John McCain: A ‘Maverick,’ Revisited – Rolling Stone
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A ‘Maverick,’ Revisited

Tim Dickinson’s 2008 profile of then-presidential nominee John McCain offers a revealing portrait of the man who took on Obama.

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"[John McCain] was a huge screw-off," recalls Phil Butler. "He was always on probation. The only reason he graduated was because of his father and his grandfather — they couldn't exactly get rid of him."

Joey Foley/FilmMagic

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.”

McCAIN FIRST

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.”

THE NAVY BRAT

John Sidney McCain III has spent most of his life trying to escape the shadow of greater men. His grandfather Adm. John Sidney “Slew” McCain earned his four stars commanding a U.S. carrier force in World War II. His deeply ambitious father, Adm. “Junior” McCain, reached the same rank, commanding America’s forces in the Pacific during Vietnam.

The youngest McCain was not cut from the same cloth. Even as a toddler, McCain recalls in Faith of My Fathers, his volcanic temper was on display. “At the smallest provocation,” he would hold his breath until he passed out: “I would go off in a mad frenzy, and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious.” His parents cured him of this habit in a way only a CIA interrogator could appreciate: by dropping their blue-faced boy in a bathtub of ice-cold water.

Trailing his hard-charging, hard-drinking father from post to post, McCain didn’t play well with others. Indeed, he concedes, his runty physique inspired a Napoleon complex: “My small stature motivated me to . . . fight the first kid who provoked me.”

McCain spent his formative years among the Washington elite. His father — himself deep in the throes of a daddy complex — had secured a political post as the Navy’s chief liaison to the Senate, a job his son would later hold, and the McCain home on Southeast 1st Street was a high-powered pit stop in the Washington cocktail circuit. Growing up, McCain attended Episcopal High School, an all-white, all-boys boarding school across the Potomac in Virginia, where tuition today tops $40,000 a year. There, McCain behaved with all the petulance his privilege allowed, earning the nicknames “Punk” and “McNasty.” Even his friends seemed to dislike him, with one recalling him as “a mean little fucker.”

McCain was not only a lousy student, he had his father’s taste for drink and a darkly misogynistic streak. The summer after his sophomore year, cruising with a friend near Arlington, McCain tried to pick up a pair of young women. When they laughed at him, he cursed them so vilely that he was hauled into court on a profanity charge.

McCain’s admittance to Annapolis was preordained by his bloodline. But martial discipline did not seem to have much of an impact on his character. By his own account, McCain was a lazy, incurious student; he squeaked by only by prevailing upon his buddies to help him cram for exams. He continued to get sauced and treat girls badly. Before meeting a girlfriend’s parents for the first time, McCain got so shitfaced that he literally crashed through the screen door when he showed up in his white midshipman’s uniform.

His grandfather’s name and his father’s forbearance brought McCain a charmed existence at Annapolis. On his first trip at sea — to Rio de Janeiro aboard the USS Hunt — the captain was a former student of his father. While McCain’s classmates learned the ins and outs of the boiler room, McCain got to pilot the ship to South America and back. In Rio, he hobnobbed with admirals and the president of Brazil.

Back on campus, McCain’s short fuse was legend. “We’d hear this thunderous screaming and yelling between him and his roommate — doors slamming — and one of them would go running down the hall,” recalls Phil Butler, who lived across the hall from McCain at the academy. “It was a regular occurrence.”

When McCain was not shown the pampering to which he was accustomed, he grew petulant — even abusive. He repeatedly blew up in the face of his commanding officer. It was the kind of insubordination that would have gotten any other midshipman kicked out of Annapolis. But his classmates soon realized that McCain was untouchable. Midway though his final year, McCain faced expulsion, about to “bilge out” because of excessive demerits. After his mother intervened, however, the academy’s commandant stepped in. Calling McCain “spoiled” to his face, he nonetheless issued a reprieve, scaling back the demerits. McCain dodged expulsion a second time by convincing another midshipman to take the fall after McCain was caught with contraband.

“He was a huge screw-off,” recalls Butler. “He was always on probation. The only reason he graduated was because of his father and his grandfather — they couldn’t exactly get rid of him.”

