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This article first appeared in Vanity Fair, December 1999

Nothing Left to Fear

By now, the heroism of Senator John McCain's five years as a P.O.W. in the "Hanoi Hilton" has become legend. More intriguing, as McCain seeks the Republican presidential nomination, is the way his political near death—the Keating S&L scandal—brought him a new kind of freedom.


He's not afraid to lead and not afraid to take some hits. He's faced death and survived it. That makes John who he is. I love his story. Yeah, he'd be a great president.
—Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska.

Throughout the spring of 1999, as NATO fought its first war, Captain John S. McCain III (U.S.N., retired) became the most formidable—and credible—armchair general of the post-Vietnam age. He praised Bill Clinton's decision to go to war in support of a moral principle, criticized fellow Republicans for sitting on the fence, told the country, the Congress, and the president that bombing might not be enough—that Clinton had blundered badly by announcing to the world (and to Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic) that American soldiers would not slog through the Kosovo mud. Perhaps coincidentally, by the time the bombing stopped, McCain had commandeered more free airtime than any other candidate seeking the presidency in 2000. And, to the consternation of young George W. Bush, he continues to do so.

John McCain counts big-time these days. He is chairman of a powerful committee in the Senate, a proven fund-raiser for members of his party, a sought-after expert on defense issues, a sophisticated and influential voice on matters of foreign policy. So are half a dozen other senators who fantasize about running for president. What has set McCain apart, makes him outsize, and keeps him near the top of the list of every TV-talk booker is what he did before he got to Congress—and how he has assimilated that experience since. "He's had a life," notes Bill Bradley, the former senator (and fellow presidential aspirant), of whom the same might be said. "I think near-death experience allows you to focus on what's really important, because, you know, you might not be around if you keep waiting for the big moment."

Conventional political wisdom holds that the Republican nomination for president is George W. Bush's to lose. He has the money, the name, the big-state governorship, the endorsements, the telegenic looks. But McCain, 63, short, balding, his body bent from the years he spent in solitary confinement in a North Vietnamese prison, is determined to be the political surprise of Campaign 2000. At the very least, he will be the campaign's most unpredictable candidate, with the most extraordinary life story.

* * *

McCain, if elected, would be the first president to have spent time in prison—five years—even if that prison was in North Vietnam. The extremity of his maltreatment as a prisoner of war in a Hanoi jail, it could be argued, made him what he is today—he cannot even raise his arms high enough to comb his hair. But on a sweltering summer afternoon when I meet him in his Senate office, there is no bitterness about him.

On first impression, you feel yourself in the presence of a person, not a persona, as he greets you with his signature "pal" ("How ya doin', pal?"). A physically unprepossessing man in a wrinkled suit and Gucci loafers, he looks for all the world like a half-made bed. But he talks with animation, even on a day when all the ugliness of millennial America's politics is in fetid bloom in Washington, enveloping the capital in a swamp gas of intolerance, corporate lobbying, and legislative inertia. The most promising campaign-finance reform bill in a generation has just been put to death in the Senate, where a proposal to regulate the tobacco industry had also been killed recently—by senators bankrolled by campaign contributions from Big Tobacco. McCain sponsored both initiatives.

In the meantime, the leader of his party in the Senate, Trent Lott of Mississippi, has been refighting the culture wars, training his sights on gay people, declaring them "sinful." This, says McCain, is not where he wants his party to be. American war hero and eternal optimist, McCain is about as down as he gets. Yet he doesn't convey the feeling of a man depressed or grappling with failure, even when he says, "Nothing positive is getting done in this town. Everything is about tearing down something or somebody." He seems worried less about himself than about his dejected staff.

He's not, in fact, a man given to self-doubt. "Both tobacco and campaign-finance reform are going to happen," he tells me, and makes clear that he expects to lead the final charge, whether from the White House or the Senate. (In October he failed again when the Senate was unable to pass a slightly modified campaign-finance bill.) But what's actually on his mind is as unexpected, as unpredictable, as the man himself: his dying friend, Mo Udall, the former Democratic congressman from Arizona and quixotic candidate for the 1976 presidential nomination. Udall is wasting away with Parkinson's disease in a V.A. hospital, where McCain is his only regular congressional visitor. (Udall died last December.) "For the first time in maybe two years," McCain says, "I thought he recognized me. I said, 'Hey, Mo Mo ' and I saw his eyes opening, and then within 10 seconds his eyes closed again. So you don't know." One senses that McCain, who for years lived in a dark, lonely box, knows something of what it's like to feel abandoned, a hopeless case, a lost cause.

On most political issues, he is a down-the-line conservative, and he supported every clause of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America—"a political troglodyte," the writer Garry Wills calls him. But he has an agenda, personal and political, which, like Barry Goldwater's in his later years, confounds easy categories. For a Republican (or possibly just for a politician), he has staked out some very interesting territory.

His circle of ardent admirers, wide indeed, is no easier to predict. Included would be Henry Kissinger ("In my mind he would make a good president," says Kissinger, who recently co-hosted a glittery New York book party for McCain), Nancy Reagan, Gary Hart, Colin Powell, Mike Wallace, Bill Cohen, Phil Gramm (his closest friend in the Senate), Brent Scowcroft, Barry Diller, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bob Dole (who put himself into hot water at home by telling The New York limes that he'd wanted to contribute to McCain's campaign, despite his wife's presidential candidacy), a fawning Washington press corps, even Warren Beatty—who, before toying with the idea of his own candidacy, gave a small Hollywood dinner for McCain. "He strikes me as a person of unimpeachable integrity," Beatty tells me. "He's the kind of man you want in public life. I'm not a conservative. If I were to support John McCain, it would probably do him more harm than good. But I think he's a hell of a guy."

