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Military Service, Political Ambitions Shaped McCain’s Career

September 4, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Sen. John McCain's acceptance of the Republican nomination marks the culmination of a long political career -- one full of both successes and bitter disappointments. Jeffrey Brown profiles McCain's path to the GOP nod.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, who is John McCain? And how did he get here?

Remember, last week at the Democratic convention in Denver, we reported on Barack Obama’s early years in Chicago. Well, tonight, Jeffrey Brown reports on a defining part of John McCain’s life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sept. 2, 1945, the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri is witnessed by Admiral John “Slew” McCain, here on the right. His son — also named John, but known as Jack — was a submarine commander in the war and would himself become an admiral and commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific for part of the Vietnam War.

If there was one sure thing in the life of John Sidney McCain III, it’s that he would pass through here: the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. This was the family heritage, and McCain’s military experience would help define the candidate we see today.

At first, though, young John McCain had other ideas.

ROBERT TIMBERG, Editor, “Proceedings”: He did not want to go to the Naval Academy. He wanted to go to some place like Princeton that had, among other things, lots of opportunities to meet young ladies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Journalist Robert Timberg is a Naval Academy graduate and Marine combat veteran of Vietnam. He now edits “Proceedings,” the U.S. Naval Institute’s magazine, and is a McCain biographer.

ROBERT TIMBERG: Ultimately, he accepted it. I mean, he lived in an ether of honor, and patriotism, and naval service.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a midshipman, McCain at times seemed to do his best to get thrown out of the academy. He developed a healthy reputation for mischief and graduated fifth from the bottom of his class.

ROBERT TIMBERG: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Jeffrey, when you drove in here, but there is a wall around this place. And, you know, you really weren’t in those days allowed to do much of anything at night unless you went over the wall. And John McCain did go over the wall.

A seminal moment in McCain's life

Orson Swindle
Former P.O.W.
He just instinctively says, "No, I'm not doing that. I'll go home in the order of shoot-down. Guys have been here two or three years longer than me. I'll go home after them."

JEFFREY BROWN: So at this point, immature, rebelling, not a serious young man? How do you define him?

ROBERT TIMBERG: All three. But interestingly -- and as many of his classmates will tell you -- he was, without question, a leader here at the academy. He was just not the standard type of leader.

I mean, he was -- he was like the kid in the schoolyard that you just follow, you know, who has this kind of magnetism, this charisma.

JEFFREY BROWN: McCain earned his wings as a naval aviator, and after several postings, shipped to Southeast Asia and into the Vietnam War. He was nearly killed in a tragic accident and fire aboard the Carrier Forrestal that took the lives of 134 sailors.

In October 1967, McCain was shot down on a mission over Hanoi and plucked from the water by Vietnamese villagers. He would be a prisoner for more than five years.

McCain was severely injured when he arrived at the infamous prison known as the Hanoi Hilton. The Vietnamese quickly found out that he was Admiral McCain's son. His captors dubbed him "the crown prince."

Orson Swindle, a Marine Corps pilot, was imprisoned with McCain later in their captivity.

ORSON SWINDLE, Former POW: He is badly injured, near death, and he is offered the opportunity to be released, once the Vietnamese realized who he was.

Major propaganda coup if they can turn this guy and he goes home, gets special treatment and so forth. He just instinctively says, "No, I'm not doing that. I'll go home in the order of shoot-down. Guys have been here two or three years longer than me. I'll go home after them."

That was a seminal moment in his life, I think, and it brought all of those qualities -- the honor, the sense of duty and commitment, and loyalty, and integrity -- all of those things were put in a crucible of adversity characterized by that severe injuries and that opportunity to live, literally, the opportunity to live. And he said, "No, I'll stay."

JEFFREY BROWN: McCain was tortured and held in solitary confinement during parts of his imprisonment. He was released in 1973 and, Timberg says, came away a more serious, purposeful man.

Discussing imprisonment

William Cohen
Former Secretary of Defense
From the time that I first met him, he was always optimistic, always forward-looking, not dwelling on himself.

ROBERT TIMBERG: But the other fascinating thing about when he left prison, as I'm sure you've talked to enough Vietnam veterans to know, you know, they have this anger, this sense of betrayal. Sen. McCain never showed that. And I think he figured out a way to deal with it. He was going to move beyond it.

JEFFREY BROWN: McCain was elected to the House from Arizona in 1982 and the Senate four years later.

WILLIAM COHEN, Former Secretary of Defense: From the time that I first met him, he was always optimistic, always forward-looking, not dwelling on himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Former senator and defense secretary William Cohen became and remains a good friend. Close as they are, though, Cohen says McCain never liked to talk about his prison experience.

WILLIAM COHEN: I sat down with him at dinner one night. I said, "We haven't talked about this. It's been years now. I need to have you tell me what it was like."

And then, for the first time, he told me about some of the characters in the prison, and what they did to him, and the manner in which they inflicted pain and suffering on him.

JEFFREY BROWN: During this campaign, McCain's service has been a prominent feature in his pitch to voters. And he's seemed more willing to refer to his imprisonment, as recently when Jay Leno jokingly asked him about not knowing how many homes he and wife, Cindy, own.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Could I just mention to you, Jay, that in a moment of seriousness, I spent five-and-a-half years in a prison cell without -- I didn't have a house.

ROBERT TIMBERG: When you're running for president, you've got to tell people about your life, and that's a big part of his life. Now, is he overdoing it? I don't know. I don't know. I know some people feel that he is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Phillip Butler is one of those.

PHILLIP BUTLER, Former POW: I think John has accepted it readily and his ambition has overtaken so that he personally is using it at every opportunity now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Butler was a naval aviator who knew McCain well at the academy and was himself imprisoned in Vietnam for eight years.

PHILLIP BUTLER: We basically all survived together, through supporting each other, and nobody really did it alone. So this business about, I think, him being the POW hero really isn't fair, isn't accurate, and is mistaken as a qualifier for being president of the United States.

Lessons from a military experience

Phillip Butler
Former P.O.W.
I think how he should be defined is how he actualizes that military experience today, how he has considered it and come to the conclusion that he's come to today, and clearly he's come to all the wrong conclusions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Butler, who's voting for Barack Obama, says he has great respect for McCain, but thinks he learned the wrong lessons from his military experience, on Iraq, for example.

PHILLIP BUTLER: I think how he should be defined is how he actualizes that military experience today, how he has considered it and come to the conclusion that he's come to today, and clearly he's come to all the wrong conclusions.

ORSON SWINDLE: I think John, as opposed to fighting the last war, is trying to make sure that we don't make the same mistakes we made in that war.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, says Orson Swindle, a strong McCain backer involved with the campaign, voters should know about his friend's wartime experience.

ORSON SWINDLE: This is a part of John's life. I don't think it's an excuse for anything or a way to try to gloss over a mistake he might have made. He was tested.

Those qualities and traits come into play in virtually everything he does. He stands sometimes alone on controversial issues because he believes there's a principle involved here of doing the right thing, not the politically correct thing, but the right thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Bob Timberg, McCain's Vietnam experience was indeed defining, if not the sole influence on the man we see today.

ROBERT TIMBERG: It's also crucial in understanding and to recognize that he got out of prison in 1973. And by my reckoning, that's 35 years ago. And his intellect didn't stop expanding once he left prison. I mean, it's one advantage of, you know, being around an old guy. You've been around long enough to learn a lot of stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is now certain, just as certain as that young John McCain would pass through Annapolis, is that voters will hear much of his dramatic military service in the days and weeks leading to November 4.