John McCain, according to one of his most perceptive and persistent critics, has struggled throughout his career to balance his principles and his ambitions, to reconcile the code of honor instilled in him as a boy with the insistent demands of political expedience. His worst moments in public office, this critic has charged, have come when he has failed to put his country first — opposing a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. to bolster his conservative credibility in Arizona, concealing his abhorrence of the Confederate flag to troll for votes in South Carolina. And before you judge, you should know that the critic in question is John McCain, who has explored and deplored his own flaws in remarkable detail in his books and speeches and has apologized for them with candor that is rare in a politician. In 2000, after sidestepping the flag issue during his first presidential campaign, he returned to South Carolina to flay himself for pandering. "I don't seek absolution," he said. "I can only try to resist future temptations to abandon principle for expediency."
If it be a sin, as Shakespeare wrote, to covet honor, then McCain might be the most sinful politician alive. His 50 years of nearly continuous service to his country — in the Navy, as a POW and in Congress — have been a tumultuous and often inspiring saga of a man and his code. McCain languished in prison in Hanoi for years rather than accept a release he considered dishonorable, and he has made his mark in Washington as a kind of honor politician, a crusader who has chosen his battles on the basis of morality rather than ideology. Fighting to limit the influence of money in politics or performance-enhancing drugs in sports, attacking Democrats who opposed the surge in Iraq or Republican lobbyists who exploited Indian tribes, McCain tends to approach his pet issues not as arid policy disputes about which reasonable people can disagree but as emotionally pitched battles between good and evil, affairs of honor vs. the ignominy of disgrace. If it hasn't won him a lot of popularity contests with his colleagues, it has burnished his national reputation for being his own man.
To John McCain, honor means telling the truth, doing the right thing rather than the easy thing and putting America's needs ahead of your needs. But as he has reminded us so many times, McCain is not a saint. And he is now the Republican nominee for President, the anointed leader of the party establishment he has antagonized so often. He has a real chance to extend his public service to the Oval Office and an abiding conviction that these perilous times require his leadership. But getting there in a year when so much is stacked against the GOP may require him to play by rules that don't always conform to the code of honor to which he subscribes.
Honor Bound These days, there is a new McCain on the campaign trail. He has forsworn his freewheeling sessions of straight talk with the press, sticking religiously to GOP talking points, bottled up by a campaign that is highly disciplined, curiously hostile to reporters and quick to launch negative and often misleading attacks. During a brief, weird and remarkably uninformative interview, TIME asked him about the abrupt shift in strategy. The candidate who used to spend hours kibitzing with reporters refused to acknowledge that anything has changed. "I don't know what you're talking about," McCain said, staring blankly at a press aide, without even a wink.
Acknowledged or not, the change in strategy has worked: as McCain heads to his convention, he is virtually tied in the polls. The theme of McCain's coronation in St. Paul, Minn., will be putting "country first," but his aides are not about to apologize for putting victory a close second. They say they would have loved to run a classic McCain campaign, with a series of high-minded town-hall debates and the usual open access, but Barack Obama refused the debates, and the Obama-smitten media decided that the campaign is all about their new darling. "The race is as we found it," says Mark Salter, a close adviser and the co-author of McCain's five books. "We're not going to do anything dishonorable. But we are going to try to win."
The candidate is, more than anything else, a born fighter. John Sidney McCain III grew up in the considerable shadow of the first two John Sidney McCains, both four-star admirals who were small of stature but large of presence, both true believers in the military code of Duty, Honor, Country. "They were my first heroes, and their respect for me has been the most lasting ambition of my life," the Senator said at a 1994 ceremony to commission the destroyer U.S.S. John S. McCain in their honor. His grandfather, known as Slew, was a Navy legend, an innovative strategist and a relentless warrior who dropped dead four days after attending the 1945 Japanese surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri. McCain's father Jack was a highly decorated World War II submarine skipper who rose to command U.S. naval forces in the Pacific and ordered the bombing of Hanoi despite the danger to his prisoner-of-war son. Jack was a workaholic and an alcoholic, and he wasn't home much, but he tried to instill in John his greatest-generation values and strict sense of honor.
At first, the lessons seemed wasted. The young John McCain was a constant breaker of rules, a brawler and a slob, an undersize punk with an oversize chip on his shoulder. He reluctantly followed his forebears to the Naval Academy, but he continued to flout authority there, leading a band of late-night miscreants known as the Bad Bunch, accumulating so many demerits that he finished 894th out of 899 in his class. And in flight school, a culture more accepting of go-it-alone bad boys, his womanizing and partying were considered impressive even by the standards of naval aviators. But he had his limits; McCain always sensed how far he could bend a system without breaking it — or being broken.