* * *

To the consternation of some Republican senators, McCain often sings to his own tune, and not always to constructive effect. He has a temper that has led to famous shouting matches in the Senate cloakroom, and he has famously put his foot in his mouth: last year he told a Chelsea Clinton "joke" so tasteless that his friends wondered what part of his soul it came from. "Tenacious" seems to be the polite adjective used by those who have opposed him, "principled" the chosen description by allies.

"I've always had a pretty good idea about how to define something as to whether it's right or wrong," McCain says. "I don't mean that I'm better or worse than anybody else. I just mean that when I see an issue and think about it and talk to people, I do generally have the ability to know what's the right course of action, even if it may not be what the majority wants. So I have a certain amount of confidence that I don't have to have a majority opinion on my side."

"He can piss off some of his fellow senators," says Tom Korologos, a dean of the Republican lobbying establishment and a good friend. To wit: McCain maintains a "pork" Web site which once had an image of a pig rolling a barrel filled with money. The site is dedicated to listing home-state projects of dubious merit that members of Congress slip into appropriations bills.

McCain established his independent streak early in his congressional career. In 1983, during his first term as a member of the House of Representatives, he voted against stationing American troops in Lebanon—a difficult decision for a former military man with a warm personal relationship with President Reagan. One month later, the Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up by suicide bombers, killing 241 American servicemen.

He seems remarkably at ease with himself. "I can't be anything other than what I am. I have my warts and I wear some of them. I see myself as different because I've had different life experiences—and I don't mean that as a criticism of others."

When, I wonder, did he first get that sense of himself?

"Probably when I was in prison. I was confronted with challenges all the time in prison. By the Vietnamese: 'Write this. Do that. Nobody will know. Accept early release'—that was probably one of the seminal events in my life. We can talk about it if you want to hear about it, because this really"—McCain's voice becomes almost inaudible—"was not an easy one."

* * *

When John Sidney McCain III was born. in 1936, there was little question that this grandson of an admiral and son of an admiral would attend the Naval Academy. At Episcopal High, the prep school across the Potomac from Washington, he seemed like anything but a clean-cut prospect for the academy. Fixated on women, as he would be for much of his life, McCain once managed to get arrested for shouting "Shove it up your ass!" at two older girls who judged his attempt to pick them up somewhat crude. McCain was "a hard-rock kind of guy, a tough, mean little fucker," according to an Episcopal classmate quoted in The Nightingale's Song, a book written by fellow Annapolis graduate and Vietnam veteran Robert Timberg. The book, about five graduates of the Naval Academy—McCain, Oliver North, John Poindexter, James Webb, and Robert McFarlane —is a generational classic and an indispensable source of material on McCain's life.

John's father, John Sidney "Jack" McCain Jr. (Annapolis '31), had been a submarine commander in World War 11 and was, despite his diminutive size, a larger-than-life figure—a blood-and-guts, cigar-chomping military man. His grandfather Admiral John Sidney "Slew" McCain (Annapolis '06) died four days after witnessing the surrender of the Japanese aboard the battleship Missouri. Like many children whose navy fathers were off at sea, McCain, his older sister, Sandy, and his younger brother, Joe, were raised largely by their mother, Roberta, a former homecoming queen renowned for her beauty and brains; today, at 87, she is a Washington doyenne.

After the war, McCain's father became chief of the navy's legislative-affairs office. In this liaison job, he cultivated relationships with congressmen—especially the powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Carl Vinson of Georgia. But, according to his son, "if you'd have asked him, 'What do you think about minimum wage?' or any issue outside of the navy, he wouldn't have had a clue." This was the navy culture of Herman Wouk's The Winds of War. "They were insular," McCain says of his father's friends. "They all knew each other because they all went to the Naval Academy. Their whole lives were wrapped up in that circle."

As for John McCain III's years at Annapolis, "I hated the place, and in fairness the place wasn't all that fond of me either," he has written m his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, published in September. As Timberg notes in his book, McCain was a mess—"shoes unshined. late for formation, talking in ranks, room in disorder, gear improperly stowed." He devoured literature which had nothing to do with his course-work, but "I was adept at cramming for exams, and blessed with friends who did not seem to mind too much my requests for urgent tutorials." He was a jock and—as he acknowledges today—"a wild one" who developed a reputation for escorting one beautiful woman after another off campus. He and his fellow Annapolis revelers were known as "the Bad Bunch."

Always on the edge of flunking out, McCain finished fifth from last in his class. Poindexter—the future national-security adviser—finished first. After graduation, McCain went out of his way to choose a naval career that was as different from his father's as imaginable. "Actually," he says, "I wanted to be a navy pilot, because I thought it was a pretty exciting life. I wasn't interested in being on a destroyer or a battleship or a submarine. I thought being a navy pilot would be a lot of fun. But that was the extent of my ambitions. It was not to reach higher rank or to advance up the ladder. I just thought it would be a great life, and it turned out indeed it was."

But it was also extremely hazardous. Flight school at Pensacola was a riot of hard playing for the young flier, whose Corvette was most likely to be found parked by a beach or at Trader John's, a strip bar. He dated a dancer nicknamed "Marie, the Flame of Florida" before moving on to advanced flight training in Corpus Christi, where his carousing and womanizing evidently took a toll on his flying. He found himself literally underwater after his training jet stalled and he couldn't make land. Knocked out as his plane smacked into Corpus Christi Bay, he regained consciousness on the bottom and struggled to the surface. While deployed in the Mediterranean in the early 1960s, he hit some power lines while flying too low over Spain. "I liked the squadron life," he recalls. "We'd be in port for a week, 10 days. I was single. I mean, it was wonderful. I was embarrassed to take my paycheck."

McCain also renewed a friendship with Carol Shepp, a divorced mother of two who had been married to one of his Annapolis classmates. A tall, attractive former model, she was exactly what Mc-Cain's friends agreed he needed—someone smoother around the edges than he but full of life. In July 1965 they were married. That fall he was flying back to Norfolk solo when the engine of his plane failed and he had to bail out just before it plowed into a tidal stand of trees. It was his third accident, but, miraculously, he floated onto a deserted beach with only minor injuries.

