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McCain: The mouth that roared

By
November 5, 2007

John McCain has stocked his arsenal with a variety of weapons over the years, like fists when he was in school and bombs when he was at war. But his WMD is a mouth that won’t quit. He possesses wisecracks of mass destruction.

Who else would refer to the Arizona retirement community of Leisure World as “Seizure World,” as he did in his first Senate campaign? Just for fun, out loud? He couldn’t help himself. (He won anyway.)

Consider McCain’s life as a series of impolitic one-liners, each one illuminating complex threads of the past.

He’s had a line for everything and everyone — those he tormented at the Naval Academy as a n’er-do-well midshipman, those who tortured him in Vietnam, his legion of friends and foes in the capital, the “little jerks” he ribbed in a campaign crowd, an “idiot” reporter, his own ego and, these days, his advancing age — 70.

McCain, “the Punk” in high school, has plenty of targets and none more tempting than himself.

It’s a quality that sets him apart in the carefully staged presidential race, a replay of sorts of his Navy academy daze. Then as now, McCain verged on flunking out but pulled himself together in the nick of time. He’s gone from chump to hero before, and he’s trying again.

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“John Sidney McCain the Third. What’s yours?”

McCain’s blunt challenge to an upperclassman who demanded his name in a cafeteria confrontation typified the swagger that risked getting him drummed out of the Naval Academy, where his running total of at least 100 demerits kept him a regular member of the Century Club.

The son and grandson of admirals was born in the Panama Canal Zone and attended some 20 schools before Annapolis, where he graduated fifth from the bottom in 1958.

Years later he was accused at a candidate forum of being a carpetbagger by running for office in Arizona. “Listen, pal,” McCain shot back, “I spent 22 years in the Navy. … The place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”

Like most of his cracks, this one spoke an underlying truth, and it nullified the critics as surely as a roundhouse punch.

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“It doesn’t take a lot of talent to get shot down.”

McCain was a party man when he took pilot training out of the academy, driving a Corvette, dating “Marie the Flame of Florida,” a dancer who cleaned her fingernails with her switchblade. He said he “generally misused my good health and youth.”

By the time he went to war in the spring of 1967, he was the husband of former Philadelphia model Carol Shepp. And now he was a father.

In October of that year, age 31, McCain was on his 23rd bombing mission when he was shot down. He ejected, losing consciousness until he found himself in a Hanoi lake.

His arms and a knee were broken. When he was brought ashore, a mob stabbed him with bayonets and took him to the prison that POWs dubbed Hanoi Hilton.

McCain’s light hair would begin a quick march to premature white. He defied captors who wanted to exploit the son of an admiral for propaganda. When guards brought him a meal, he’d shriek curses.

Over more than five years in confinement, three of them in solitary, McCain tried suicide twice. He endured repeated beatings. When held alone, he let movie and book plots play through his head.

Captors finally persuaded him to sign a confession that “I have performed deeds of an air pirate.”

Released in 1973, he went home on crutches, only to find his wife and son on crutches, too. Carol had been in a terrible car accident. His son hurt himself playing soccer.

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“In Washington, I work with boobs every day.”

McCain learned the ways of Washington as the Navy’s liaison to the Senate, staying with the service until 1981. His marriage fell apart, the consequence of what he called his “selfishness and immaturity” with other women.

Soon after divorcing Carol, he married Cindy Hensley, daughter of a Phoenix beer magnate, moved to Arizona and soon plunged into politics. He won a House seat in 1982, re-election and a Senate seat in quick succession.

McCain’s reputation for being tight with taxpayers’ money grew. Defense contractors resented his scrutiny, lawmakers saw pork privileges challenged and many experienced a withering temper that McCain says gets the better of him when he’s tired.

He reached beyond waste to take on the system of campaign financing, joining with like-minded Democrats and splitting from Republican leaders.

The Mr. Cleanup trajectory took a wrenching dive when McCain and four other senators were accused of trying to influence banking regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a savings and loan financier later convicted of securities fraud. The Senate Ethics Committee cited McCain’s “poor judgment” but recommended no further action against him.

He said the episode “will probably be on my tombstone.”

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“The president is a lonely man in a dark room when the casualty reports come in.”

McCain dropped the weighty line into an occasion meant for balloons, the announcement of his first presidential campaign. This is why he frustrates his advisers. But it helps explain why his Straight Talk Express got traction.

McCain set out to take chances where others would let caution guide them. That was his nature but also his reality in taking on the Bush juggernaut in 2000. “We really didn’t have any other choice.”

McCain swamped George W. Bush in New Hampshire, electrifying the race. Then came the savage South Carolina contest, when the Bush team opened a frontal assault, operatives sympathetic to Bush spread innuendo from phone banks and a schism opened with religious conservative leaders that still has not closed. With McCain’s loss there, his campaign was effectively over.

McCain walks around with guilt about his confession in Vietnam, his part in the Keating scandal and more.

The South Carolina campaign produced another such moment. He says he put expedience ahead of straight-talking truth when he went squishy over the Confederate flag, catering to its supporters.

“I had been a coward, and I had severed my interests from my country’s,” he wrote in his recent memoir. “That was what made the lie unforgivable.”

When McCain performs a mea culpa, it’s a whopper.

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“I’m older than dirt, more scars than Frankenstein, but I learned a few things along the way.”

The senator was an early critic of Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war. He is also, paradoxically, a vital Bush ally on pressing ahead with the mission. McCain perilously staked his 2008 campaign on success in Iraq even as support for the war plunged and he alienated the right on immigration.

In a calamitous spring and summer, his campaign all but flew apart, his fundraising and poll standings lagging, his staff peeling away.

McCain’s autumn “No Surrender” tour stood not only for the course in Iraq but his own future.

The old wounds, aggravated now by arthritis, give him a slight limp and he cannot raise either arm above his head. Melanoma scars his left cheek.

Yet it’s possible to see the flyboy of long ago in him still, the solo pilot who would blow off the preflight checklist as if it were mere red tape. He itched to take off. “Kick the tires and light the fires,” he would say.