Second of two articles
For more than five years, John McCain endured the hardships of life in North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps. But when he finally returned to the United States in 1973, McCain still faced more physical hardship at the hands of a final tormentor.
Her name was Diane.
McCain was 36 at the time and still determined to make the Navy his career. That, after all, had seemed his destiny from birth, to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both admirals. If he had more than a casual interest in politics, he did not show it--he had never even voted.
But he faced an uncertain future as a naval aviator as he began his first post-Vietnam assignment at the National War College in Washington. The lingering effects of his injuries made it doubtful that he could pass the physical examination required of Navy fliers.
McCain's arms, which he still cannot raise above his shoulders, were in wretched shape, but his main problem was his right knee, which was shattered when he ejected from his aircraft over Hanoi in 1967. The Navy required its pilots to have 90 percent flexibility in their knees, and McCain could barely bend his.
It was then that McCain met Diane Rauch, who later became Diane Lawrence after she married one of McCain's former fellow POWs. She was a physical therapist whose patients included Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and she set out to help McCain get back in the cockpit, back on track for a career in the Navy.
It was hard work, two hours a day, twice a week, for nine months. With McCain lying down, Lawrence would lean into him, forcing his knee to move in tiny increments. "It's a very painful procedure," Lawrence said. "On a scale of one to 10, many times he pushed 10." When it got to be too much, she said, McCain "would put his hand over his face and say, 'That's it, honey.' "
McCain eventually passed his flight physical and returned to flying duty. But this turned out to be only a temporary victory over his new physical limitations. By the late 1970s, it became clear to then-Capt. McCain that each flight physical would be problematic and that he was unlikely ever to achieve command at sea, the gateway to becoming an admiral. And by then, other forces were pushing him in an unexpected direction, toward the world of politics.
One was his celebrity status as a heroic ex-POW who had refused early release from prison. Shortly after McCain's return to the United States, that alone was enough to attract the attention of Ronald Reagan, who was finishing his second term as governor of California. Reagan invited McCain to address a prayer breakfast in Sacramento.
"That was an absolute knockout," said Nancy Reynolds, a longtime Reagan aide. "To have a guy like that come to a prayer breakfast in Sacramento was something. He totally mesmerized the crowd." Although McCain did not express any interest in elective office, Reynolds said, it was clear that "the word 'natural' applies to John and politics."
Political, Personal Leaps
But McCain's real political baptism came in 1977, when the Navy assigned him to be its liaison to the Senate, the same job that his father once held.
The young naval officer entered easily into the traditionally clubby world of the Senate. He developed an especially close relationship with the late Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.), and on long overseas trips, McCain's outgoing personality made him popular with younger senators such as William S. Cohen (R-Maine), now the secretary of defense, and Gary Hart (D-Colo.). Hart remembers McCain as "funny, gregarious. . . . He's got a bad boy streak to him that's just wonderful. Mischievous is the word. There's a little boy inside there trying to get out."
As the Navy's liaison, McCain developed a keen interest in the workings of the Senate. "He wanted to talk about what we were voting on," Hart said. "Why did you do this? He studied how the committee worked and how the system worked."
McCain confirmed that as the Navy liaison, "I saw the enormous ability to influence events that a serious and thoughtful member of the Senate can have. That really was what got me very interested" in elective office.
At this point, McCain's long-cherished career in the Navy was coming to an end, and so was his first marriage. He and his wife, Carol, had been married in July 1965, and McCain had adopted her two children from a previous marriage. They also had a daughter. The dashing naval aviator and former model made a strikingly handsome couple. Then the war in Vietnam intervened in their lives.
During McCain's captivity, his wife was grievously injured in an automobile accident that left her essentially crippled. After he returned from Vietnam, McCain has acknowledged, he pursued other women, engaging in extramarital affairs. The couple that former Reagan aide Reynolds remembers as "absolutely delightful, charming and funny" drifted apart.
"I was mad at him for a while," Reynolds said. "I just couldn't believe it. But it happens in life all the time."
Carol McCain told Robert Timberg, author of "The Nightingale's Song," a highly regarded book about McCain and four other Naval Academy graduates who served in Vietnam, that her injuries had nothing to do with the end of the marriage. "I attribute it more to John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again than I do to anything else," she said.
McCain's younger brother, Joe, has his own theory about what happened to the marriage.
"The families [of POWs] were really affected by this business," he said. "The POWs kind of retreated like a turtle. They hung on to a few dreams. The family became very idealized. Then they came together and they were different. John came back and it just wasn't the same. It was very distressing for him. Here's a guy who wouldn't accept a get-out-of-jail pass for 5 1/2 years, so the guy is certainly not going to bail out of a marriage unless there just isn't anything there. And I don't think there was anything there in a sense. I don't think it's her fault or his fault. I think they were just very different. I think they both just changed."
