TOPICS > Politics

Throughout Military and Political Careers, McCain Tested by Adversity

September 24, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
Loading the player...
During his years of military service and in Congress, Sen. John McCain has faced many personally challenging moments. The GOP presidential nominee's closest advisers detail how McCain has dealt with difficult situations during his life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anyone familiar with the heroic story of how John McCain survived five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam knows he is not a quitter. Orson Swindle was in a nearby cell.

ORSON SWINDLE, Former Vietnam POW: John McCain was tested in prison. He was tested by getting shot down and almost dying, being abused and having the opportunity to say goodbye to all of the hardship and possible death and go home, and he said, “No, I’m not going to do that.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Friend and fellow Arizona Senator Jon Kyl says that when McCain finally was released, he made a point of turning to the future.

SEN. JON KYL (R), Arizona: You know, for a long time, he wouldn’t even talk about it — he certainly didn’t dwell on his experiences in Vietnam. He really wanted to put it behind him. And you saw him do that.

John deals with adversity in a way a little different than most people, and perhaps it’s because he’s been through so much. He shrugs it off.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After he entered politics, McCain faced a different form of adversity, growing out of his involvement in the late 1980s with a big campaign donor, savings and loan executive Charles Keating.

Federal investigators accused McCain and four other U.S. senators of improperly aiding Keating and his business. The scandal dominated the national headlines.

Dan Nowicki is a reporter for the Arizona Republic.

DAN NOWICKI, The Arizona Republic: It looked really bad. It was like here are — here are five senators — I think 1/20th of the United States Senate is called by this one guy to go intimidate regulators. I mean, they deny that they were trying to intimidate them, but that’s how it came out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the end, the Senate Ethics Committee accused McCain of exercising “poor judgment.” Longtime McCain staffer Mark Buse.

MARK BUSE, Chief of Staff, McCain Senate Office: It was a tough time, but, you know, he soldiered on. Every day, he showed up in the office every day. He didn’t disappear. Every day, he was there. Every day, he fought. Every day, he still did his business.

SEN. JON KYL: It was very difficult for John because, first of all, one of the primary attributes that he thinks is important, both in his life, as well as others, is the concept of honor. So when his honor or his integrity was called into question with the so-called Keating Five issue, it hurt him deeply.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After the scandal, McCain became a zealous proponent of campaign finance reform.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: We will pass campaign finance reform legislation and finally follow the American people’s will.

SEN. JON KYL: His efforts at campaign reform, and lobbying reform, and all of the other reforms that he’s instigated are partially to demonstrate that he believes in the kind of open and clean government that we all would like to see.

Campaign management fumbles

Sen. Lindsey Graham
We were running on the idea that we're inevitably going to win. From an operational point of view, we'd created an infrastructure we couldn't -- that wasn't sustainable, and it all came crashing down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There would be other setbacks for McCain, right up to the current presidential race. Last year, his campaign ran so badly aground, he almost had to drop out.

Campaign adviser and friend Senator Lindsey Graham blames what he calls mistaken priorities.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: We were running on the idea that we're inevitably going to win. From an operational point of view, we'd created an infrastructure we couldn't -- that wasn't sustainable, and it all came crashing down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the summer of 2007, McCain regrouped and slashed campaign staff up to the highest levels, including even the campaign manager, Terry Nelson.

TERRY NELSON, Former McCain Campaign Manager: My own perspective on it is we just kind of got to a point of, you know, there needed to be a change. I think it was a very tough thing. It was a very tough thing.

SEN. JON KYL: He kind of cinched up his belt. He fired a lot of people on the campaign. They didn't have any money left. He said, "Let's just try to focus on New Hampshire. Let's focus on the things that we know we can do. We'll stop spending money."

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the story of how and why McCain let his campaign collapse after being the chosen frontrunner brings his management abilities into question, particularly when the campaign is the biggest budget the senator has been personally responsible for.

DAN NOWICKI: I think he probably delegated too much authority to the campaign manager at the time. And, well, I think he was shocked when he realized he was almost out of money.

I mean, he is in charge of the campaign. It was his campaign. He probably should have been playing closer attention to some of those details.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has watched and worked with Senator McCain.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: I always thought that this was not a man who could run things very well. His office was filled with people who were deeply loyal to him, but there was a kind of chaos, which was great in the Senate office, but that you wondered about otherwise.

