At Fort McNair, an army base located along the Potomac River in the nation’s capital, a chance reunion takes place one day between two former POWs. It’s the spring of 1974, and Navy commander John Sidney McCain III has returned home from the experience in Hanoi that, according to legend, transformed him from a callow and reckless youth into a serious man of patriotism and purpose. Walking along the grounds at Fort McNair, McCain runs into John Dramesi, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who was also imprisoned and tortured in Vietnam.
McCain is studying at the National War College, a prestigious graduate program he had to pull strings with the Secretary of the Navy to get into. Dramesi is enrolled, on his own merit, at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in the building next door.
There’s a distance between the two men that belies their shared experience in North Vietnam — call it an honor gap. Like many American POWs, McCain broke down under torture and offered a “confession” to his North Vietnamese captors. Dramesi, in contrast, attempted two daring escapes. For the second he was brutalized for a month with daily torture sessions that nearly killed him. His partner in the escape, Lt. Col. Ed Atterberry, didn’t survive the mistreatment. But Dramesi never said a disloyal word, and for his heroism was awarded two Air Force Crosses, one of the service’s highest distinctions. McCain would later hail him as “one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met.”
On the grounds between the two brick colleges, the chitchat between the scion of four-star admirals and the son of a prizefighter turns to their academic travels; both colleges sponsor a trip abroad for young officers to network with military and political leaders in a distant corner of the globe.
“I’m going to the Middle East,” Dramesi says. “Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon, Iran.”
“Why are you going to the Middle East?” McCain asks, dismissively.
“It’s a place we’re probably going to have some problems,” Dramesi says.
“Why? Where are you going to, John?”
“Oh, I’m going to Rio.”
“What the hell are you going to Rio for?”
McCain, a married father of three, shrugs.
“I got a better chance of getting laid.”
Dramesi, who went on to serve as chief war planner for U.S. Air Forces in Europe and commander of a wing of the Strategic Air Command, was not surprised. “McCain says his life changed while he was in Vietnam, and he is now a different man,” Dramesi says today. “But he’s still the undisciplined, spoiled brat that he was when he went in.”
This is the story of the real John McCain, the one who has been hiding in plain sight. It is the story of a man who has consistently put his own advancement above all else, a man willing to say and do anything to achieve his ultimate ambition: to become commander in chief, ascending to the one position that would finally enable him to outrank his four-star father and grandfather.
In its broad strokes, McCain’s life story is oddly similar to that of the current occupant of the White House. John Sidney McCain III and George Walker Bush both represent the third generation of American dynasties. Both were born into positions of privilege against which they rebelled into mediocrity. Both developed an uncanny social intelligence that allowed them to skate by with a minimum of mental exertion. Both struggled with booze and loutish behavior. At each step, with the aid of their fathers’ powerful friends, both failed upward. And both shed their skins as Episcopalian members of the Washington elite to build political careers as self-styled, ranch-inhabiting Westerners who pray to Jesus in their wives’ evangelical churches.
In one vital respect, however, the comparison is deeply unfair to the current president: George W. Bush was a much better pilot.
This, of course, is not the story McCain tells about himself. Few politicians have so actively, or successfully, crafted their own myth of greatness. In McCain’s version of his life, he is a prodigal son who, steeled by his brutal internment in Vietnam, learned to put “country first.” Remade by the Keating Five scandal that nearly wrecked his career, the story goes, McCain re-emerged as a “reformer” and a “maverick,” righteously eschewing anything that “might even tangentially be construed as a less than proper use of my office.”
It’s a myth McCain has cultivated throughout his decades in Washington. But during the course of this year’s campaign, the mask has slipped. “Let’s face it,” says Larry Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. “John McCain made his reputation on the fact that he doesn’t bend his principles for politics. That’s just not true.”
We have now watched McCain run twice for president. The first time he positioned himself as a principled centrist and decried the politics of Karl Rove and the influence of the religious right, imploring voters to judge candidates “by the example we set, by the way we conduct our campaigns, by the way we personally practice politics.” After he lost in 2000, he jagged hard to the left — breaking with the president over taxes, drilling, judicial appointments, even flirting with joining the Democratic Party.
In his current campaign, however, McCain has become the kind of politician he ran against in 2000. He has embraced those he once denounced as “agents of intolerance,” promised more drilling and deeper tax cuts, even compromised his vaunted opposition to torture. Intent on winning the presidency at all costs, he has reassembled the very team that so viciously smeared him and his family eight years ago, selecting as his running mate a born-again moose hunter whose only qualification for office is her ability to electrify Rove’s base. And he has engaged in a “practice of politics” so deceptive that even Rove himself has denounced it, saying that the outright lies in McCain’s campaign ads go “too far” and fail the “truth test.”
The missing piece of this puzzle, says a former McCain confidant who has fallen out with the senator over his neoconservatism, is a third, never realized, campaign that McCain intended to run against Bush in 2004. “McCain wanted a rematch, based on ethics, campaign finance and Enron — the corrupt relationship between Bush’s team and the corporate sector,” says the former friend, a prominent conservative thinker with whom McCain shared his plans over the course of several dinners in 2001. “But when 9/11 happened, McCain saw his chance to challenge Bush again was robbed. He saw 9/11 gave Bush and his failed presidency a second life. He saw Bush and Cheney’s ability to draw stark contrasts between black and white, villains and good guys. And that’s why McCain changed.” (The McCain campaign did not respond to numerous requests for comment from Rolling Stone.)
Indeed, many leading Republicans who once admired McCain see his recent contortions to appease the GOP base as the undoing of a maverick. “John McCain’s ambition overrode his basic character,” says Rita Hauser, who served on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 2001 to 2004. But the truth of the matter is that ambition is John McCain’s basic character. Seen in the sweep of his seven-decade personal history, his pandering to the right is consistent with the only constant in his life: doing what’s best for himself. To put the matter squarely: John McCain is his own special interest.
“John has made a pact with the devil,” says Lincoln Chafee, the former GOP senator, who has been appalled at his one-time colleague’s readiness to sacrifice principle for power. Chafee and McCain were the only Republicans to vote against the Bush tax cuts. They locked arms in opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And they worked together in the “Gang of 14,” which blocked some of Bush’s worst judges from the federal bench.
“On all three — sadly, sadly, sadly — McCain has flip-flopped,” Chafee says. And forget all the “Country First” sloganeering, he adds. “McCain is putting himself first. He’s putting himself first in blinking neon lights.”