McCain continu[es] to hold to a course really from another era, where party leaders could pick and choose where they stand with their party or not.
He's working with Democrats on a patients' bill of rights; he's working with Democrats on campaign finance reform; he's working with Democrats on immigration. He co-sponsors with [Sen.] Joe Lieberman [I-Conn.] a cap-and-trade bill on global warming that almost all Republicans oppose. He votes against the Bush tax cuts.
Now, his overall record is still very conservative, still a very high level of party loyalty, but he is conspicuous against this backdrop of increased partisan unity, of continuing to have and husband and nourish this maverick image as someone who will break from the party.
John McCain was maybe the most madcap of all midshipmen. He didn't do anything [for which] he could be charged with an honor offense, which was lying, cheating, or stealing, but he did all the secondary offenses, like "going over the wall," which is Naval Academy slang for ... just going out at night when you're supposed to be in your room either studying or sleeping. ...
... What's the relevance of that to understand the man we now see?
The Naval Academy system is quite rigid. Having gone through it myself, I can tell you that you don't easily challenge it. You generally go along with it. You make your peace with the portions of it that may drive you crazy. But if you challenge it, you're kind of a special breed. You're somebody who is not easily intimidated. ...
I don't think John McCain was ever intimidated. He worked the scenes. He played on the margins. He seemed to know what he could get away with and what he couldn't. And essentially, those maverick qualities that seem to have come out later, and which may have created real problems for him at the academy, I think served him quite well when he was a prisoner of war.
How does it define, in some ways, [his] leadership qualities?
... I think the best leaders are those who are the most original thinkers, those who look to what they see as the right way to do something, and do whatever it takes to advance it.
John McCain is not the kind of guy who was simply going to follow orders blindly. It doesn't mean he's going to refuse to carry out orders, but the best officers will turn to their commanding officer and say, "Sir, I think there's a better way to do this." And I think the better commanding officers are happy to hear better ways to do things. ...
Orson Swindle McCain adviser; prisoner of war, 1966-'73
He's got a sense of honor, a sense of integrity, a sense of being a man, of being courageous, of not being just milquetoast, compliant with the norms. He's adventuresome. Those are things he is today, and I contend he was that way when he was a kid. ...
He told me one of the last things that [his] dad said to him when he left him at the Naval Academy. He said, "Don't ever lie, and don't cheat." What a marvelous message to give a kid. I'm not sure we impart something so simple and so profound as "Don't ever lie, and don't cheat." ...
He goes out for the fleet. He's a young officer, and he's hell-raising, still; disregard of authority to a great extent. And then he's aboard the USS Forrestal. He's sitting in an airplane ready to go on a bombing mission over North Vietnam, and a rocket is fired from another aircraft, goes [into the] fuel tank on his A-4. Thing blows up; all hell breaks loose. And you know the rest of that story: One hundred thirty-four American young sailors die in that. He is not badly injured; he's injured, burned. And his immediate reaction is to volunteer to go to another carrier to continue to fly missions. A lot of people said: "I'm not for this. I'm getting myself home." He probably could have.
Then he gets shot down. And now he's almost dead, and as he fights to survive -- and Col. [George] "Bud" Day is the best one to tell this story, because they dunked John in on him. ... Bud said that evening that John wouldn't go to sleep. He's in a cast; his eyes are feverish; he's in bad, bad shape. Bud said, "I thought he was going to die."
John wouldn't shut up talking. He's just chattering away; ... he's that way. And Bud, after this early session, he said, "I knew this young man had no intention of dying." (Laughs.) That's just not in his makeup. ...
All these qualities are getting into who he is. They're there; they just haven't been mobilized to do great things. They're fun things, they're pretty rambunctious things, but not the great things. He's in prison, and he's got time to think. And I always talk about the crucible of adversity. He's got character; he's got courage. There's a great sense of integrity from the tradition of his family and the Naval Academy. He's got intellect -- very smart guy. All that's sitting in this crucible in adversity, and out of it comes a guy committed to make a difference.
He didn't get into politics to be somebody. He got into politics to do something, to do tough things. And that's why he wants to be president.
He's someone who is very comfortable with who he is and what he stands for. He's a tough guy, very tough mentally, and you'd have to be tough mentally to endure what he has endured. I think that's what really enamored people with John McCain when all of us first met him [during McCain's service as the Navy's Senate liaison]; I know it did for me. That he could endure five-and-a-half years of torture and come out and be as fun-loving and life-enhancing as I found him to be. That he was willing to joke about things and to see the bright side of life.
He was just fun to be with. He had a sense of derring-do: "Let's go do some things. Let's hop on a plane. Let's go to such-and-such country." ... It was always a sense of adventure.