Undeterred, he took his work more seriously and began steeling himself for Vietnam. In 1966, McCain was sent to Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin at a moment when the air war against North Vietnam was intensifying. His first combat missions were flown solo in an A-4 Skyhawk carrying 500- and 1,000-pound bombs. Each flight off the deck of the U.S.S. Forrestal was an hour of sheer excitement and unspeakable terror. "The trick is to control fear," he explains. "You know, you should be afraid. You'd be crazy not to be. But the fear can help you because it heightens your awareness, it heightens your senses. But it's also exhilarating. When a surface-to-air missile misses you, you know, you're afraid. When you drop your bombs on the target and get back, you feel great."

On the flight line of the U.S.S. Forrestal, he barely survived one of the most harrowing accidents in naval history. An air-to-ground Zuni rocket meant to take out anti­aircraft batteries accidentally fired on the deck and struck the fuel tank of his fighter jet. Initially trapped in his cockpit, the carrier deck a vast hell of flames, he managed to get out, jump into the inferno, and roll to the opposite side of the deck. "All around me," McCain later wrote, "was mayhem." He took some shrapnel in his chest and thighs as more ordnance fired, but tried to help more seriously injured personnel. It took a day for sailors to put out the raging fires. Ultimately, 134 men died, hundreds were injured, and 29 planes were lost.

* * *

Less than three months later, with 22 missions under his belt, John McCain took off for Hanoi, which was heavily defended against air attack. His target: the North Vietnamese capital's power plant. As McCain neared the target, surface-to-air missiles seemed to come at him from every direction. He went in low and let loose his bombs. As he pulled up, a SAM sheared off his plane's right wing. He pulled the eject apparatus and—still in his seat—was propelled into the sky by small rockets. He was immediately knocked unconscious, and came to as his chute put him down in a small lake in the middle of Hanoi. His arms were grotesquely broken from the force of the ejection; a knee was also broken. Somehow, he got his mouth onto a toggle on his vest, pulled it with his teeth, and, as the vest filled with air, struggled to the surface. He was rescued by Vietnamese, who dragged him back to shore.

A murderous crowd awaited him. Someone in uniform bayoneted him in the ankle and then in the groin. A rifle butt smashed his shoulder. His clothes were ripped off. He saw that his right leg was horribly contorted—bent almost at a right angle, with the bone protruding. Some in the enraged crowd tried to pull his attackers away. McCain would not forget that, nor the pain of the short ride in the back of a truck to North Vietnam's main P.O.W. penitentiary, Hoa Lo prison—the Hanoi Hilton, as the Americans would come to call it.

Beaten, kicked, refused medical treatment, left on the floor of his cell, McCain knew that he was going to die. He pleaded in vain to be taken to a hospital. Then a prison official—"the Bug," as the prisoners called him—entered. "Your father is a big admiral," he announced. "Now we take you to the hospital." There, without anesthesia, a doctor mis-set one broken arm and ignored the other entirely.

McCain's father—who then commanded U.S. naval forces in Europe and who would later assume command of American naval forces in the Pacific theater, including Vietnam—had, in effect, saved his life. Now his father's position made his existence a living hell: he was a prized prisoner, and the Vietnamese were determined that he should "confess" or make anti-war statements. The pressure on McCain (whose weight had dropped to 100 pounds) was constant. The carrot dangled in front of him was early release; the stick, a cycle of isolation and brutality. (Under the American military's Code of Conduct, POW's are prohibited from accepting parole or other favors from the enemy. In Vietnam, American prisoners generally felt that an exception could be made for seriously ill or injured prisoners.)

Unexpectedly, in his eighth month of captivity, McCain was called before "the Cat," the commander of the Hanoi prison system, and asked if he wanted to be released. No, McCain said. By this time McCain doubted that he could survive for another year. Later, he was led into a room where the camp commander, a deputy, and 10 guards demanded that he confess his "crimes." McCain refused.

Told he was guilty of "black crimes," he was beaten with such savagery that several ribs were broken, some of his teeth knocked out, and his injured leg battered anew. Then ropes were tied to his disfigured arms and tightened behind his back until the pain was unbearable. For the next several days, he was beaten repeatedly and told to confess. Collapsing to the cement floor from a fist in the face, he broke his arm again on a bucket that was his toilet. Again, the torture ropes were administered. After each beating, he slipped in and out of consciousness, lying in his own waste, given no water. After a week he could take no more. "Fearing the close approach of my moment of dishonor," McCain writes in his memoir, he tried to hang himself with his shirt. "Every man has a breaking point," he wrote. "I had reached mine."

He worked on a "confession," using stilted Communist jargon, elemental misspellings, and obvious grammatical errors that would indicate coercion. But after a 12-hour interrogation, McCain was made to sign a statement which said, "I am a black criminal and I have performed deeds of an air pirate. I almost died, and the Vietnamese people saved my life."

Signing that confession, McCain says today, was the worst experience of his life. He insists that he still feels remorse for failing to hold out. "I'll never get over it," he says.

During the years of imprisonment that followed—most of them in solitary confinement—McCain was notoriously combative. He worked to rebuild himself physically and mentally. His arms could not be extended fully, yet each day he did sit-ups, push-ups, and ran in place. At the "university" that POW's established to keep themselves occupied, McCain taught a social-studies class that he modestly called "The History of the World from the Beginning."

Fragments of information from newly arrived P.O.W.'s would circulate through the camps. "I knew there was that anti-war element in American society," McCain says. "I respected their right to do it, so I didn't have any anger about it. But I had no appreciation of the magnitude of it. Every cell had a loudspeaker, and they played anti-war stuff over the loudspeaker—a lot of anti-war speeches, a lot of tapes from the anti-war demonstrations. But you thought it wasn't true, because they lied about everything else."