McCain's open organization style

Terry Nelson
Former McCain Manager
(McCain) manages a bit through the tension of the process rather than through placing trust in just one or two people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senate staffers describe McCain's open-door management differently, as someone who's willing to listen to all points of view.

MARK BUSE: He keeps the doors open on his office. His office isn't a shrine. It's not, you know, cordoned off.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Buse is the senator's chief of staff.

MARK BUSE: He's extremely open. He wants you just to talk and say what you think. He doesn't want you just to answer yes. He doesn't want you to say, "How high?" He wants you to push back. And it's what he does when there's an important issue before him.

He'll bring three, four or five people in, and he literally calls on you one by one. You know, "What do you think? What do you think? What do you think?"

And he has the staff engaged in the debate, and then he makes the decision. He always makes the final decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's a style that is very different from President Bush. Terry Nelson, who earlier worked on Bush's campaign, says the differences in how he and McCain manage are striking.

TERRY NELSON: It's not the Bush world where there's a very strict order and hierarchy in decision-making. He manages a bit through the tension of the process rather than through placing trust in just one or two people.

He wants people to be engaged, discussing -- I don't know that he wants conflict, but he definitely wants there to be a critical discussion about what's going on in the campaign.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It is not at all clear that John McCain's talents would employ themselves well in either structuring a White House staff or running the huge and sprawling federal bureaucracy.

Whether McCain could understand that what it takes to be a chief executive is a very different approach than what it takes to be a good senator is another of the question marks that we still have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The rollercoaster ride over the course of this year's presidential bid for the White House wasn't the first time McCain has faced campaign turmoil.

Eight years ago, in his first run for president, McCain came off a victory over George W. Bush in New Hampshire only to be crushed in South Carolina.

The contest was brutal and was marked by lies from rogue Bush supporters that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. McCain accused Bush of conducting a "character assassination."

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: His supporters have been calling me everything from a liar to a hypocrite and other things. I don't think that works in South Carolina. I don't think it works in America.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: He felt angry. He was disillusioned. President Bush ran a very good campaign to be a party leader. We ran movement campaign that did not connect.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I know what it's like to take a punch. And I'll tell you what: This has aroused every bit of the fighter pilot in me that I ever had, and I'm ready to go!

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: We've learned from that experience, and John doesn't look back in bitterness. We won South Carolina this time.

And you know what I had to say on behalf of John? Eight years ago, this was the death of John McCain. This is where it all happened.

Look what John's doing: He's helped President Bush in 2000, 2004. He's provided leadership on the war that allowed us to turn it around. He can take us in a new direction that we need to go.

Political evolution since 2000

Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee
... now we're seeing a different John McCain in 2008 presidential run, completely different, saying make the tax cuts permanent, drill, drill, drill, and appoint Supreme Court judges similar to Bush-Cheney, completely different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since 2000, McCain has evolved from a senator with a reputation mainly as a maverick and an outsider into a dealmaker, working with Democrats on the reform of immigration and campaign finance laws.

Senator Jon Kyl says that shows McCain's ability to bounce back from adversity.

SEN. JON KYL: I disagreed with him on McCain-Feingold legislation. He failed, and he failed, and he failed, and he kept trying, and he kept trying, and eventually it became law. And he has made this point over and over again about other things. He said, "I'll keep making this famous until we get it done."

JUDY WOODRUFF: But former Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee sees McCain's political evolution as troubling. Chafee was the only other Republican besides McCain who voted against President Bush's original tax cuts, a position Chafee says is one of many McCain has now reversed.

FORMER SEN. LINCOLN CHAFEE (R), Rhode Island: And now we're seeing a different John McCain in 2008 presidential run, completely different, saying make the tax cuts permanent, drill, drill, drill, and appoint Supreme Court judges similar to Bush-Cheney, completely different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another sort of change has been on display since the crisis in the financial markets hit recently. After years of generally repudiating government regulation, McCain last week endorsed more regulation.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: When AIG was bailed out, I didn't like it. But I understood it needed to be done to protect hard-working Americans with insurance policies and annuities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: McCain's supporters say what's important is that, in times of crisis, the senator will always return to his core principles.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: It goes back, I think, to who he is and the life he's lived, a sense of duty and understanding that, if you're going to be a senator, and you're going to be given this immense power and this opportunity, that you have to use it for the common good, and sometimes that means you put your interests second to what you think is best for the country and the party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whatever the crisis, McCain is trying to persuade voters that the philosophy that drives his approach is the one with which they can be comfortable.