August 30, 2008


Hidden Depths: The scion of a family of warriors, John McCain seems easy to venerate—or caricature. But he is more complex than you may think. (Jon Meacham, 8/30/08, NEWSWEEK)

[M]cCain is not a neo-Victorian, or a neo-Eisenhower. In ways difficult to discern but central to understanding him, he is a very modern figure who is at once heroic and ironic, stoic and sometimes short-tempered, ambitious and rebellious. John McCain is no sun-belt Cincinnatus. He is an eager, cold-eyed politician who has sought the White House for a decade, compromised and reversed himself and believes he is an actor in a grand, unfolding saga. He is also more comfortable with shades of gray than he appears—a sense of nuance rooted, it seems, in an early life in which he at once revered his father and felt sorry for him. McCain has long lived with complexity, and Democrats who try to dismiss him as stubborn or Republicans who venerate him as unflinching miss a crucial truth about the man: he is an adept political juggler, as he has always been an adept emotional one.

Early on, he had to be. It was the only way to make sense of a great and glaring contradiction at the center of his universe: his father—strong, honorable, noble—was also an alcoholic, a binge drinker who, under the influence, became what McCain calls "a totally different person." Adm. Jack McCain was not to be mindlessly celebrated or mindlessly condemned. He was a man of parts, of strengths and weaknesses, and his son learned to take the occasional bad with the usual good.

Presidents tend to come from one of two kinds of families. There is either no father at all (Andrew Jackson, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton) or a dominant one (the Adamses, the Kennedys, the Bushes). Barack Obama belongs to the first category, the son of a man he met only once. McCain embodies the second. He was clearly driven to live up to the example of his grandfather and his father, heroes and leaders of men, but McCain's dad was not what he seemed.

The McCain story is both obvious and murky. The title of McCain's first book—"Faith of My Fathers"—sums up the obvious part. He grew up in the shadows of, and on the shoulders of, noble ancestors who had long proved their virtue in life and their virtuosity in war. During an interview aboard his campaign plane en route from Orlando to Atlanta in August, I asked McCain about the influence his father had on him. He had been gone a lot, McCain replied, but "my mom, who really idolized my dad, had the effect on us of kind of idolizing him."

Then, in a quiet, steady voice, McCain told me: "Yet at the same time I became aware, I think when I was either in my very earliest teens or even before that, that my father had a struggle with alcohol. And I watched him fight and fight this sickness … So I not only idolized him but I also understood that he had flaws like all of us, and probably his greatest was his struggle against alcoholism, which made him a very religious man. He prayed every night on his knees; he was very religious, because he saw hell combating [alcoholism, a struggle that] he knew he could not successfully win by himself."

I asked the obvious next question: did you ever worry about your own risk for alcoholism? McCain's answer was quick and clear: "No," he said. "You know, I never did. Because I just didn't have the inclination. I could tell early on. I of course went to happy hour. I of course had drinks with my squadron mates, et cetera. But I never felt any particular appetite for alcohol, nor did I …" He pauses for the briefest of beats, then says: "Oh, I'm sure there were times in my squadron life when I overindulged, but almost never. I just didn't. I'm sure the example of my father may have had some kind of effect."

His father's example made him devoted but wary, romantic yet skeptical, obsessed with strength but understanding of weakness. He saw the man he most wanted to be like at the worst of moments. Where the father failed, the son would strive to succeed. And so, restless and relentless, John Sidney McCain III has fought a lifelong campaign to live up to the legacy of his family, redeem its largely unknown faults and add his own honorable chapter to the story—a story that begins in the distant past, in the warrior class of Europe.

The McCains are an ancient tribe. One branch of the family traces its lineage to Charlemagne. In the New World, McCains have served in America's armed forces since the Revolutionary War. They fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, chased Pancho Villa with Pershing and made their greatest marks in the epic clashes of the 20th century, from World War I to Vietnam. (And now, in the 21st, two McCain sons are in uniform. One will graduate from Annapolis next year, and another, a Marine, recently returned from Iraq.) McCain's father was a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, an elite group of descendants of Washington's officers that is headquartered at the elegant Anderson House on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington (Pauline and Albert Gore raised their son next door at the old Fairfax Hotel). "His evident pride in claiming such distinguished ancestry gave me the sense not only that I had a claim on my country's history, but that it would fall to me to represent the family when the history of my generation was recorded," McCain wrote. His grandfather had stood with MacArthur aboard the Missouri as the Japanese surrendered; his father, a submariner, won the Silver Star.