In April 1972, President Nixon ended an almost four-year-long pause in the bombing over North Vietnam. McCain didn't know it, but his father, who each Christmas would travel as far north of Saigon as possible to be nearer his imprisoned son, had issued the orders to send bombers over Hanoi. The bombing, cheered by the POW's, finally ended on December 30, and on January 23, 1973, Nixon announced an agreement to end direct American involvement in the war. When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger went to North Vietnam to implement the final treaty, he was told by the Communist leaders that he could take one man back home with him: John McCain. He refused, and McCain later thanked him profusely.

Perhaps the most interesting question about McCain is, How did he come to his forgiveness?
—Gloria Emerson, Vietnam war correspondent.

* * *

On March 14, 1973, McCain, a hero returning, was greeted at Clark Air Base by the admiral who had succeeded his father as commander of Pacific forces. McCain and his fellow POW's would be honored at the White House (a widely printed photo showed McCain, white-haired at 36, leaning on his crutches and shaking hands with Richard Nixon), presented with keys to cities, given parades, and required to digest a lot. "Everything had changed," he says. "From the clothing styles to the sexual revolution to a kind of cynicism about government and disillusionment—a certain lack of confidence in America's future."

Always a voracious reader, McCain now set out to understand what had happened while he was gone. First, however, he wrote an article for U.S. News & World Report which both enhanced his celebrity and distinguished him from most of his fellow ex-prisoners in one important respect. Though expressing anger at the North Vietnamese, McCain seemed to harbor almost no ill will toward Americans who had opposed the war. The more he read, the more he thought that America's political and military leaders had served the country badly. The Pentagon Papers—the secret study of Vietnam decision-making—convinced him that the generals and admirals, including his father, had long known that the war was unwinnable unless the United States was willing to bomb millions of Vietnamese civilians to death. He believed that the military leadership should have resigned.

Today, McCain often speaks of the duty to follow his conscience in politics, rather than polls or party discipline. This, he says, comes from having escaped death and becoming "more aware of the transience of everything we do." Friends, family, and fellow senators sense that McCain lives every day as if it were extra time granted by grace.

* * *

His path would not be smooth, however. "Serious mistakes and doing the wrong things" is the way McCain puts it. First, there was his marriage, which he trashed in spectacular fashion. "I will bear the guilt of our divorce as long as I live," he says. Unbeknownst to him, Carol had been in a car accident on Christmas Eve 1969. Her legs were crushed. She broke her pelvis and her arm, and her spleen was ruptured. Hospitalized for six months, she underwent 23 operations over the next two years, and to this day has a limp. When they were reunited, both McCains were on crutches.

Carol McCain, who went to work in the Reagan White House and who still lives in Washington, has insisted that their breakup "was not caused by my accident or Vietnam or any of those things. I don't know that it might not have happened if John had never been gone. I attribute it more to John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again than I do to anything else."

"I was responsible for it," McCain says. "The fact that it happened the way it happened ... the fact that she had been loyal and faithful and wonderful all the years 1 was gone.... Look, you can't find a much worse guy than me."

McCain moved to Washington in 1977 to become director of the navy's Office of Legislative Affairs in the Senate. Marine Corps commandant General Jim Jones, who was his deputy there, says, "It was clear that even in those days as a navy captain he was a personality in the Senate, a very charismatic person. He was a war hero." Senators were honored to have their pictures taken with him. McCain used his position to win significant gains for the navy over the other services. "All roads to the Congress went through John McCain," says Jones.

McCain's urge to understand the world that prison had kept him from more than balanced his desire to defend his "side" of the war. Though they agreed on little politically, he became close friends with Senator Gary Hart, who had been a leader of the anti-war movement and had served as campaign manager for George McGovern during his failed presidential race against Richard Nixon. He also established friendships that would yield political dividends in the future. Of all these relationships, none proved deeper or would pay off more bounteously for the navy than the one with the late senator John Tower of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, who came to look upon McCain as the son he never had.

McCain served as Tower's military escort on numerous foreign trips and became an eager student. Tower was an Anglophile, an internationalist, and a defense intellectual who thought in more global terms than many Republicans of his day. He also had a drinking problem—it figured heavily in the Senate's rejection ofhis nomination to be secretary of defense during the Bush administration—but McCain saw Tower as a model. In the Senate, McCain would later carve out influence and power for himself in the same areas as Tower: defense, national security, and economics. (Today, McCain is chairman of the Commerce Committee.)

His relationship with Tower also contributed to his chilly view of the tail that wags the Republican dog these days in Washington—the far-right ideologues (though he usually votes with them on major issues). "It was the far right that started that lynching," he says of Tower's Senate rejection, striking a rare note of bitterness. Indeed, the allegations of drunkenness and sexual impropriety were first made by members of the Christian right, who despised Tower because of his pro-choice record on abortion, one issue on which McCain has taken a position different from that of his mentor.

* * *

In 1979. during a Hawaii stopover on a congressional junket to China, McCain (who was separated from Carol) saw Cindy Hensley of Phoenix across a room at a reception. Attracted by her blond, all-American good looks (even today she looks like a Sunbelt cheerleader), he promptly introduced himself. As it turned out, she was as rich as she was beautiful. Her father, an air-force pilot in World War II, owned the fifth-largest beer distributorship in the United States. Cindy, despite her country-club background, had majored in special education and taught the disabled children of migrant farmworkers. At 25, she was 17 years younger than McCain. She told McCain she was 28, while he subtracted four years from his age. Only when they took out a marriage license in May 1980 did they learn the truth.

