John McCain: The ultimate survivor

John McCain secured the Republican presidential nomination as the ultimate survivor — winning it eight years after his first failed attempt and decades after cheating death in the Vietnam War.

Easy to laugh and easy to anger, McCain carries with him the scars of battle in both armed conflict as a naval pilot and in the political wars of Washington as a U.S. senator from Arizona.

The 71-year-old McCain would be the oldest American ever elected to a first presidential term if he is able to defeat the Democrats’ choice in the November election. He is also a cancer survivor, having undergone surgery for two malignant melanomas in 2000.

Polls initially put him in a strong position to compete against either Democrat Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

That would seem at least in part a credit to a strategy aimed at attracting independent and moderate voters rather than exclusively courting the Republican Party’s right wing.

On the campaign trail, he often travels with his wife, Cindy, and has a repertoire of old jokes that he tells repeatedly, such as, it is so dry in Arizona that the trees chase the dogs.

Or there was one about the man who came up to him and said, “‘Did anybody ever tell you, you look like Senator John McCain?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Doesn’t that make you mad as heck?”‘

A hawk on military matters, McCain served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee when Republicans held control of the Senate in recent years and is now a ranking member for the minority party.

Sometimes known by his colleagues as “Senator Hothead,” McCain can be quick to lose his temper, which is what happened last May when he and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn quarreled over the details of proposals to deal with illegal immigration.

“(Expletive) you! I know more about this than anyone else in the room,” McCain was said to have told Cornyn.

From his Senate seat McCain has been a strong advocate of maintaining U.S. troops in Iraq, and staked his political career on a successful outcome in the unpopular war.

“I’d rather lose an election than lose a war,” he said.

At the same time, he has been a frequent critic of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, blaming former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for a botched war plan.

His positions on the war and in favor of a plan to give millions of illegal immigrants a pathway to U.S. citizenship nearly killed off his campaign last summer.

On political life support, McCain shed staff and concentrated exclusively on winning New Hampshire. A victory in that state gave him the momentum to outlast several better-funded rivals.

His comeback was aided by a friendly relationship with the news media fostered by lengthy sessions aboard his “Straight Talk Express” bus. Reporters found out tidbits like McCain is deeply superstitious and carries a lucky penny in his pocket.

McCain has often been at odds with President George W. Bush, particularly on his insistence that Americans not engage in torture against those arrested in the U.S.-led war against Islamic extremism.

He came to that position the hard way — after being tortured himself while spending five years of the Vietnam War as a prisoner in the “Hanoi Hilton.”

Born into a military family, McCain prides himself on not having been the greatest student to ever walk the halls of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

He graduated in 1958 and entered the Navy. By 1967, McCain was a veteran pilot aboard the USS Forrestal aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam.

He was preparing to take off on a bombing run over North Vietnam when disaster struck. A missile accidentally fired from another plane, hitting the fuel tanks on McCain’s aircraft and triggering explosions and fire.

McCain escaped from his plane by crawling onto the nose of the aircraft and diving on to the ship’s fiery deck. Before he could reach a fellow pilot whose flight suit was on fire, more explosions erupted, blowing McCain back.

When the inferno was finally contained 24 hours later, 134 men had been killed and hundreds more injured. It was called the worst non-combat-related accident in U.S. naval history.

Three months later McCain was on a bombing mission over Hanoi. A missile struck his plane, shearing off the right wing. McCain ejected, and the force of the maneuver knocked him unconscious and broke both his arms and a leg. He plunged into a Hanoi lake.

An angry mob dragged him from the water, broke his shoulder with a rifle butt and bayoneted him. Fellow POWs at the Hanoi Hilton helped him survive, and he was imprisoned for 5-1/2 years.

Videotape of his POW ordeal still exists, and in fact has provided his campaign some valuable evidence of his life to use to flesh out his image.