll, McCain is even with George W. Bush. His audiences are growing, and they seem to be impressed. The candidate brims authenticity and when he calls kids to serve something larger than their own self-interest, they do not look down in boredom or up in cynicism. As he says, McCain is who he is--and that, for better or worse, is unlike anyone else in the race.