That year, McCain began talking with his friend Maine senator Bill Cohen about running for Congress in Arizona. His impatience may have been related to his realization that, unlike his father and grandfather—the only father-and-son pair ever to hold four-star rank—he was unlikely to make admiral. A promotions board had turned him down once; a sea command hadn't materialized; his physicals were lousy; and a bit too much of the swashbuckling, devil-may-care John McCain still showed, as Jim Jones recounts: "I came into work one day, and he was banged up even more—his arm was in a sling, bandages on his face, and it took me a while to pry out what had happened to him. He had gone flying in an ultralight—and he crashed. Now, my question to him was: 'You've been shot down—you know what that's like.... You've been captured.... You've been tortured, and everything else. Why in the world would you want to get back up in a single-engine ultra-light airplane, knowing that there's nothing good that's going to come of it?' And he didn't have an answer."

McCain retired from the navy in 1981; immediately moved to Phoenix with Cindy; knocked on 20,000 Republican doors, often in 100-plus-degree heat; won the primary for a House seat unexpectedly vacated by the retirement of former minority leader John Rhodes; swept through the general election; and in January 1983 returned to Washington as Congressman John McCain. He laughed at the carpetbagger charge that had dogged him throughout the campaign ("I got lost on the way to my own rallies"). Ultimately, it proved to be his trump card.

"Listen, pal," became his typical response to a hostile question. "We in the service tend to move a lot ... I wish I could have had the luxury of spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. When I think about it now, the place I lived the longest was Hanoi."

* * *

On the night of his election, McCain was already talking about running for the Senate in 1986, and his celebrity got him elected president of the G.O.P. freshman class. A month after his 1984 reelection, with a landslide 78 percent of the vote, he had been invited to Hanoi by Walter Cronkite, for a CBS special on the war's end. The trip was one of the most significant events of McCain's emotional life, a reckoning. On the shore of the lake where he had been pulled from the water in 1967, he and Cronkite inspected a statue commemorating his capture: McCain carved in stone, on his knees with his hands in the air, identified on an accompanying inscription as "McCan [sic] ... the famous air pirate."

To his amazement, he was treated kindly by Hanoi's ordinary citizens, who reinforced his urge to reach across the war's dividing lines. He met with General Vo Nguyen Giap, architect of the war against the Americans. At the end of their conversation, Giap suddenly said, "You were honorable," speaking not just of McCain but also of the other Americans who had fought in the war. "Coming from him, that meant something," McCain says. Much to the chagrin of many Republicans, in 1995 he would back President Clinton's decision to resume normal relations with Vietnam, providing invaluable political cover to a president who had evaded the draft during the war.

In the meantime, McCain's political good luck showed no signs of abating. On March 18, 1985, Arizona's governor, Democrat Bruce Babbitt, announced that he would not seek the Senate seat being vacated by Barry Goldwater's retirement. It was a message from political heaven, and McCain was on the next plane to Phoenix to proclaim his candidacy. After being elected with 60 percent of the vote, he was frequently mentioned as a vice-presidential possibility. On October 7, 1989, he won his biggest legislative victory, bucking the leadership of both parties and forcing through the Senate a repeal of increased Medicare rates.

The next day, flying higher than he'd ever before ascended in the political stratosphere, McCain went down in flames for the fifth time. That morning, newspapers reported that McCain had received more than $112,000 in campaign contributions from one Charles Keating, including $54,000 for his Senate campaign. Between 1984 and 1986, the press noted, the McCain family had spent vacations in a Bahamian house owned by Keating, the corrupt owner of a savings-and-loan empire which had wiped out the life savings of its investors, many of them elderly retirees, and had ultimately cost taxpayers $3 billion.

In return for his largesse, Keating expected McCain and four other senators he had courted—John Glenn of Ohio, Donald Riegle of Michigan, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, and Alan Cranston of California—to protect him from federal banking regulators. Twice in 1987 the senators met with Keating to discuss his complaints. The next three years—during which McCain was invariably referred to in the media as "one of the Keating Five"—were, he would later say, worse than the five he spent in prison in Vietnam. In fact, efforts on Keating's behalf by Glenn and McCain were perfunctory at best. When Keating showed up in McCain's office, clearly expecting a quid pro quo, McCain later testified, he threw him out.

The Ethics Committee investigation lasted 14 months. Polls showed that almost half of Arizona's voters wanted McCain to resign. McCain, the only Republican among the five, was a "political hostage," the committee's senior Republican member, Warren Rudman, insists. The committee's counsel urged in his report that all charges against McCain be dropped. In the committee's final report, McCain and Glenn received only mild rebukes for using "poor judgment," but the ordeal devastated McCain.

He wasn't the only family member to crash and burn in those years. Cindy, by then the mother of four, was exposed in the Arizona press as a painkiller addict. She was also accused of stealing Percocet and Vicodin from the pharmacy of the American Voluntary Medical Team, a nonprofit Third World relief organization that she had set up with family funds. She escaped possible criminal prosecution by entering a treatment program as part of a deal with Arizona prosecutors. It had not been a good few years for the McCains.

During the Keating Five experience, McCain had found himself sealed inside a nightmare for the second time in his life, but once again—somewhat to his own surprise—he had survived. Oddly, the experience ensured that he would someday run for president as distinctly his own man. After Keating, he seemed even less concerned about the usual protocols of the Senate and of his own party. "If hypocrisy were gold, the Capitol would be Fort Knox," he said in a particularly impolitic moment. "Some of those guys," he told Esquire, referring to his fellow senators, "have they even had lives? What have they done?" He added, "Aw, jeez, this is exactly the kind of thing that gets me into trouble."

But it also wins him affection in the media, particularly among reporters seldom known to cotton to conservative Republicans. In fact, no recent national politician has enjoyed a more favorable—indeed glowing and less skeptical—press than McCain. The reasons for the media's McCain Swoon are simple: his unpredictability, which by now is almost predictable, makes great copy; he is always accessible to reporters, a Washington rarity; and he is a fountain of candor (or, say his critics, a calculated false candor) in a city where almost everybody who counts seems scripted.