The McCains were divorced in 1980, and later that year, McCain married Cindy Hensley, 17 years his junior and the daughter of a wealthy beer distributor in Phoenix. McCain retired from the Navy, went to work for his father-in-law and began building contacts in his adopted home state with the hope of getting into politics. When Rep. John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.) unexpectedly announced his retirement in early 1982, McCain jumped at the chance to succeed him.
A Candidate on the Run
He was an impatient candidate and a tireless one. "I can recall numerous conversations with him that a campaign is a marathon, not a sprint," said J. Brian Smith, McCain's consultant in several races. He did not run as the POW candidate because he did not have to; his background was well known. But he was not afraid to play the POW card when it suited him. McCain's main vulnerability was his newness to Arizona, the carpetbagger issue. At one candidate forum with his three Republican primary opponents, when the issue was raised, McCain responded that he was a child of the military who never had the luxury of a permanent home.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."
"That's his line, nobody scripted that," Smith said. "It was one of the great lines, perfectly delivered, and it shut up the opposition. It was a pivotal moment."
McCain was impatient in the House as well, because he saw it as a way station. His real goal was the Senate and he knew that his first chance to reach it would be in 1986, when Arizona's venerable GOP leader, Sen. Barry Goldwater, was set to retire. He began positioning himself for a Senate race as soon as he entered the House.
McCain's celebrity status served him well in the House--he was elected president of the Republican freshman class--and so did his personality. "I remember him as a sort of fun-loving guy," said former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), one of McCain's campaign advisers. "He was very upbeat and everybody liked him a lot. It contrasts a lot with what we hear out of the Senate."
In the House, McCain also developed a friendship with his state's leading Democrat, the late Rep. Morris K. Udall, who reached out to the freshman lawmaker of the minority party. Years later, as Udall was dying from the ravages of Parkinson's disease, McCain was among the members of Congress who quietly and regularly visited Udall's hospital room.
McCain, who showed scant interest in politics until he was assigned as liaison to the Senate, easily adapted to the politics of his new home state and over the years has compiled a deeply conservative voting record. But early on, he also showed flashes of the political iconoclast who would later rankle his party's leaders. In 1983, his first year in the House, McCain broke with his friend, President Ronald Reagan, by calling for the withdrawal of U.S. Marines from Lebanon. A month after McCain's speech on the House floor, a truck bomb exploded at the Marine barracks near Beirut, killing 241 servicemen.
McCain easily won election to the Senate in 1986 and has been reelected twice with resounding majorities. But as Weber suggested, his time in the Senate has not been all smooth sailing.
Perhaps the most difficult episode McCain endured was as a member of "the Keating Five," a quintet of senators who were accused of improperly intervening with federal regulators to benefit Charles H. Keating Jr., a wealthy and politically powerful Arizona developer who owned a failing savings and loan. McCain and the other four senators attended two meetings with federal regulators, who eventually seized Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan. The collapse of the thrift cost $3.4 billion, the single most expensive failure of the 1980s savings and loan debacle.
The Senate Ethics Committee's special counsel in the case recommended that McCain and then-Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) be dropped from the investigation. But McCain, the only Republican among the five, and Glenn remained under investigation. In the end, the Ethics Committee found McCain guilty only of exercising "poor judgment" in meeting with the regulators.
But the ordeal left a sour taste. Dennis DeConcini, McCain's Democratic Senate colleague from Arizona at the time and another member of the Keating Five, says today that he prefers not to discuss McCain or their relationship. A former aide to McCain said, "I think it had a major impact on John to have his colleagues drag him through this. I think it hurt. I think it diminished his view of the integrity of the process and the institution."
McCain once said the Keating Five episode was worse than being imprisoned in Hanoi, a comparison he now disavows as "sophistry."
"You can't compare them," he said. "It was horrible. It was a nightmare. But it wasn't comparable" to being a prisoner of war.
The Keating Five case was also indirectly linked to another painful episode involving McCain's wife, Cindy. In 1994, a story broke in Arizona that Cindy McCain had been addicted to prescription painkillers and had stolen pills from a volunteer organization she established to provide medical relief in Third World countries. She blamed the addiction, which she has since overcome, on two back surgeries and the strain of the Keating Five investigation.