That was exciting to see in a person who had been through what he had been through. Whereas others might turn inward, become much more self-reflective, withdrawn, even bitter toward life in terms of what had happened to them, what they had had to endure, that's just the opposite with John. [He's] always outgoing, always fun-loving, always eager to take on the next challenge.
It's so easy to oversimplify things, but I continue to believe being a POW, in terms of personal development, is the best thing that ever happened to him. And going through the Keating Five scandal was the best thing that happened to him as a politician.
... Everything in John McCain's life, up to that point -- until he was shot down, until he was a POW -- even though he may not have wanted it, everything was given to him, was handed to him, practically on a silver platter, because of who his father was and who his grandfather had been. Life was pretty good, and pretty easy. ... He may not have wanted to go to the Naval Academy, but he got in because of who his dad was. He didn't get thrown out because of who his dad was, despite his best efforts. ...
He gets shot down. He's a POW. They've given him the going over they've given everybody. But then, because of that same last name, he gets worse treatment than just about anybody else. He would say not, by the way; he'd say others were beaten more, tortured more.
But all of a sudden, his last name not only doesn't help him, it's hurting him. And he realizes what is important in life: You really have to count on yourself. You have to lean on the guy next to you, and he has to be able to lean on you and depend on you. Some very, very basic, core, fundamental things in life that some people go through their whole lives and never learn, he learned at a relatively early age. And I think he went from being probably a really cocky SOB to being a fellow who's pretty well-grounded in what's important in life. So [in terms of] personal development, I think that was most important for him.
And then the Keating Five, to go from the incredible status he had, just on this rocket, meteoric rise to success that pulled up short and to look into that abyss of the things that can go wrong when politicians allow the personal and the public life to blur, if you will -- and he saw it, he didn't get killed by it, and I think he came out stronger because of it.
He's smart. He's more willing to make a deal with the opposite side than [President] George [W.] Bush. He'll negotiate. He's less conservative. He's more willing to reach out to the other side. He has a hair-trigger temper, but he calms down. He's aware of it.
He is not as deeply immersed in policy as we think. He has a free-wheeling style with his advisers. There's not a lot of structure and discipline, and I think that will be interesting to see if he gets to the White House, how that plays out in management. He's more off the cuff. He's a student of history much more than George Bush. And he has a certain amount of charm but can be really tough and biting as well.
Lindsey Graham Senator (R-S.C.)
Who is John, and what makes him tick? ... I think John, as he grew up in a military environment, as he became a military officer, as he became a commander, as he was in prison with other POWs, he had a sense of duty and responsibility that is unique to that environment. And it's carried over to politics. What makes him tick in terms of taking political stands is a sense of responsibility. ...
The anger issue, the popping off at people, setting-his-hair-on-fire moments -- talk to me about it.
I've seen John get angry, and I've always understood there was a reason for it at the time. John has apologized to people for things he said. But I've never known a more together guy. When it's really tough, when your back's against the wall, that's when he's at his best. ... That's when John gets the quietest. That's when he listens the closest. … I think that's when his best judgment is utilized.
But these guys like [Sen.] Thad Cochran [R-Miss.] and others who come forward and say, "Jeez, this guy scares me so," what do you say?
Thad would be one of his biggest supporters. Just politics. He was helping [former presidential candidate and Mass. Gov. Mitt] Romney. One of the knocks on John is he's got a bad temper. Listen, he's 71 years old. The people in prison with him follow him around like the Pied Piper saying: "I was in jail with the guy. You'll have no better friend. He nursed me back to health. I nursed him back to health. I would die for John McCain." His staff has been with him probably the longest of anybody on Capitol Hill. The people that work for John love the guy. He calls me the worst names you can imagine, and that means he likes me.
So obviously I'm not neutral on this. I like the guy. He's a dear friend. He is flawed. He has got problems like everybody else. He loves the country. He has got a temperament that I like, and that is, he doesn't suffer fools lightly. He loves the country. He'll stand up for what he believes, but he also has the ability to go to people and say, "I'm sorry."
Mark Salter Senior adviser to John McCain
He's got a temper. Is it outside the normal range? No. I think I probably have maybe a bit bigger one than he does. I can think of quite a good number of members of Congress who have a temper far more outsized than his. He's impatient, there's no doubt about it. And if he thinks something's outrageous, he'll say it.
But it's embellished beyond reality, the legend of his temper. You cannot possibly accomplish things in a bipartisan way or work with as many people as he has if you really have a temper like that. He's very blunt at times and very impatient at times. He'll go down on the floor and mock various pork-barrel projects that obviously are ridiculous, and that offends people. You'll have one or two or three real instances where he's lost his temper with someone [that] sort of migrate into some big legend that doesn't really comport with reality.
I mean, he's got staff that worked for him for decades. You want to go through the Senate or the House and find out who has the worst tempers? You immediately go and see what the turnover rate in staff is in those offices, and that will pretty much be the most reliable indicator. ...