Regarding the media swoon, nothing may be more important than the way the post-Keating McCain has bucked his party on the campaign fund-raising system, which works to Republican advantage (as well as to the advantage of every incumbent in Congress, regardless of party). He has also led the fight against the tobacco industry and its hordes of deep-pocketed lobbyists. These are worthy goals for anyone, in the eyes of many reporters, but especially so for a conservative Republican. No wonder there are so many stories about McCain the "maverick," the "political Don Quixote," the "populist." These are the elements in a repetitive media saga—and possible presidential biography—that sounds part John Wayne, part Mr. Smith, part Ike.

McCain is, to use The Weekly Standard's term, "ideologically complicated"—a decided asset in winning Democratic crossover votes if he ever becomes his party's nominee, but a question mark in his bid for the Republican nomination. He was the only Republican senator to vote against the anti-consumer Telecommunications Act. McCain has used his clout as a military man to push for the closing of obsolete military bases (a potential hazard with voters in the New Hampshire primary). He fought to kill the B-2 bomber and to expunge a pet navy project, the Sea Wolf submarine. He believes the United States should pay its dues to the United Nations, and has supported President Clinton on aiding Russia and using the International Monetary Fund to deal with the global financial crisis.

It is easy to forget that, on so-called litmus-test issues, McCain has remained a safe Republican vote distinctly in tune with the hard right of his own party and constituents. He has voted against Clinton's health-care proposals, for all proposals to limit access to abortion, against gun control, against government funding of PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts, against raising the minimum wage, against making Martin Luther King's birthday a holiday. He has expressed support for term limits and constitutional amendments to prohibit flag burning and require balanced federal budgets. His ratings by conservative organizations remain in the 80 -to-90 -percent bracket.

Although Bob Dole passed over him as his vice-presidential running mate ("John had a lot of assets," Dole told me, "but I had many of the same ones"—hero, senator, less than ideologically pure), McCain's speech putting Dole's name into nomination was the emotional high point of the last Republican convention. Dole and McCain still meet every three or four weeks. "He's a good man—the kind of man I want in a foxhole with me.... He'd be a good president," Dole says, and then adds with a laugh (his wife was still in the race at this point), "He'd be great in Elizabeth's Cabinet ... secretary of defense, secretary of state."

Meanwhile, outside the Beltway, it is anything but hurtful to be known as the Washington politician who says that the political system is up for sale, and who takes on tobacco executives who maintained with straight faces under oath that smoking is not addictive. McCain's main issues—campaign-finance reform, school vouchers, regulation of the tobacco industry, a broad critique of the Clinton administration's "ad hoc approach" to foreign-policy and defense questions—have struck a chord with a broad spectrum of Republican voters and local officials. Equally important, he has something of the magnetic aura of a celebrity, with his war story and his name in the news almost every day. Bush campaign strategists have taken note: McCain, they believe, is the only serious threat to their nomination bandwagon.

Traveling with McCain as he barnstormed for Republican congressional candidates late last year, I was constantly struck by the enthusiasm he generates. Partly it's a matter of his enormous energy. He's like a jack-in-the-box, always popping up, always ready to shake a hand or tell a joke. He is almost an anti-celebrity celebrity, genuinely fun to be with. Driven as he is, he never seems to take himself too seriously. He calls himself "the old geezer." He reads two or three books a week—fiction and nonfiction—and his recreational taste is distinctly that of the people who elect him: he's a sports nut. At his "cabin" (a magnificently landscaped seven-acre retreat with a modest log main house and two guesthouses), in the mountains near Sedona, he has a satellite dish programmed to receive every televised football and basketball game in America. On his porch, tending the barbecue, he wears shorts, sneakers, and a ragged T-shirt, and listens to a boom box playing golden oldies from the 1950s.

As with any politician, a lot of what McCain has to say is boilerplate, and he can waffle and fudge with the best of them. But you get the sense that all his years in purgatory have left him with some informing principles that he actually believes in. While flying from Washington to San Francisco, I ask him what makes a great president. "Vision," he replies unhesitatingly—a formula that any Republican might jump at in the post—George Bush Sr. years but that from him seems more heartfelt. "I think that every great president ... had a vision of what they wanted the United States and the world to look like.... I don't see how you can have vision unless you have principles.... F.D.R. he did things that maybe we wouldn't approve of, from a pure constitutional standpoint. But he saw World War 11 coming. He saw the looming threat, and even though the American people might not have been with him, he did things necessary to prepare us. And Reagan. I think he had the vision, clearly. I think he was a great man."

* * *

Before the House voted to impeach Bill Clinton, McCain seemed far more concerned about the president's fundraising abuses than about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. To my surprise, he didn't hesitate to express real admiration for aspects of the Clinton presidency. "He's done a lot of things well. He recognized that he had to move to the center in order to achieve successes—welfare reform, the balanced budget, a long string of issues that he's addressed in a bipartisan fashion.... He deserves enormous credit on management of the economy."

He continues, "The president's greatest strength, in my view, is communicating with the American people. He certainly stands up for the poor, for the elderly, for Americans with disabilities, women.... What he wants for America is very laudable." Then McCain launches into a critique of Clinton's penchant for taking polls and elevating "bullshit things" such as school uniforms to policy initiatives. "I don't admire that, even though it works for him politically.... I don't think there's any evil or any hidden agenda or anything malevolent about him.... I've never met a more charming man. If there's a word that probably describes him in the conduct of his foreign policy especially—but also to some degree in domestic policy and in his personal life—it's 'undisciplined.'" He adds, "But no one believes that the president having an affair with an intern and covering it up is a quarter the magnitude of the serious constitutional crisis that occurred during Watergate." Still, McCain voted to convict Clinton on both counts during his Senate trial.