McCain’s self-described “four-year course of insubordination” ended with him graduating fifth from the bottom — 894th out of a class of 899. It was a record of mediocrity he would continue as a pilot.

BOTTOM GUN

In the cockpit, McCain was not a top gun, or even a middling gun. He took little interest in his flight manuals; he had other priorities.

“I enjoyed the off-duty life of a Navy flier more than I enjoyed the actual flying,” McCain writes. “I drove a Corvette, dated a lot, spent all my free hours at bars and beach parties.” McCain chased a lot of tail. He hit the dog track. Developed a taste for poker and dice. He picked up models when he could, screwed a stripper when he couldn’t.

In the air, the hard-partying McCain had a knack for stalling out his planes in midflight. He was still in training, in Texas, when he crashed his first plane into Corpus Christi Bay during a routine practice landing. The plane stalled, and McCain was knocked cold on impact. When he came to, the plane was underwater, and he had to swim to the surface to be rescued. Some might take such a near-death experience as a wake-up call: McCain took some painkillers and a nap, and then went out carousing that night.

Off duty on his Mediterranean tours, McCain frequented the casinos of Monte Carlo, cultivating his taste for what he calls the “addictive” game of craps. McCain’s thrill-seeking carried over into his day job. Flying over the south of Spain one day, he decided to deviate from his flight plan. Rocketing along mere feet above the ground, his plane sliced through a power line. His self-described “daredevil clowning” plunged much of the area into a blackout.

That should have been the end of McCain’s flying career. “In the Navy, if you crashed one airplane, nine times out of 10 you would lose your wings,” says Butler, who, like his former classmate, was shot down and taken prisoner in North Vietnam. Spark “a small international incident” like McCain had? Any other pilot would have “found themselves as the deck officer on a destroyer someplace in a hurry,” says Butler.

“But, God, he had family pull. He was directly related to the CEO — you know?”

McCain was undeterred by the crashes. Nearly a decade out of the academy, his career adrift, he decided he wanted to fly combat in Vietnam. His motivation wasn’t to contain communism or put his country first. It was the only way he could think of to earn the respect of the man he calls his “distant, inscrutable patriarch.” He needed to secure a command post in the Navy — and to do that, his career needed the jump-start that only a creditable war record could provide.

As he would so many times in his career, McCain pulled strings to get ahead. After a game of tennis, McCain prevailed upon the undersecretary of the Navy that he was ready for Vietnam, despite his abysmal flight record. Sure enough, McCain was soon transferred to McCain Field — an air base in Meridian, Mississippi, named after his grandfather — to train for a post on the carrier USS Forrestal.

With a close friend at the base, an alcoholic Marine captain, McCain formed the “Key Fess Yacht Club,” which quickly became infamous for hosting toga parties in the officers’ quarters and bringing bands down from Memphis to attract loose women to the base. Showing his usual knack for promotion, McCain rose from “vice commodore” to “commodore” of the club.

In 1964, while still at the base, McCain began a serious romance with Carol Shepp, a vivacious former model who had just divorced one of his classmates from Annapolis. Commandeering a Navy plane, McCain spent most weekends flying from Meridian to Philadelphia for their dates. They married the following summer.

That December, McCain crashed again. Flying back from Philadelphia, where he had joined in the reverie of the Army-Navy football game, McCain stalled while coming in for a refueling stop in Norfolk, Virginia. This time he managed to bail out at 1,000 feet. As his parachute deployed, his plane thundered into the trees below.

By now, however, McCain’s flying privileges were virtually irrevocable — and he knew it. On one of his runs at McCain Field, when ground control put him in a holding pattern, the lieutenant commander once again pulled his family’s rank. “Let me land,” McCain demanded over his radio, “or I’ll take my field and go home!”

TRIAL BY FIRE

Sometimes 3 a.m. moments occur at 10:52 in the morning.

It was July 29th, 1967, a hot, gusty morning in the Gulf of Tonkin atop the four-acre flight deck of the supercarrier USS Forrestal. Perched in the cockpit of his A-4 Skyhawk, Lt. Cmdr. John McCain ticked nervously through his preflight checklist.

Now 30 years old, McCain was trying to live up to his father’s expectations, to finally be known as something other than the fuck-up grandson of one of the Navy’s greatest admirals. That morning, preparing for his sixth bombing run over North Vietnam, the graying pilot’s dreams of combat glory were beginning to seem within his reach.

