John McCain: Scars and service

In his naval academy days, John 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.

Despite the hard knocks, the Republican nominee fights on

Republican presidential candidate John McCain speaks to a Florida press association's convention in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., June 5, 2008. (LM Otero/Associated Press)

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 — 71.

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.

'Flawed' men find redemption

"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 and insouciance 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.

John McCain, left, stands in military dress uniform next to his father in this undated photo. Born the son and grandson of Navy admirals, McCain was destined for a military career. despite having graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1958. (Associated Press)

McCain comes from a line of underperformers who became overachievers, and an even longer military lineage stretching back before the Revolution.

The first John McCain can be seen in photos of Japan's surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri in 1945. The vice-admiral commanded aircraft carrier task forces in the Pacific war. His son, John, commanded all U.S. forces in the Pacific in the Vietnam era, issuing directives that intensified bombing even as his son, the third John, was captive in the target zone.

The grandfather and father were heavy-drinking men. All three were academy laggards. "Three flawed individuals who found redemption through service to their country," McCain says.

The rootless McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone and attended some 20 schools before Annapolis, where he graduated fifth from the bottom of his class in 1958.

Years later he was accused at a candidate forum of being a carpetbagger by running for office in Arizona when he was from somewhere else. "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.

Captured at the 'Hanoi Hilton'

"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, hitting the bars and 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 he was a father.

In October of that year, age 31, McCain was on his 23rd bombing mission when a missile took off his right wing, sending his A-4 Skyhawk bomber spiraling. McCain ejected, losing consciousness until he found himself five metres deep in a Hanoi lake.

John McCain and his son, Jack, look into a cell at the Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed "The Hanoi Hilton" by American prisoners of war, during a visit to Vietnam in April 2000. McCain spent three years at the Hanoi Hilton as a PoW. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press)

His arms and a knee were broken; he pulled the inflating pins of his life jacket with his teeth. When he was brought ashore, a mob stabbed him with bayonets and took him to the prison that POWs dubbed Hanoi Hilton.

"No American reached Hoa Lo in worse physical condition than McCain," said John Hubbell, a Vietnam POW historian.

McCain's light hair would begin a quick march to premature white.

Once the North Vietnamese realized they had an admiral's son, they saw him as a propaganda tool worth exploiting and accorded him the medical treatment they had withheld. McCain would not cooperate with their plan.

When guards brought him a meal, he'd greet them with a torrent of profanity, his shrieking curses overheard by other prisoners.

Over more than five years in confinement, three of them in solitary, McCain tried suicide twice. He endured repeated beatings. In shared quarters, he put on skits with fellow prisoners. When held alone, he let movie and book plots slowly play through his head. Casablanca was one.

"I had to carefully guard against my fantasies becoming so consuming that they took me permanently to a place in my mind from which I might fail to return," he said.

His medical records report that he swore at the guards when they interrupted his reverie. "He was enjoying his fantasies so much," the papers say. "He strongly resented their coming around and bringing him back to reality by intruding."

As McCain said, there was nothing heroic about being unlucky enough to be hit with a missile. What made him a hero in the eyes of fellow prisoners was his refusal to accept early release until those who had been at Hoa Lo longer were let go.

Captors finally broke his will, enough for him to sign a confession in which he agreed to make the cartoonish statement: "I am a black criminal and I have performed deeds of an air pirate."

"I couldn't control my despair," he wrote later. "I shook, as if my disgrace were a fever. "All my pride was lost, and I doubted I would ever stand up to any man again. Nothing could save me."

Released under the Paris Peace Accords 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 that he didn't hear about until he was back on U.S. soil. His son hurt himself playing soccer.

Second career, second chance

"In Washington, I work with boobs every day."

McCain had a policy wonk side to him as a young man; it wasn't all hijinks. His brother Joe recalled endless dinner-table discussions about history, politics and legislation led by their feisty mother, Roberta, now 96 and an occasional traveller on her son's 2008 campaign.

"We were all basically on the same side of the fence," Joe McCain said, "but it was like Talmudic scholars arguing about a single word or an adjective in the Testament."

McCain learned the ways of Washington as the Navy's liaison to the Senate in the 1970s, staying with the service until 1981. His marriage fell apart, the consequence of his philandering.

He blamed his "selfishness and immaturity."

This is a man who has survived two plane crashes into the drink, torture, a deadly explosion aboard an aircraft carrier, a Senate scandal and skin cancer. In yet another stroke of luck, his wife let him go without wringing his neck. She has supported his career ever since.

She said merely that her husband, turning 40, apparently wanted to be 25 again.

A month after divorcing Carol, he married Cindy Hensley, daughter of a Phoenix beer magnate, moved to Arizona and soon plunged into politics, winning a House seat in 1982.

An honour that would have been unimaginable back at Annapolis came to him now: He was elected president of the freshman GOP class. Even while building a reliably conservative voting record, McCain took an early step on the road that would make him an iconoclast in Republican ranks.