On Oct. 26, 1967, McCain's opportunities for high jinks were severely limited when he was shot out of the sky, beaten by a Vietnamese mob, then transported to a prison camp for 51⁄2 years of hell. The fact of his captivity is common knowledge, but the pain he endured and the defiance with which he endured it are not so well understood. "The first time I saw him, I thought he'd be dead by morning," recalls his cellmate, retired Air Force Colonel George (Bud) Day. "He'd been beaten, bayoneted and starved. He weighed maybe 95 lb. He just willed himself to live."
In the Hanoi Hilton, McCain's family tradition of honor and his own instinct for rebellion meshed into an inspiring example for his fellow prisoners. He was the camp troublemaker, cursing out guards despite the constant threat of torture, defying rules barring communication to tell his comrades vulgar jokes. He refused several offers of freedom because the military code of conduct requires all prisoners to be freed in order of capture and he knew that an admiral's son accepting early release would be a propaganda victory for North Vietnam as well as a devastating blow to camp morale. The one time his captors brutalized McCain into a sham confession, he considered suicide. "He could not avoid the conclusion that he had dishonored his country, his family and himself," wrote his biographer Robert Timberg.
In books with names like Faith of My Fathers, Character Is Destiny and Why Courage Matters, McCain has said his captivity was a personal turning point that opened his eyes to causes larger than himself, transforming a vain jet jockey into a servant of his country. It was also a political turning point that forged his views on foreign affairs. McCain saw Vietnam as an honorable and winnable war botched by spineless politicians who tied the hands of American soldiers and betrayed their South Vietnamese allies, dishonoring the U.S. and emboldening its enemies. And those were not just knee-jerk reactions to his own traumas; McCain spent a year after his release studying Vietnam and its history at the National War College. McCain's Vietnam lessons dovetailed with the World War II lessons he had learned at home. He even believed his father should have resigned to protest President Lyndon Johnson's insufficient aggression. "John gets that appeasement doesn't work with our enemies," says Orson Swindle, a fellow POW who later served in the Reagan Administration. "They have to know that if they slap us, we're going to knock the hell out of them."
The Crusader A few years after his return, McCain was posted to Washington as a Navy liaison on Capitol Hill, a political job his Beltway-connected father had performed with flair. Still a rebel by nature, McCain used his connections to lead a rearguard effort to save a $2 billion aircraft carrier from President Jimmy Carter's budget ax, even though McCain was supposed to be representing Carter on the Hill. By 1980, he wanted to stop advising members of Congress and start becoming one.
From his beginnings as a politician, he was inspired by the sunny conservatism of Ronald Reagan, especially Reagan's efforts to rehabilitate Vietnam as a noble cause and the military as an honorable profession. McCain's first marriage had crumbled — he has admitted he was unfaithful — but he was remarried, to an Arizona beer heiress named Cindy Hensley, and the day in 1982 a Phoenix Congressman announced his retirement, she bought a house in his district. McCain was elected to the House as a Reagan Republican that year, but he already had his eye on the Senate. He easily moved up in 1986 after Barry Goldwater's retirement.
In his early years as a politician, McCain was mostly a party-line Reaganite; his cleanest and most difficult break with the President was his 1983 call to withdraw the Marines from Lebanon because he didn't see a clear mission for them. He turned out to have been tragically right. He was otherwise notable mostly for his bursts of temper, especially when he perceived an affront to his honor. In his first House race, he threatened to beat up an opponent who had called his ex-wife to look for dirt. In his initial Senate run, he exploded after his opponent accused him of selling out for special-interest contributions.
As incomprehensible as it sounds, McCain has told friends his involvement in the Keating Five scandal of the late 1980s caused him more pain than his imprisonment in Hanoi. Again his honor was on the line, and the scandal seemed to drain his mojo; he went through the motions of his job, but he was visibly depressed. Salter, his speechwriter, ghostwriter and alter ego, remembers walking back to the Capitol with his boss in uncharacteristic silence after a press conference. McCain's mind was clearly elsewhere, perhaps wondering how he ever got so close to the savings and loan crook Charles Keating Jr. during the go-go 1980s. "It won't always be like this," McCain finally told Salter. Recalls his friend Bill Cohen, then a Senator from Maine: "John had never felt so wounded, even in Vietnam, because his sense of honor had been challenged. And he was seething."
