|Chapter 1: What
By Bill Muller
There is a grim determination to Sen. John McCain as he rises to address the Republican faithful. He moves stiffly through the heavy air of the gymnasium, his war injuries still evident.
There is his sore right knee, broken years ago when he ejected from a bomber over North Vietnam. There is his aching right shoulder, shattered by his captors. There is his hair, turned prematurely white by mistreatment and malnutrition.
Then there are his political wounds.
There is the edge McCain carries that led to angry outbursts with reporters during the Keating Five scandal. The defiant tone in his attacks on pork-barrel spending and calls for campaign-finance reform.
But for McCain, it's not about falling down. It's about getting up again.
Moments before he rose to speak, the lights had dimmed, and patriotic images had flashed on a screen: an American flag, a pilot in a flight suit, a senator shaking hands with President Reagan.
''At a time when America is searching for heroes to lead us,'' a narrator intoned, ''it has the genuine article in John McCain.''
Those are the scripted themes of McCain, 63, as he sets out on his carefully calculated campaign for the GOP nomination for president - genuine hero, proven leader, man of integrity in a wayward time.
But McCain is no comic-book hero, drawn in two dimensions.
He's sometimes driven by courage and duty, sometimes by anger and pride.
''I think life is a series of contradictions,'' said Jay Smith, who worked on McCain's first four campaigns. ''Life is complex. Who among us is so simplistic that you can just pigeonhole?''
Certainly not McCain.
In recent years, he's become a champion of campaign-finance reform. More than a decade ago, he took free trips to the Bahamas with savings and loan tycoon Charles Keating. He continues to take big money from interests before his committees.
He's amassed a rogues' gallery of troublemaking former pals - Keating, Gary Hart, John Tower, Fife Symington, Duke Tully - who hardly square with his ambitions as a reformer.
As a senator, he's pilloried tobacco companies, though his wife owes her personal millions to beer sales.
He has romanced the national press while warring with Arizona reporters.
He prides himself on his personal integrity yet admits he wasn't faithful to his first wife, Carol, who was injured in a horrific car accident while McCain was in Vietnam.
He courts the veteran vote yet is despised among veterans who believe there are still POWs alive in southeast Asia.
He was hawkish on Kosovo, yet as a freshman congressman, he opposed Reagan's sending of Marines to Lebanon.
Some say McCain's seemingly principled positions - as on tobacco and campaign-finance reform - are all for show, helping him build his maverick image with a windmill tilt or two.
''In both instances (tobacco and campaign-finance reform), he took positions that were doomed to failure and stuck to them,'' said Grant Woods, former Arizona attorney general and an early McCain protege.
''In terms of federal legislation, we're in the same position today
that we were in five years ago. I wonder what the point of that is. If
you truly want to accomplish something on the issue, you've got several
ways to go, and this one has produced nothing - and by nothing, I mean
While at the Naval Academy, McCain let some subjects slide, spending his time reading history and literature and, of course, howling at the moon. He graduated fifth from the bottom of his class.
McCain's sense of humor, sometimes indelicate, gets him in trouble. Back when he entered politics, he once referred to the Arizona retirement community of Leisure World as ''Seizure World.'' More recently, it was a crude joke about Chelsea Clinton that raised eyebrows.
Still, McCain can be funny.
On a recent trip to South Carolina, state director Trey Walker was stumbling his way along the aisle of the moving campaign bus.
''Trey,'' McCain said, ''is on a work-release program.''
During an appearance at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, McCain appeared at the podium, wearing a jacket ridiculously covered with fake ribbons and medals, and cracked:
''The question I ask myself every morning while shaving in front of the mirror is: OK, John, you're an incredible war hero, an inspiration to all Americans. But what qualifies you to be president of the United States?''
From staffers, McCain inspires a loyalty not often found in Washington. He treats them like extended family, always remembering a child's name or a sick relative. Some have been with McCain for more than a decade.