* * *

Many details of McCain's foreign-policy critique of the Clinton years (that it is a seat-of-the-pants operation with no controlling philosophy) reflect his frequent conversations with Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and Zbigniew Brzezinski—all former national-security advisers—and other pillars of the foreign-policy establishment. McCain regularly consults with various "brain trusts," which include former P.O.W. and current ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, Colin Powell, Andy Grove of Intel, and Dick Notebaert of Ameritech. Ask him what he would do as president on any number of issues and he'll tell you that he would convene the best minds on the subject and then decide what actions to take—not too different from what George W Bush has been saying.

Of Bush he says, "He understands and is sensitive to the Hispanic issue—perhaps one of the only Republican leaders that really does a magnificent job at it. He's very attractive and he's done a great job as governor. So he's got great credentials, and I think he'd make a fine president." When asked what he offers that Bush doesn't, McCain's answer is carefully crafted: "Probably experience. Probably more in-depth knowledge of the issues. A record of service in many areas." I ask what he means by that. "Well, I mean, I think it's obvious. George Bush was recently elected to office, has had four years as governor of the state of Texas. I've been 16 years in the Congress. Before that, I had service in the military. That's where I think there's some difference in our credentials."

At a luncheon attended by a couple of hundred business leaders in San Francisco, McCain is asked, "Can you think of any reason why you should not be president?" He replies with a typical mix of humility, self-deprecation, and a self-confidence so deep that it borders on arrogance: "I can think of a number of them. I tell terrible jokes. I've been known to have a temper. I have been known not to support issues or programs that may be important to early-primary states.... I also think that there are probably people who are a lot smarter than I am who may be running. I'm the guy who stood fifth from the bottom of my class at the Naval Academy. I don't know what ever happened to the other four. I think the only thing I bring to the table—which I know—is I do have a record now of 16 years, and I've always tried to act on what I thought was the best for the country. And that has guided me.... The only thing I can do is assure people that I would act on principle."

Earlier, I had asked McCain if he had any fear of being president. "No," he replied. "The thought's never crossed my mind. I think there would be an awesome responsibility. I can't think of any reason it would inspire fear."

* * *

McCain may not be a stem-winding orator, but he's a mightily effective one. As he rocks back and forth, years seem to vanish from his face when he's talking about ideas that engage him. At five feet eight, McCain would be short for a modern president. There is an almost childlike earnestness about him, a visible determination to win over any doubters. There is little need for him to read his speeches, because they are all variants of The Speech, whose topics shift somewhat but whose overarching themes are unchanging. Its essential elements show off McCain's assets handsomely: a self-effacing reminder of his military heroics ("1 would point out that it doesn't take a lot of talent to get shot down: I was able to intercept a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane"); a willingness to harshly criticize his own party and Congress; an expertise on defense and national-security issues; and—thanks to his leadership on the tobacco and campaign-finance issues—an identity as a political David who dares take on the Goliaths of lobbying and special interests. Each of these themes—and his out-in-front stand on Kosovo, an issue which Bush mishandled—positions him as a Republican cut from a different cloth.

At the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, where he is escorted to the lectern by Nancy Reagan, McCain brings a number of audience members to tears. "Many of us who were prisoners of war in Hanoi had heard of and admired Governor and Mrs. Reagan," he says. "In whispered conversations and taps on our cell walls we learned they were personally committed to our well-being and helping us return to the country." In his peroration, McCain heaps more than the usual amount of scorn on Clinton for "squandering" the Reagan legacy in foreign and defense policy and for "debasing" the White House.

At a small dinner after his speech, Nancy Reagan turned to her other dinner partner and said, "Wouldn't it be exciting if he really runs for president?"

* * *

Not everybody admires John McCain. "He's a crook and he's a showboat," says Richard Brookhiser of the National Review. Arizona is home to a small army of McCain-bashers, and some in the local media cannot fathom the national media swoon for their senator. "Someday, some enterprising [Washington] reporter is going to come to Arizona—or, for that matter, plug McCain's name into a database like Lexis/Nexis—and strike it rich, discovering the 'secret' life of John McCain ... from nasty to downright sleazy," began a 1997 story in the Phoenix New Times, an alternative newspaper.

The basic anti-McCain rap has it that he is a Machiavellian figure who, by cloaking himself in the flag and advocating a couple of neo-populist no-brainers, has gotten away with misrepresenting a relatively reactionary, right-wing record and with obscuring his own moral and ethical lapses. Among their many complaints, his critics assert that:

  • He voted against campaign-finance reform in 1987 and 1988—and didn't support the concept until 1990, shortly after the Keating story broke. (True.)
  • Despite owning more than $1 million worth of stock (with his wife) in the family Anheuser-Busch distributorship, in 1991 he did not recuse himself from deliberations in which the Commerce Committee refused to take up container-recycling legislation opposed by the beverage industry, including Anheuser-Busch. (McCain, who was not then committee chairman, responds rather lamely that he regarded container recycling as an environmental question.)
  • While presenting himself as an environmentalist in speeches and op-ed pieces, he has consistently been ranked near the bottom of the League of Conservation Voters' list of environmentally friendly members of Congress. (McCain maintains that his conservation record, especially in regard to the Grand Canyon and wilderness protection, is admirable.)
  • Until he began thinking about national office, he consistently opposed gay rights—to the extent that he spoke at a 1993 fundraiser for Oregon's anti-gay-rights initiative. (McCain produces a copy of his speech, in which he excoriated "the party of Lincoln" for not being nearly inclusive enough and for ignoring gays, blacks, and the poor.)

In fact, McCain has been all over the place on matters relating to gays, and has fought legislation barring job discrimination against homosexuals. "He's a thousand percent anti-gay," Barney Frank, the gay congressman from Massachusetts, told The New Republic. "The only difference between him and other conservatives is that he bashes with his votes rather than his rhetoric."