The common myth is that McCain was caught pressuring federal regulators to ease up on a political benefactor, then sought penance for his sins by leading a crusade to limit the influence of money in politics. But the real story is more complex. Despite all that Keating gave to McCain — $112,000 in campaign contributions, several junkets to his Bahamas estate — McCain never did anything official for Keating. He did attend two meetings with regulators along with the rest of the Keating Five, but he told the regulators that Keating's banks should receive no special treatment. After a long and agonizing investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee found McCain guilty of nothing more than "poor judgment."
McCain has acknowledged misjudging Keating, but the dishonor and especially the casual allegations of corruption left him more outraged than ashamed. The episode soured him on partisanship — and in some ways on the Senate. "He got screwed, and he took it personally," says Slade Gorton, a former Republican Senator from Washington State. "That's what led to the whole McCain-Feingold thing." Says New Hampshire's Bob Smith, a former Republican Senator who tangled with McCain: "He did get shafted, and he never really got over it. I think he said, I'm on my own now." The Keating ordeal led McCain to team up with Democrat Russ Feingold on soft-money restrictions — not only to attack political corruption but also to remove what he saw as a cloud hanging over honorable politicians.
It also began his transformation from party man to party maverick. He forged alliances with Senators John Kerry, to normalize relations with Vietnam, and Ted Kennedy, to promote immigration reform. He crusaded against tobacco, steroids, corporate criminals, ultimate fighting, a sweetheart deal for Boeing and all kinds of pork. He crusaded for a patients' bill of rights and even a boxers' bill of rights. He got great press, and colleagues have often rolled their eyes at his ubiquitous television presence, but the Sunday shows wouldn't have invited him so often if he hadn't become so interesting — and so candid. "He's fascinating: basically a doctrinaire Reagan conservative, but when something offends him, he breaks from the orthodoxy," says Ivan Schlager, the top Democratic counsel to McCain's Commerce Committee during the 1990s. "It's not ideological. It's good guys and bad guys."
Doping might not seem like an issue of vital national import, but it offended McCain's sense of fair play, and the possibility of a U.S. scandal at the Athens Olympics horrified him. So he started issuing subpoenas and ended up with enough evidence to get a dozen athletes disqualified before the Games. "He didn't want American athletes dishonoring their country," recalls his former aide Ken Nahigian. He has free-market instincts, but like his political hero Teddy Roosevelt, he has taken great pleasure in regulating and otherwise harassing those he considers malefactors of great wealth.
McCain's GOP colleagues have not always appreciated his moral crusading or his suggestions that any disagreement with "St. John" about soft-money rules was somehow tantamount to corruption. "He was so condescending. If you weren't with him, you were obviously wrong," Smith says. And McCain sometimes approached debate the way he approached boxing as a midshipman, throwing wild haymakers until someone went down. He has offended the clubby Senate with his sailor's mouth, cursing at Pete Domenici of New Mexico over pork, John Cornyn of Texas over immigration and even the Mormon Orrin Hatch of Utah over judges. During McCain's campaign to normalize relations with Vietnam, he nearly came to blows with Charles Grassley of Iowa. Smith served on a tanker in the Gulf of Tonkin, but he says that when he was the Senate's only Vietnam vet to oppose normalizing relations, McCain belittled his service to other Senators as noncombat busywork. "That's way over the line," Smith says. "McCain was nasty, vindictive and mean-spirited. Those are tough words, but that's how he was."
Talking Straight As with many military men, McCain's Vietnam experiences seemed at times to make him wary of U.S. involvement abroad. He opposed Reagan's deployment in Lebanon and peppered the Clinton White House with questions about military interventions in Haiti, Somalia and the Balkans. But as he began his presidential quest in the late 1990s, McCain began to argue that America's honor required much stronger responses to tyrants, and he attacked the Clintonites for refusing to send combat troops to the Balkans and for appeasing a retrograde regime in North Korea. "I understand the instinct to protect national honor, but [North Korea] has got 800,000 men 40 miles from downtown Seoul," says Cohen, who was best man at McCain's second wedding but has not endorsed his friend. "Wars can get started over honor."
McCain's enemies say he lacks the temperament to be President; his friends say he is just a spirited fighter who isn't afraid of taking on sacred cows. Some of McCain's worst enemies have been GOP appropriators like Domenici, Ted Stevens of Alaska and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who has said the thought of a President McCain sends a cold chill down his spine. McCain has been a relentless critic of congressional pork and has made a point of publicizing the pet-project earmarks that appropriators slip into budget bills. "He ruffles a lot of feathers because he doesn't worry about playing the game with the boys in the club," says Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who has replaced McCain as the Senate's top porkbuster — and top headache. "I call him a crusty old fart. People say he's bullheaded, but he's never afraid to irritate people if it will get something done for his country."