''It's fun to be around him,'' longtime aide Deb Gullett says. ''He cuts up all the time. If you screw up, you feel worse about it than he does.''
Some have snickered about aides combing McCain's hair and dusting off his suit jacket before television appearances. What they do not realize is that McCain cannot do it himself - his shoulders are too damaged.
For exercise, McCain walks. He's hiked nearly every trail in Arizona, from the well-known to the obscure. He often drags along his family and staff.
As with everything else, McCain is a relentless hiker. On a recent trip to Lake Powell, he led his party through a slot canyon where the water was almost over their heads.
Gullett jokingly dubbed it ''The McCain Death March'' and vowed not to return.
In all this hubbub, McCain's family, including wife Cindy, stays in the background. Cindy has no interest in politics. She has agreed to travel with McCain once or twice a month, but she'd clearly rather be at home raising her four children, ages 14, 13, 11 and 8.
''My job is at home,'' she says simply.
After a well-publicized bout with an addiction to painkillers in the early 1990s, Cindy no longer reads the newspaper. She keeps up with news by listening to the radio.
These days, Cindy and John go weeks without seeing each other. It's a sacrifice they've made to raise their children in Phoenix.
''There are times I wish he were there on that particular evening,''
Cindy said. ''But I wouldn't change our life in any way.''
''We used to try,'' said John Weaver, McCain's national political director. ''We'd say, 'Senator, we have to go,' and he would just look at us.''
The man who earned the nickname ''White Tornado'' in Congress belies his years by working a schedule that would bury men half his age. While campaigning, his days often last from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
''I think I can outwork any other candidate,'' McCain says.
And there is much work to do, he says.
The presidency is broken, and the White House is stained by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. McCain plans to fix it.
''I'm not running for president to be someone,'' McCain said recently. ''I'm running to do something. This is your country, my friends. And I'm running for president to give it back to you.''
McCain says his background makes him qualified to be president. He is the son and grandson of admirals. He flew Navy attack bombers in Vietnam. He spent close to six years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. He served two terms in the House of Representatives and was elected to his third Senate term last year.
He's not in awe of the top job.
''I'm obviously aware of the enormous responsibilities,'' he said. ''But I don't find it intimidating.''
Most Americans have yet to meet John McCain. With Texas Gov. George W. Bush leading the polls, the national press has been content to sketch McCain as a caricature:
Former prisoner of war. Crusader for reform and breath of fresh air in Washington. One of the Keating Five, but the media tone on that seems to be, who cares, really?
''Since McCain is not yet a threat, nobody is talking much about his
negatives,'' Woods said. ''Because of the Bush phenomenon, (McCain's)
avoided scrutiny. He'll stay under the radar just because we really
don't have a race.''
''I've been waiting 30 years to meet you,'' she says, and thrusts out her hand.
McCain looks down. The woman is holding a stainless steel POW bracelet, embossed with the lettering LCDR JOHN McCAIN III 10-26-67.
''I'm very touched,'' McCain says. ''Very touched.''
Judy Tilton says she started wearing McCain's bracelet when she was 7 years old. It was given to her by her father, a retired lieutenant colonel in the National Guard.
Tilton said she first noticed McCain when he was elected to the Senate.
''I thought, 'Wait a minute, I know him,' '' she said. ''Every time he came to New Hampshire, I thought, 'Maybe I'll meet him.' ''
When she saw a notice for the breakfast, Tilton decided it was time.
''It was terrific,'' she said. ''I've been waiting a long time.''
McCain knows that being a war hero is not enough to be elected president.But it doesn't hurt.
His military experience gives him a trump card over a generation of draft dodgers and National Guardsmen, those who avoided the war that stole much of McCain's youth.
After all, it was McCain who turned down an early release offered because his father was an admiral. McCain knew it was a propaganda ploy.
It was McCain who rotted in prison and was beaten to a pulp while Bill Clinton studied at Oxford and George W. Bush flew National Guard jets in Texas.