Then, in an instant, the world around McCain erupted in flames. A six-foot-long Zuni rocket, inexplicably launched by an F-4 Phantom across the flight deck, ripped through the fuel tank of McCain’s aircraft. Hundreds of gallons of fuel splashed onto the deck and came ablaze. Then: Clank. Clank. Two 1,000-pound bombs dropped from under the belly of McCain’s stubby A-4, the Navy’s “Tinkertoy Bomber,” into the fire.

McCain, who knew more than most pilots about bailing out of a crippled aircraft, leapt forward out of the cockpit, swung himself down from the refueling probe protruding from the nose cone, rolled through the flames and ran to safety across the flight deck. Just then, one of his bombs “cooked off,” blowing a crater in the deck and incinerating the sailors who had rushed past McCain with hoses and fire extinguishers. McCain was stung by tiny bits of shrapnel in his legs and chest, but the wounds weren’t serious; his father would later report to friends that Johnny “came through without a scratch.”

The damage to the Forrestal was far more grievous: The explosion set off a chain reaction of bombs, creating a devastating inferno that would kill 134 of the carrier’s 5,000-man crew, injure 161 and threaten to sink the ship.

These are the moments that test men’s mettle. Where leaders are born. Leaders like . . . Lt. Cmdr. Herb Hope, pilot of the A-4 three planes down from McCain’s. Cornered by flames at the stern of the carrier, Hope hurled himself off the flight deck into a safety net and clambered into the hangar deck below, where the fire was spreading. According to an official Navy history of the fire, Hope then “gallantly took command of a firefighting team” that would help contain the conflagration and ultimately save the ship.

McCain displayed little of Hope’s valor. Although he would soon regale The New York Times with tales of the heroism of the brave enlisted men who “stayed to help the pilots fight the fire,” McCain took no part in dousing the flames himself. After going belowdecks and briefly helping sailors who were frantically trying to unload bombs from an elevator to the flight deck, McCain retreated to the safety of the “ready room,” where off-duty pilots spent their noncombat hours talking trash and playing poker. There, McCain watched the conflagration unfold on the room’s closed-circuit television — bearing distant witness to the valiant self-sacrifice of others who died trying to save the ship, pushing jets into the sea to keep their bombs from exploding on deck.

As the ship burned, McCain took a moment to mourn his misfortune; his combat career appeared to be going up in smoke. “This distressed me considerably,” he recalls in Faith of My Fathers. “I feared my ambitions were among the casualties in the calamity that had claimed the Forrestal.”

The fire blazed late into the night. The following morning, while oxygen-masked rescue workers toiled to recover bodies from the lower decks, McCain was making fast friends with R.W. “Johnny” Apple of The New York Times, who had arrived by helicopter to cover the deadliest Naval calamity since the Second World War. The son of admiralty surviving a near-death experience certainly made for good copy, and McCain colorfully recounted how he had saved his skin. But when Apple and other reporters left the ship, the story took an even stranger turn: McCain left with them. As the heroic crew of the Forrestal mourned its fallen brothers and the broken ship limped toward the Philippines for repairs, McCain zipped off to Saigon for what he recalls as “some welcome R&R.”

VIOLATING THE CODE

Ensconced in Apple’s villa in Saigon, McCain and the Times reporter forged a relationship that would prove critical to the ambitious pilot’s career in the years ahead. Apple effectively became the charter member of McCain’s media “base,” an elite corps of admiring reporters who helped create his reputation for “straight talk.”

Sipping scotch and reflecting on the fire aboard the Forrestal, McCain sounded like the peaceniks he would pillory after his return from Hanoi. “Now that I’ve seen what the bombs and napalm did to the people on our ship,” he told Apple, “I’m not so sure that I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam.” Here, it seemed, was a frank-talking warrior, one willing to speak out against the military establishment in the name of truth.

But McCain’s misgivings about the righteousness of the fight quickly took a back seat to his ambitions. Within days, eager to get his combat career back on track, he put in for a transfer to the carrier USS Oriskany. Two months after the Forrestal fire — following a holiday on the French Riviera — McCain reported for duty in the Gulf of Tonkin.