Sen. John McCain listens to testimony during a committee hearing on Iraq in Washington in January 2007. After retiring from the Navy in 1981, McCain was elected to a seat in the House of Representatives a year later. He was elected as a U.S. senator for Arizona in 1986. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

He spoke out and voted against a resolution authorizing President Reagan to keep Marines in Lebanon for 18 more months. Then terrorists bombed the Marine barracks in a deadly assault that prompted Reagan to end the peacekeeping mission.

After two House terms that made him a standout in tight circles if a star in none, he rolled over a Democratic opponent to win his Senate seat.

McCain's reputation for being tight with taxpayers' money grew. Watchdogs showered him with awards for fighting waste. Defence contractors resented his scrutiny, lawmakers saw long-established procedures for bringing home pork challenged or uprooted, and many saw a withering temper that McCain says gets the better of him when he's tired.

McCain reached beyond waste to take on the system of campaign financing, an issue that joined him with like-minded Democrats and split him 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. McCain was a friend of Keating and had occasionally borrowed his Caribbean vacation home.

The Senate Ethics Committee went lightly on McCain, citing him for "poor judgment" but recommending no further action. McCain later returned $112,000 in campaign loans he received from Keating.

The episode "will probably be on my tombstone," McCain said.

Phil Gramm, a friend of McCain who battled with him over campaign finance reform and tobacco taxes when he was a Texas senator, said the Keating scandal was in some ways harder on McCain than his treatment by Hanoi guards, because "nobody questioned his credibility in Vietnam."

Through all such tribulations, he's kept his wit about him.

He performed a cameo as himself two years ago in the R-rated comedy Wedding Crashers, which one wag called a "boob raunch fest." Too undignified for a senator and presidential hopeful?

"In Washington, I work with boobs every day," McCain said. He observed that the capital has many qualities, but "a sense of humour is not one of them."

Presidential bid derailed in 2000

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

McCain dropped the somber weight of that line into an occasion meant for balloons, the announcement of his first presidential campaign. This is one reason he frustrates his advisers. But it helps explain why his "Straight Talk Express" got traction in 2000.

John McCain addresses a town hall meeting of voters in Ft Mill, S.C., in February 2000. A defeat in the South Carolina primary effectively ended McCain's 2000 presidential bid. (Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)

McCain set out to upend the conventions of a campaign, to take chances where others would let caution and scripts guide them. That was his nature but also his political reality in taking on the Bush juggernaut. "We really didn't have any other choice," he said.

Largely bypassing Iowa, where his opposition to ethanol subsidies dampened his chances anyway, McCain found his sweet spot in New Hampshire, swamping George W. Bush by almost 20 percentage points.

Then into the maw of the take-no-prisoners South Carolina contest. The Bush team opened a frontal assault. Operatives sympathetic to Bush spread innuendo from phone banks. A schism opened with religious conservative leaders that still has not closed. McCain hung on after his defeat in that state, but Super Tuesday primaries sapped what life was left in his campaign.

McCain walks around with guilt about certain events in his life. Among them are his confession in Vietnam, his decades-long iciness with a fellow PoW who devoted himself to McCain's recovery behind bars but then accepted early release ahead of others, his betrayal of his first wife and his part in the Keating scandal.

The South Carolina campaign produced another such moment. He says he put political expedience ahead of straight-talking truth when he went squishy in the debate over the Confederate flag — at first siding with opponents of the flag, then catering to its supporters.

"I had not been just dishonest. 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. All my heroes, fictional and real, would have been ashamed of me."

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

'No Surrender' pays off with nomination

"I'm older than dirt, more scars than Frankenstein, but I learned a few things along the way."

In 2004, when the Associated Press asked candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination to name their favourite Republican, John Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman all said McCain. The conservative Republican has had an odd attraction for Democrats, who practically sanctified him in some of their speeches.

It was a testament to his genuine friendships and alliances. He and fellow Vietnam veteran Kerry, for example, made common cause on postwar Vietnam matters and buried animosities from Kerry's days as a prominent war protester. But praising McCain was also an indirect way to tweak Bush.

The Arizona senator was an early and cutting 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.

He had entered the race competing against the high expectations set for him, and having to answer the question of whether he might be too old to be president — he would be 72 on his first day in office.

In a calamitous spring and summer of 2007, his campaign all but flew apart, his fundraising and poll standings lagging against ascendant rivals, his staff peeling away.

McCain's autumn "No Surrender" tour stood not only for the course in Iraq but his own future in the race. It paid off. After a fourth place showing in the Iowa primary, he made a breakthrough, again, in New Hampshire.

But unlike 2000, McCain won in South Carolina. He carried the monentum into a Super Tuesday that effectively clinched the Republican nomination.

Flyboy rides high again

One 2007 morning he came into the Associated Press offices for an hourlong interview, showing up early and alone, talking for an hour without the cushion of an aide in the room, delving into minutiae of foreign affairs and domestic policy, cracking self-deprecating jokes. He couldn't remember when he'd taken a day off.

When he left, he supposed a car might be waiting for him downstairs.

The old war and torture wounds, aggravated now by arthritis, give him a slight limp and he cannot raise either arm above his head. He's had three episodes of melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer, and carries a scar on his left cheek from that.

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 nothing more than red tape. He itched to take off. "Kick the tires and light the fires," he would say.