This gives McCain instant credibility on two key campaign issues, foreign policy and national defense, that make Bush and other non-combatant candidates a little queasy.
To tell his story, McCain doesn't need to drag out his medals, which include the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross and a fistful of others. His experiences were chronicled in a book, The Nightingale's Song, by Robert Timberg, as well as an A&E special that might have been titled John McCain: Hero or God? McCain just released his own book about his family and his Vietnam experience, Faith of My Fathers.
That book conveniently ends with his release from North Vietnam, skipping the less ennobling things that happened later.
His war story, and the bluntness of his personality that goes along with it, appeal to people.
Among them is his New Hampshire driver, Frank Cartier, a 28-year-old Manchester firefighter and Gulf War veteran whose unit led the 1st Marines into Kuwait City.
Cartier had always admired McCain and became his first volunteer in New Hampshire when he saw a blurb in the local paper. Cartier said McCain impressed him right off the bat.
Cartier said most candidates would just shake your hand and look to the next person. Not McCain.
''I was wearing my Marine tie clip,'' Cartier recalled. ''And he looked me right in the eye and said, 'Thank you for serving.'
''As a Marine, you get a sense of who you would want to lead you into battle. I would gladly take the hill for John McCain.''
This is the kind of impact McCain hopes to have, to bring younger voters back into the fold. As he campaigns, McCain often notes that the last election had the lowest voter turnout among 18- to 26-year-olds of any election in history.
''It is a shameful thing, my friends,'' McCain said, ''when young people say we are corrupt. But to a certain extent, they are correct.''
McCain also is attracting others into the fray, people who have never participated before. One is Rick Kamp, a 50-year-old marketing executive who hosted a meet-and-greet for McCain at his home in Concord, N.H.
Kamp rented a tent for the back yard and brought in a bartender and mountains of sandwiches for the guests, who would be tapped for donations before the end of the evening.
By the time things got started, it was raining in Concord. The crowd squeezed into Kamp's living room. As McCain spoke with a C-Span camera crew looking on, Kamp and his wife beamed.
''This is my maiden voyage in political activism,'' Kamp said.
Kamp, who sought out the McCain campaign on his own, said he wanted to support a candidate who is willing to take tough stands and fight for what he believes in.
''He's not the type who needs an overnight poll to tell him what to think or what to say on any given day,'' Kamp said. ''I like that.''
Despite the adulation, McCain says there is one thing he might change about his public persona: He doesn't want to be the ''POW Candidate.''
That may be strategy disguised as humility.
''I'm sure he doesn't want to be the POW candidate, but it's an integral part of his resume,'' said Jay Smith, who runs a public relations firm in Washington. ''It's something people respond to for positive reasons.
''You use what you can use.''
At every McCain rally, there are large posters of McCain as a young pilot, standing next to his bomber. In South Carolina, when McCain was introduced in stifling meeting halls, the speaker would note that ''John McCain spent five and a half years in a place much smaller and hotter than this.''
In his speeches, McCain spins stories about being a POW, though usually about other brave prisoners. He often notes that he was not a hero but served in the company of heroes.
''It doesn't take a lot of talent to get shot down,'' McCain is fond of saying. ''I was able to intercept a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane.''
When he talks of the war, or about another soldier's courage, it reminds people he is no phony.
In a speech before the state Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in New Hampshire, McCain recalled the tale of Mike Christian, a fellow POW who used red and white cloth to sew an American flag inside his prison uniform. Every night, the POWs hung up Christian's shirt and recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
One day, the North Vietnamese guards found the flag. They took Christian from the cell and beat him severely. When he was returned, his ribs were broken and his face badly bruised. The other POWs cleaned up Christian the best they could.
Later that night, as McCain struggled to sleep on the concrete slab that was his bed, he looked over into the corner of the room.
''There, beneath that dim light bulb, with a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and his bamboo needle, his eyes almost shut from the beating that he had received, was my dear friend Mike Christian, making another American flag.''