"He's shrewd," one senator says of McCain. "People should never underestimate his shrewdness. His positions, in many instances, are very calculated in terms of media appeal. He's aware of that. It's not the basis of his decisions, but like everybody with ambition, particularly to be president, that is part of the calculus." But this senator (like every other senator I spoke to, Democrat or Republican) sees McCain as a work in progress—sometimes calculating, often open to new ideas, willing to evolve politically and personally. "If there is a prevailing Republican view," says a well-connected person who works in the Senate, "it's that a lot of the senators feel he's sort of pursuing his own missions without sufficient deference to their importance or home-state interests. A lot of them are ... perpetually pissed off because he perpetually tries to take away their pork and get in the way of their bills."

The most common complaint about McCain on Capitol Hill has to do with temperament, not ideology. He is, in the words of one senator, "too quick to respond precipitously on issues, too quick to judge, and kind of prickly in terms of his personality."

"Well, he's got a temper," says Brent Scowcroft. "My sense is ... he does not suffer fools quietly."

* * *

It can safely be said that John McCain is the only politician to have had dinner with Nancy Reagan one night and Warren Beatty the next. "I mean, I've been watching his movies since, you know, Splendor in the Grass," McCain says of Beatty, whom he met last summer. "I mean, Natalie Wood. I can tell you the scene too."

There is something touching about watching McCain navigate Beverly Hills with an innocent sense of wonder—a far different response from that of, say, Bill Clinton. The morning after his visit to Beatty's home, he is singing the praises of actress Annette Bening, Beatty's wife. "She's just a down-to-earth, really fine person. She's the kind of person you would meet in a social occasion and think she was a teacher or, you know, a businesswoman." These are exactly the qualities that impress others about Cindy McCain.

Following a breakfast for Hispanic Republican leaders in the Peninsula Hotel, McCain is escorted to a chauffeured green Rolls-Royce. He sinks into the leather seat, fingers the burled-walnut side panels, and confirms that this is his first ride in a Rolls. "Pretty neat, huh?"

Next stop is the Beverly Wilshire, for a forum sponsored by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. We arrive while Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the N.R.S.C. chairman, is discussing a video primer on negative advertising—a strategy that McConnell thinks is just wonderful.

Aside from Majority Leader Trent Lott, McConnell is the most powerful member of the Senate Republican leadership because of his role in raising and doling out campaign funds from a huge war chest. He is the ultimate take-no-prisoners, red-meat Republican fighting machine. He and McCain have clashed bitterly over campaign-finance reform. McConnell does not just oppose the idea; he loathes it (and perhaps McCain as well). After McConnell happily declares, "This is going to be as close to an issue-less election as we've ever seen—which can work to Republican advantage," McCain rolls his eyes and gets up for a cup of coffee.

That night, after a cocktail party for him in Connie Stevens's backyard, McCain attends Milton Berle's 90th-birthday celebration at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where two rope lines hold back 200 or so photographers and reporters. They snap pictures of Steve Allen, Sid Caesar, Cyd Charisse ... and then they spot McCain. Suddenly he is engulfed; microphones and cassette recorders are shoved in his face; inane questions are shouted at him. It takes him fully 10 minutes to walk 15 yards. Only Bob Hope—ailing and frail—gets as much attention.

* * *

A few weeks later, light-years away from  such spectacle, McCain is where he loves to be the most: at his family's Arizona mountain retreat. Here he is not a senator but a camp director, wading through a creek with his kids (aged 14, 13, 11, and 8; he and Carol have three older children) to reach a swimming hole he's discovered. He and Cindy sit under a huge river oak; they pick apples and pears.

He is so relaxed, so demonstrably at peace with himself, that for a moment you wonder why he'd want to give it all up for the ordeal of a presidential campaign in the post-Monica era. He says he wonders too sometimes—particularly about how it will affect Cindy and the children. "I was born and raised out here and I find Washington very unreal sometimes because—" says Cindy, searching for the right way to phrase it. "You'll go to something and people there will shake your hand and look over your head for your husband.... I'm very mixed on John running.... I think the campaign's worse than what the end result would be, to some degree, just because it's so bloodletting."

Even at 63, McCain still has something of the all-American boy about him. But unlike that of Bill Clinton, who grew up poor and fatherless, dreaming of being president, McCain's political odyssey is a much more whimsical one. In 1994, McCain spoke at a commissioning ceremony in Bath, Maine, for the U.S.S. John S. McCain, a destroyer named after his father and grandfather. "They were my first heroes," he says, "and their respect for me has been the most lasting ambition of my life." There is something relaxed about McCain's striving, a sense of self-liberation that is unusual in a politician, especially one seeking the presidency. (It helps to have a safe Senate seat.) Yet one suspects that he could never dream of running for president unless that "ambition" had already been realized and the difficult expectations of his inheritance overcome.

"The only time that I've talked to John about the ... about the P.O.W. experience was in '91," says Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who lost a leg in Vietnam. "This is when he was angry at me and I was angry at him [about the Gulf War, which McCain supported and Kerrey did not]. And I went to that statue [of McCain in Hanoi]—it was all covered with bird guano—and I said, 'Jesus, this is a pretty big deal.' And the big deal is that when the POW's came back in '73 there were a lot of us, myself included, who said, 'Who are these guys? You know, all they did is sit on their butt in a jail. They've got these hero welcomes and parades and everything. And what the hell did we get out of this thing?' ... And so, in Hanoi, I wrote him and said, 'I didn't realize you'd suffered this much. Until I came here and saw this, I didn't understand.'

"He's done something which is extremely difficult to do, and that is he's disappointed Republicans in his own caucus." Kerrey was referring primarily to McCain's leadership on tobacco, campaign-finance, and consumer issues. "He disappointed friends. That's the hardest thing to do in life, and though it may not be obvious to people who are not politicians, politicians are living human beings and they do not like to disappoint friends.... It is the most important thing to do if you're going to follow your conscience, which is to say to a friend, 'I think you're wrong, and I'm going to have to take this course of action even though you're going to be disappointed.'"

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