... He wins New Hampshire [in the 2000 primary], pokes his finger right in Bush and the orthodoxy's eye. Pretty typical story of John McCain's life, right? And how much did he enjoy that?
I think he loved it. I think he loved the experience of New Hampshire. The primary night itself, he smiled; he was pleased; he was happy. I could detect no great joy. I walked in to give him, I think, the 5:00 exit-poll numbers that we had gotten from some reporter, and he was rehearsing his speech in the bedroom of his hotel suite. He said, "What are they?" And I said, "You're going to clobber him 20 points, it looks like." And he just said, "That has implications." And I laughed because it was just so understated. I said, "Yup, you could be president; that might be one of the implications." But he just went back to his speech. And that's a fascinating quality in a personality. He always calls it "steady strain."
"Steady strain." It's a nautical term. When you throw a line to another ship, you don't want any slack in the line; you want to keep this strain on it steady. And he always tells us that: "Steady strain." And that's moments when we're erupting in happiness or joy, or moments where we'd just gotten our asses kicked and aren't feeling too good.
John Weaver McCain chief political adviser 1997-'07
We often joke that he seeks adversity; that if there's a saloon fight going on, he's going to go in there and pick up a chair, at times regardless of whether he should or shouldn't. I think there's some truth to that. He's been through an awful lot of adversity. You know, there's no way that any of us can imagine what it was like as a prisoner, particularly what they had to endure -- and then the scare with melanoma, which was very serious at the time.
Unlike a lot of politicians, though, he seeks big problems and big issues. Most politicians try to bank their popularity and not use political capital to solve problems. They'll use it to get re-elected. McCain, if he sees a problem that he really cares about, he'll dive head-on into it. And I think he should be admired for that. I think the only other person in the Senate now like that is Ted Kennedy [D-Mass.]. ...
Who is the essential John McCain?
The essential John McCain is an honorable man who wants nothing more than to lead his country. And I believe if he loses this election, he'll go back to the Senate, he'll roll up his sleeves, and he'll work for the things he believes in. You can't say that about a lot of other people. And there is an essential goodness about him. He does understand, he does have empathy for Americans. He's pretty well grounded about that. I think that's the essential thing about John McCain.
The Washington Post has him calling himself a "romantic fatalist." What does that mean?
Well, that's probably getting back to his favorite Hemingway book [For Whom the Bell Tolls], and the quotation from Robert Jordan, the character in the book. His favorite saying in the campaign, of course, and to us, is, "It's never totally dark until it's at its blackest moment." I think he's quoting Chairman Mao.
He does have some fatalism about him. He is a romantic. He oftentimes takes on issues that, at the very beginning, would appear to be tilting at windmills in a Don Quixote-like fashion. God knows we've tried to stop him from doing some of that in the past. ... I think that's what he's alluding to, that there is real romance in this and that there is art; it's not just a science.
And another quote from The Washington Post, that he's "driven less by thought and more by feelings."
He's an emotive person, and I think we've talked about that. He's a guy who, when he picks up the newspaper and sees something to be outraged about, he's appropriately outraged, and he wants to do something about it. You don't find that in the halls of power in Washington very often.
He's an emotive guy. He makes decisions sometimes by gut instinct and by feelings, how he feels about it, right or wrong. If somebody's being treated poorly, if a situation like in Darfur is going on, he feels very emotional about that.
Is that good or bad?
It's probably both. In a president, there are days, I'm sure, you want someone who's very cool and sanguine about anything that they face. But there are days, I'm sure, that it's helpful to have someone who's very emotive. Ronald Reagan was an emotive man, too, the greatest president that we've had since Roosevelt. And I think that turned out fine.
We spoke with him on the phone a couple of times [about the Keating Five scandal], and Sen. McCain blew up. It was a very impressive display of temper.
Take me there.
... We started asking the senator about these investments and about his ties with Charlie Keating, and he becomes increasing agitated. He says the fact that his wife and father-in-law had a big participation in a Keating real estate deal meant nothing to him. How could we even suggest that there was anything wrong with that?
And when we just made the point that this seemed to indicate that the relationship was [closer] than he had previously explained, he became furious about that. He insulted us; he screamed at us. He went quite hot. He slammed the phone down, he hung up on us.
When you say he insulted you, screamed at you, what did he say?
I think when a senator screams at reporters, it's not a big deal. I don't take it personally. I think what may be significant was that he went from zero to white-hot in a very short period of time and wasn't unwilling to continue the conversation. He slammed the phone down. Then about 20 minutes later, he called us back, talking very calmly and very reasonably. ...
... Reporters don't take personal offense of this. Politicians want to scream at us, fine, OK, but let's talk about substance as well. And after sort of melting down for a few minutes, he came back to that and was willing to engage on that. And I think that's to his credit.