Chapter One: The Punk
As a teenager, John McCain didn't talk much about the Navy, but when he did it was evident that he understood he was the inheritor of an uncommon seafaring legacy.
"That's my grandfather, right there," he would tell friends, pointing excitedly to a framed photograph of the historic Japanese surrender ceremony aboard the battleship Missouri in 1945.
On such occasions, he abandoned his studied nonchalance toward things military. With good reason. The solemn, somewhat cadaverous figure in the picture had evoked both cheers and howls in his lifetime, but never indifference.
John Sidney McCain defied the image of the senior naval officer. Bony, wizened, with a hooked nose and sunken cheeks, he turned sixty during World War II and looked at least ten years older, according to naval historian E.B. Potter.
Poorly fitting false teeth, which caused his speech to be plagued by whistles, compounded the problem, as did a herky-jerky gait and a high-strung, fidgety nature, characteristics he passed on to his son and grandson.
"There were few wiser or more competent officers in the Navy than Slew McCain, but whenever his name came up, somebody had a ridiculous story to tell about him -- and many of the stories were true," said Potter.
One tale unearthed by Potter goes back to January 1943 when McCain, Pacific Fleet commander Chester Nimitz, South Pacific commander William F. "Bull" Halsey, and Navy secretary Frank Knox were making an inspection tour of Guadalcanal. The island was secured by then, but Japanese aircraft still bombed regularly. That night, as the visiting dignitaries slept in a hut, they launched a vicious bombing attack. Nimitz, exhausted and afraid of mosquitoes, stayed inside, but the others, half-naked, raced from the shelter and dove for the nearest trench. McCain landed in a warm, soupy hole that until a few hours earlier had served as the receptacle under a portable latrine.
True or not, the story was consistent with McCain's performance at the Naval Academy, where he stood a lackluster 79 out of 116. "The skeleton in the family closet of 1906," or so his yearbook described him.
Like his son and grandson, both of whom ranked even lower, Slew McCain would prove that a second-rate record at Annapolis did not foreclose success in the Navy. Over the next two decades he outpaced most of his classmates to fashion a remarkably eventful if occasionally turbulent career. He became a pioneer in the development of naval aviation, notably in the strategy and tactics for employing attack carriers. In the early days of World War II he served as chief of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics. Collier's magazine was so taken by his crusty demeanor that it featured him in an admiring cover story entitled "Navy Air Boss." In the final months of the Pacific war, commanding Bull Halsey's fast carrier task force, he rained destruction on the crumbling Japanese fleet.
Aboard the Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, as MacArthur, Nimitz, and Halsey stood behind the surrendering Japanese envoys, Vice Admiral McCain took his place in the front rank of senior American officers. The ceremony recorded for posterity, he lunched with his son, Jack, a decorated submarine skipper, then left for his San Diego home. He was dead of a heart attack four days later. The New York Times reported his death on its front page. Congress, citing his war record, promoted him posthumously to the rank of full admiral.
Halsey's chief of staff, Rear Admiral Robert Carney, later insisted that McCain had suffered an earlier heart attack while at sea but had somehow managed to hide it so he wouldn't be forced to relinquish command. "He knew his number was up," said Carney, "but he wouldn't lie down and die until he got home."
Two decades later, in another war and vastly different circumstances, his grandson would find himself facing a similar challenge. Again, the temptation was to lie down and die. But the old man had set the McCain family standard for grit and courage, and John McCain, sometimes clumsily, often grudgingly, always did his best to live up to family standards.
Princeton did not meet those standards. On a prep school athletic trip, he had fallen in love with the campus, been intrigued by the possibilities. He could study things he cared about there, history and literature, might even fool everybody and turn out to be a decent student. There were other attractions. A hot-blooded romantic, he could easily imagine himself pointing out Fitzgerald's old room to some visiting coed from Vassar, then casually guiding her down a shaded gravel path to a secluded trysting spot.
But Princeton was a pipe dream. As far back as he could remember, Johnny McCain knew he was going to Annapolis, knew it with such unshakable finality that he never really thought twice about it, at least not seriously. It was part of the air he breathed, the ether through which he moved, the single immutable element in his life. He also knew that if he said what he thought -- hold it, screw Annapolis, the place sucks -- shock waves would reverberate through countless generations of McCains, shaking a military tradition that could both inspire and bully.