According to a recent account in the Arizona Republic, the initial reaction of McCain and his political consultant, J. Brian Smith, was to try to manipulate news coverage of the story by making Cindy McCain available to a handful of selected reporters to tell her side of her addiction and recovery. But the ploy backfired and before long the Republic, a frequent critic of McCain, ran an editorial cartoon showing Cindy McCain holding a black child upside down and demanding, "Quit your crying and give me the drugs."
The drug story cast unwelcome public attention on Cindy McCain, who has always shunned the limelight. Throughout her husband's political career in Washington, she has remained in Phoenix to care for the couple's four children, including Bridget, an adopted daughter whom she brought back from an orphanage in Bangladesh.
These experiences did not lessen and may have heightened McCain's natural combativeness, an inclination that has not endeared him to his Senate colleagues.
As the Senate's self-appointed guardian against wasteful "pork barrel" spending, McCain has clashed with senators of both parties. His alliance with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) in an attempt to ban "soft money" political contributions--unregulated and unlimited contributions on which both parties are increasingly reliant--has alienated him from his own party's leadership.
The result, said McCain's Arizona Republican colleague, Sen. Jon Kyl, is a "fairly complex" relationship with other senators.
"I don't think there is anyone who doesn't respect him," Kyl said. "Some really like him a lot but disagree with him. Some don't like him either because of his personality or his positions."
Kyl added: "In John's case, he's more of everything. He's more aggressive, he's more energetic, he's more effusive in his friendship, he's more willing to take these kind of political challenges on. There are some who simply do their work in a way that doesn't attract as much attention. If John's around, you're going to see some action. He evokes strong emotions in every direction."
It has been the same back in Arizona, where McCain has clashed with other GOP officials and the state's largest newspaper, the Republic. These well-documented episodes form the basis for reports of periodic eruptions of McCain's "volcanic" temper. Many of McCain's friends, including his brother, his former Naval Academy classmates and his fellow POWs, consider the stories about his temper to be an outrageous defamation.
Others who have known McCain in the post-Vietnam political world say the temper is real, but that too much has been made of it in an attempt to undermine his presidential candidacy.
"Everybody has seen the McCain temper," said Smith, the political consultant. "It's like you would expect a temper to be. It's one thing to say he has a temper, but the next step, that he's unfit to be president, is just grossly unfair. He's never given me the slightest bit of evidence that he's not emotionally fit to be president."
McCain may have had shouting matches with other senators and other Arizona political figures, essentially his peers, but he has retained a remarkable degree of loyalty from those who work for him. His Senate staff members, who address McCain as "John" at his insistence, are among the longest-serving on Capitol Hill. His door is open to the lowest-ranking aides.
Lisa Boepple, McCain's administrative assistant in the House, said working for McCain was "an absolute delight at one moment and the next moment you weren't quite sure. He could be very funny but he could have a temper, there's no question about it. You'd walk in in the morning and get your head bitten off. But there's something so endearing about him. He can be a real sweetheart. There are two sides to him, but there are two sides to everybody."
"Loyalty is a huge thing to him," Kyl said, and when McCain sees someone as disloyal, "the relationship obviously suffers."
Grant Woods was once so close to McCain that he became godfather to his son, John Sidney McCain IV, and McCain was a member of the wedding party at Woods's marriage. Woods was McCain's first chief of staff, running the Phoenix district office, and they became close friends, frequently socializing together.
But in the 1990s, when Woods was Arizona's attorney general, the two men had a falling-out--they disagree about its origins--and everything changed.
"I still have great affection for him," Woods said. Asked what his relationship with McCain is like now, Woods said, "I don't know exactly. When I see him we're friendly. It just hasn't worked out over the years for us to be as close as we were. We don't socialize now. I regret that; it's just kind of how it worked out."
McCain tells his campaign audiences that he is "not afraid to lose" and that because of that he is enjoying the rigors of his long-shot quest. Aboard his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, he does seem to have a good time. Bantering with reporters and aides, McCain's playful side, the "little boy" that Gary Hart says is locked up inside the body of a white-haired senator, can often be glimpsed.
In such a setting, McCain sometimes gives the impression that he cares less about winning this battle than in how he conducts himself during it. That, of course, is a central part of his appeal. More than anything else, at this stage McCain's candidacy is about his own biography, the compelling story of survival with honor.
"In this campaign, it's most likely I won't win this nomination," he said recently, and that did not seem to bother him in the least.
Greg Stevens, a McCain media consultant, said that at the conclusion of the meeting at which McCain made the final decision to run for president, he issued his first orders to a small group of advisers: No negative campaigning, no negative ads, and one more thing:
"We're going to have fun," McCain said. "Dammit, we're going to have fun."