While Coburn has been willing to bog down the Senate to try to stop pork, McCain stops short of drawing the line. He tends to bend institutions without breaking them; he never alienated his caucus enough to lose his chairmanship, and even Cochran has endorsed McCain's candidacy now that he's the Republican nominee. "McCain used to make great speeches about all the garbage in military spending bills, especially after 9/11, but he'd do nothing to stop it," says the Center for Defense Information's Winslow Wheeler, a former GOP staffer who supports Obama for President. McCain "got the porkbuster reputation, but he never strayed too far off the reservation."
In 2000, McCain ran for President as a reformer, vowing to clean up Washington and restore honor to the presidency after eight years of Bill Clinton. But the wheels came off the Straight Talk Express right after New Hampshire, when he impulsively decided to pull all his negative ads off the air even though George W. Bush supporters were spreading vicious lies about him. Bush soon co-opted McCain's message — he too vowed to be "a reformer with results" — all the way to the White House. And McCain spent the next several years picking fights with Bush and the GOP establishment over campaign finance, health care, gun control and the President's massive tax cuts, which McCain characterized as fiscally irresponsible. The battles burnished his maverick image, but critics within the party attributed them mostly to vanity and sour grapes. "He was just grumpy about losing to Bush," says Grover Norquist, the antitax activist who has clashed with McCain but supports him now. "Anybody could see that."
But as he prepared to run for President again, McCain made peace with Bush and their party. The iconoclast who attacked Jerry Falwell as an "agent of intolerance" during the 2000 campaign made a pilgrimage to Falwell's university to make amends. The scold who attacked the Swift Boat Veterans campaign as dishonorable in 2004 signed up its funders for his campaign. McCain now wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and he has not only reversed his opposition to offshore drilling but has also made offshore drilling the centerpiece of his economic message. Several veterans of the McCain 2000 campaign told TIME that they barely recognize the McCain of 2008, but most of them also noted that the McCain of 2000 lost. "He's learned over the past eight years that the world of politics he'd like to inhabit is not the world he inhabits," says Dan Schnur, the communications director from the 2000 campaign. The world he inhabits paid almost no attention to McCain's heartfelt and self-critical speech about Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn., but has buzzed about McCain's tawdry ads comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Moses.
Honor and Its Limits The unanswerable question is whether McCain's rough campaign will eventually violate his own code of honor; he adores boxing, but he considers ultimate fighting a sickening national disgrace. Most Americans see McCain's focus on honor as a commendable commitment to principle; the danger comes when that insistence turns into dogma or a belief in one's monopoly on virtue. Asked whether he would look back at his tactics with Confederate-flag-style regrets, McCain at first refused to answer. When pressed, he gave the kind of canned, these-are-my-talking-points response he used to ridicule on the Straight Talk Express: "I'm very happy with the way our campaign has been conducted, and I am pleased and humbled to have the nomination of the Republican Party."
Behind the new front, McCain and his aides believe a straight-talk hiatus, a few necessary policy reversals and some standard-issue political attacks are small concessions to expedience, considering the stakes of the election. The race may turn on economic matters — and McCain seems to be learning how to talk about gas and housing prices with passion — but his driving issue is America's honor in a dangerous world. He has framed his support for the surge in Iraq — and Obama's unrepentant opposition — as proof of his superior qualifications to be Commander in Chief and of Obama's willingness to put politics before country.
Though McCain is quick to say he considers his opponent a "patriot," McCain and his aides now view Obama with the same level of contempt they once reserved for tobacco-company executives, corrupt lawmakers and George W. Bush. They have convinced themselves that Obama is not honorable, that he does not love his country as much as himself. That makes it easier to justify doing whatever is necessary to defeat him — especially if it's done in the pursuit of honor.
McCain genuinely believes that America's honor is at stake in this election. His friends say he's learned through hard experience as well as family values that tough talk backed by force is the only language our enemies understand, that vacillation in the face of evil will dishonor America and endanger our safety. And this obsession with national honor has driven his belligerent approach to dishonorable regimes — not only North Korea and Iraq but also Iran, Cuba and, most recently, Russia. His hard-edged approach has a visceral appeal and an undeniable consistency; it is also popular with some conservatives who are otherwise skeptical of McCain. But it's a radical and potentially dangerous approach to foreign affairs. In a messy world full of unsavory despots, belligerence can have its costs, even when it's belligerence in the pursuit of honor.
John McCain had dedicated his adult life to that pursuit; in November, Americans will have to decide whether to make his obsession with honor their own.
6 months ago