That tradition stretched back to Colonial times. In 1764, Johnny's ancestors, Captain John Young and his brother Thomas, clashed with an Indian force at the Battle of Back Creek in Virginia. John survived, but Thomas was killed and scalped. John pursued the Indians for three days, resumed the fight, and reclaimed Thomas's scalp so it could be buried with him. Johnny's later forebears would go to West Point, among them a distant uncle, Major General Henry Pinckney McCain, who set up the World War I draft and became known as the father of Selective Service.
The Annapolis tradition was more recent, but by the time Johnny arrived on the scene, it was even more compelling. He was the grandson of Admiral Slew McCain, Annapolis '06, the legendary geezer who fought the Japanese from Guadalcanal to Tokyo Bay, watched them surrender, then, as if on cue, dropped dead. He was the oldest son of John Sidney McCain, Jr., '31, a World War II submarine skipper climbing steadily toward flag rank himself. So everyone, including Johnny himself, took it for granted that the Naval Academy alumni register would one day contain another entry: John Sidney McCain III.
And so it does, but it was a close call. Although resigned to Annapolis, Johnny was fully capable of sabotaging his chances, both for admission and graduation. Rebellious by nature, he viewed rules and regulations through a highly personal prism, as challenges to his wit and ingenuity. And as a succession of individuals and institutions would learn to their chagrin -- among them his parents, teachers, Annapolis officialdom, and his jailers in Hanoi -- all bets were off when Johnny McCain thought the rules were unfair, stupid, or, as most were in his estimation, made to be broken.
The U.S. Navy into which John McCain was born in 1936 was a sleepy service. Promotions were slow, the pay a joke, and congressional appropriations meager, befitting the isolationist sentiment that gripped the nation between world wars. The officer corps was small but tightly knit, its code of conduct both uplifting and stultifying. Assumed to be a man of honor, a naval officer could stroll into an officers club anywhere in the world and sign a chit for his food and liquor. But divorce was taboo, a career-ending event, and there were few secrets within the fraternity. Roberta McCain, Johnny's mother, said she knew when an officer was cheating on his wife even if he was an ocean away.
For those willing to play by the rules, the pre-World War II Navy had its compensations, and more than a whiff of romance. In the early 1930s, when Jack and Roberta McCain were stationed in Honolulu, officers in starched whites would join their ladies for afternoon cocktails on the manicured grounds of the elegant Royal Hawaiian Hotel. In the evenings, usually after a bracing game of tennis, the McCains would dress for dinner -- Jack in black tie, Roberta in a long dress. A Japanese maid served the meal by candlelight.
Whatever the realities, naval officers and their wives encouraged the perception that the Navy was the most aristocratic of services. You borrowed the silver for a big dinner party, shortened an old dress for a special occasion, did whatever was needed so that guests recognized you as a person of taste and breeding when they entered your home, as perfection when you entered theirs. Navy families of that era adopted an old southern expression as their credo: Too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash. "In other words, we in the Navy never really had anything," said Roberta, "but we never took second best."
Roberta gave birth to Johnny at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone on August 29, 1936. The timing was auspicious. The base commander was his grandfather, who earlier that month, at the advanced age of fifty-two, had earned his wings as a naval aviator. Johnny's father was stationed nearby, at a small submarine facility. Jack McCain was transferred to New London a few months later, but for that brief period Panama became the epicenter of three generations of a family whose distinguished naval service would eventually span the great national upheavals of the twentieth century, from World War I through Vietnam and its still murky aftermath.
Johnny's father and grandfather may have made history, but nobody ignored his mother, the spunky, occasionally ditzy Auntie Mame of Navy wives. Though the family lived on Jack's salary, Roberta Wright McCain was born to wealth. Her father struck oil in the Southwest as a young man, made his fortune, and retired at forty, soon after Roberta and her identical twin, Rowena, were born. "I've accomplished more than most men ever accomplish," he told his wife. "I've just had twin daughters, and I'm going to stay home and enjoy my family." He never worked another day in his life. Instead, as his daughters were growing up, he took them to school, escorted them to the theater, delivered them to dancing class.
Roberta and Rowena had another advantage: They were gorgeous. Years later, when the McCains were stationed in Norfolk, Annapolis midshipmen on summer training there would talk about "getting lucky." That meant catching a glimpse of the admiral's wife on the base tennis court during their daily run. By then Roberta was in her fifties. Over the years, Roberta's and Rowena's spectacular good looks set up Jack McCain's most memorable wisecrack. Asked how he managed to tell his wife and her sister apart, he'd puff on his trademark cigar, flash a devilish grin, then harrumph, "That's their problem."