This history hung heavy on the young McCain; the legacy was at once thrilling and daunting. His grandfather was Annapolis class of 1906, and rose to be an admiral; his father was class of 1931, and did the same. His father fell in love with his mother, Roberta Wright, the daughter of a successful oil wildcatter who, having moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, retired at 40 to raise his twin daughters. Roberta met Jack McCain when she was a freshman at the University of Southern California and he was serving aboard the USS Oklahoma, then home-ported at Long Beach. Roberta's mother, Myrtle, was opposed to the match, but her father, Archibald Wright, did not object when Roberta told him she was eloping to Tijuana with the young naval officer. There, joined by McCain's father, the two were married in 1933 in a bar called Caesar's—the origin, Roberta likes to note, of the Caesar salad. Beautiful, adventurous, wealthy and game for the itinerant life of a Navy family, Mrs. McCain (now 96) was determined that her three children (Sandy, born 1934; John III, born 1936, and Joe, born 1942) would grow up with an appreciation of their father's service. "My mother did a good job of keeping him alive for us—your father this, your father that," McCain told me. "She was very good at reminding us of him and of his example." A loving woman, she was also skilled in the arts of stoicism and strength in the face of adversity. She kept things together, and things going, no matter how difficult the moment—and difficult moments were a constant fact of life for a Navy family. "The relationship of a sailor and his children is, in large part, a metaphysical one," McCain once wrote. "We see much less of our fathers than do other children. Our fathers are often at sea, in peace and war. Our mothers run our households, pay the bills, and manage most of our upbringing … It is no surprise then that the personalities of children who have grown up in the Navy often resemble those of their mothers more than those of their fathers."

And yet, McCain noted, "our fathers, perhaps because of and not in spite of their long absences, can be a huge presence in our lives. You are taught to consider their absence not as a deprivation, but as an honor. By your father's calling, you are born into an exclusive, noble tradition. Its standards require your father to dutifully serve a cause greater than his self-interest, and everyone around you, your mother, other relatives, and the whole Navy world, drafts you to the cause as well."

Born in the Panama Canal Zone, John III was a part of this world from the very beginning, a world that, for all its sense of tradition and palpable example of duty, was also oddly transitory. His rootlessness made him restless, curious and somewhat emotionally guarded. Looking back years later, McCain wrote: "All my life I had been rootless, part of a tradition that compensated me in other ways for the hometown it denied me. But without a connection to one place, one safe harbor where I could rest without care, I had lived my life on the move, never entirely at ease … The landscape and characters passed too rapidly to form the attachments of common love that quicken your heart when age and infirmity have slowed your walk and deprived your restlessness of its familiar expressions."

As a child he found—and now, as a man, he still finds— comfort and order in books and poems about love and war. A voracious reader (and rereader), McCain has long used literature as a refuge and an inspiration. Distant trumpets are not so distant to him. The epigraph of his second book is taken from Thucydides' funeral oration of Pericles: "Fix your eyes on the greatness of Athens as you have it before you day by day, fall in love with her, and when you feel her great, remember that this greatness was won by men with courage, with knowledge of their duty, and with a sense of honor in action." He loves James Fenimore Cooper, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, Wouk (even the more obscure ones, like "Youngblood Hawke" and "Don't Stop the Carnival")—and, above all, Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which he first read, entranced, after picking it up by accident in his father's study when he was 12.

Books helped him smooth the rough edges of a combative disposition. As a small child he would, if angry, hold his breath until he passed out; his parents had to plunge him in cold water to rouse him. Later, though he adored his grandfather and his father, at some level he resented the inevitability of his own naval career.

The Navy—always, always the Navy. On Christmas mornings, once the family had opened presents around the tree, Jack McCain would excuse himself, walk upstairs, put on his uniform and go to the office. He adored his wife and his children, but admitted that he loved his father above all others. John McCain believes that if his father had been asked to describe his family relationships, Jack McCain would have said, "I'm the son of an admiral and the father of a captain."

Educated at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., and then at the Naval Academy (a place, McCain said, "I belonged at but dreaded"), John McCain found outlets for the ambivalence he felt about having a preordained future. He was a scamp and a cut-up who was highly skilled at amassing demerits at both institutions. (He liked to slip into Washington from Alexandria to the bars and what he called "the burlesque houses" on Ninth Street NW.) Once, when he feared he was close to failing out of Annapolis, he wrote off for information about how to join the French Foreign Legion. On discovering that there was a nine-year service requirement, McCain decided the Navy was not so bad after all.

There is a kind of egotism in McCain—he loves attention, always has, and takes glee in confounding the expectations of the institutions of which he is a part. Hence the misbehavior at Episcopal and at Annapolis. And in a way, his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate fits his lifetime pattern of merrily challenging the conventions of the cultures he loves, from the military to Congress to presidential politics.

For all his antics and ambivalence, though, he has always had a strong sense of honor, especially in his relationships with comrades in arms.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 30, 2008 7:53 PM
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