McCain performed adequately on the Oriskany. On October 25th, 1967, he bombed a pair of Soviet MiGs parked on an airfield outside Hanoi. His record was now even. Enemy planes destroyed by McCain: two. American planes destroyed by McCain: two.

The next day, McCain embarked on his fateful 23rd mission, a bombing raid on a power plant in downtown Hanoi. McCain had cajoled his way onto the strike force — there were medals up for grabs. The plant had recently been rebuilt after a previous bombing run that had earned two of the lead pilots Navy Crosses, one of the force’s top honors.

It was a dangerous mission — taking the planes into the teeth of North Vietnam’s fiercest anti-aircraft defenses. As the planes entered Hanoi airspace, they were instantly enveloped in dark clouds of flak and surface-to-air missiles. Still cocky from the previous day’s kills, McCain took the biggest gamble of his life. As he dived in on the target in his A-4, his surface-to-air missile warning system sounded: A SAM had a lock on him. “I knew I should roll out and fly evasive maneuvers,” McCain writes. “The A-4 is a small, fast” aircraft that “can outmaneuver a tracking SAM.”

But McCain didn’t “jink.” Instead, he stayed on target and let fly his bombs — just as the SAM blew his wing off.

To watch the Republican National Convention and listen to Fred Thompson’s account of John McCain’s internment in Vietnam, you would think that McCain never gave his captors anything beyond his name, rank, service number and, under duress, the names of the Green Bay Packers offensive line. His time in Hanoi, we’re to understand, steeled the man — transforming him from a fighter jock who put himself first into a patriot who would henceforth selflessly serve the public good.

There is no question that McCain suffered hideously in North Vietnam. His ejection over a lake in downtown Hanoi broke his knee and both his arms. During his capture, he was bayoneted in the ankle and the groin, and had his shoulder smashed by a rifle butt. His tormentors dragged McCain’s broken body to a cell and seemed content to let him expire from his injuries. For the next two years, there were few days that he was not in agony.

But the subsequent tale of McCain’s mistreatment — and the transformation it is alleged to have produced — are both deeply flawed. The Code of Conduct that governed POWs was incredibly rigid; few soldiers lived up to its dictate that they “give no information . . . which might be harmful to my comrades.” Under the code, POWs are bound to give only their name, rank, date of birth and service number — and to make no “statements disloyal to my country.”

Soon after McCain hit the ground in Hanoi, the code went out the window. “I’ll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital,” he later admitted pleading with his captors. McCain now insists the offer was a bluff, designed to fool the enemy into giving him medical treatment. In fact, his wounds were attended to only after the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was a Navy admiral. What has never been disclosed is the manner in which they found out: McCain told them. According to Dramesi, one of the few POWs who remained silent under years of torture, McCain tried to justify his behavior while they were still prisoners. “I had to tell them,” he insisted to Dramesi, “or I would have died in bed.”

Dramesi says he has no desire to dishonor McCain’s service, but he believes that celebrating the downed pilot’s behavior as heroic — “he wasn’t exceptional one way or the other” — has a corrosive effect on military discipline. “This business of my country before my life?” Dramesi says. “Well, he had that opportunity and failed miserably. If it really were country first, John McCain would probably be walking around without one or two arms or legs — or he’d be dead.”

Once the Vietnamese realized they had captured the man they called the “crown prince,” they had every motivation to keep McCain alive. His value as a propaganda tool and bargaining chip was far greater than any military intelligence he could provide, and McCain knew it. “It was hard not to see how pleased the Vietnamese were to have captured an admiral’s son,” he writes, “and I knew that my father’s identity was directly related to my survival.”

But during the course of his medical treatment, McCain followed through on his offer of military information. Only two weeks after his capture, the North Vietnamese press issued a report — picked up by The New York Times — in which McCain was quoted as saying that the war was “moving to the advantage of North Vietnam and the United States appears to be isolated.” He also provided the name of his ship, the number of raids he had flown, his squadron number and the target of his final raid.

THE CONFESSION

In the company of his fellow POWs, and later in isolation, McCain slowly and miserably recovered from his wounds. In June 1968, after three months in solitary, he was offered what he calls early release. In the official McCain na