Her charm and beauty notwithstanding, Roberta's defining quality, as it was to be her son's, was an unquenchable spirit. Along with a religiously grounded fatalism, that spirit carried the family through difficult times. If her husband served as the role model for Johnny, his older sister, Sandy, and younger brother, Joe, Roberta made the family work. She dealt with the illnesses, picked out the cars, bought the houses, selected the schools. Once she went out to buy a dress and came home with a Mercedes. That got a minor rise from Jack, not much more. He did not like to shop and he hated paying bills. "What he really wanted to do was work," said Roberta. She didn't even bother to fake his signature on checks, just signed his name in her own handwriting. "If Jack McCain ever paid a bill, they'd send it back as a forgery," she said.
When John McCain was twelve, his father received orders transferring him from Washington to the West Coast. His mother let the three kids finish their term at school, then piled them in the car and began one of those cross-country migrations so familiar to service families. The first night, after getting the children settled, she sat down to write her husband. "Guess what?" she began. "Guess who was a nuisance today? Johnny." She was mystified. Usually he was everything a mother could hope for -- quiet, dependable, courteous to a fault. She figured it was a momentary mood swing. She was wrong: "From that time on, he was a pain in the neck."
Others had seen the change coming sooner. At Saint Stephen's, an exclusive private school in the Washington, D.C., area, he had begun to display a defiant, unruly streak. But it was not until a few years later when he entered Episcopal High School, a boys' boarding school in Alexandria, Virginia, that those qualities emerged with a vengeance.
"Unlike those Northern schools that lured students with glitz and glamour, Episcopal found its identity in the proud but threadbare gentility of the Reconstruction South," wrote Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle of his old school on its 150th anniversary in 1989. "Tuition was low, living conditions Spartan, most of the staff unaccredited. We lived in curtained alcoves like hyperglandular monks; slept in sagging pipe-frame beds; drank milk drawn from some dairy where, it seemed, the cows grazed on nothing but onions, and amused ourselves at meals by covertly flipping butter pats with knives onto the ceiling, where they would later melt free to drop on other, unsuspecting skulls."
When Johnny arrived at Episcopal in the fall of 1951, the school was still drawing nearly all its students from the better families of the Old South. Like most prep schools of the time, Episcopal was lily white (it has long since integrated), its faculty all male, the students required to wear jackets and ties to class. A sampling of McCain's cohorts gives a flavor of the student body: Percival Cabell Gregory III, Greenville, South Carolina; Angus Murdock McBryde, Jr., Durham, North Carolina; Nathaniel Holmes Morison III, Roanoke, Virginia; Joshua Pretlow Darden, Jr., Norfolk, Virginia. If an impressive name meant you belonged, John Sidney McCain III should have been right at home.
To hear him tell it, he was, at least to the extent he was comfortable anywhere during his nomadic childhood. In recent years he has spoken with great affection of Episcopal, often contrasting it with the Naval Academy, which he found tolerable at best. But old friends and acquaintances from Episcopal days think the passage of time has warmed his memories.
Rives Richey, one of his closest friends back then, remembered McCain as rambunctious and combative, at times "just repelling," the type of kid who had a few good pals within a student body that either actively disliked him or gave him a wide berth. "He was considered kind of a punk," said Richey.
In fact, he was known as Punk, alternatively as Nasty, in another variation, McNasty. He cultivated the image. The Episcopal yearbook pictures him in a trench coat, collar up, cigarette dangling Bogey-style from his lips. That pose, if hardly the impression Episcopal sought to project, at least had a fashionable world-weary style to it. Generally, though, he mocked the school's dress code by wearing blue jeans with his coat and tie and otherwise affecting a screw-you raffishness.
"John used to wear his jeans day in, day out, week in, week out to where they would almost stand up in the corner by themselves," said Richey. "And a lot of people thought he maybe should have washed a little more or something. His blue jeans would be just filthy."
The rest of his outfit was not much better. "His coat would be something the Salvation Army would have rejected," said Riley Deeble, an Episcopal master, as teachers were called. "And his shoes would be held together by tape."
As at Annapolis, Episcopal tradition encouraged the hazing of new students, who were forced to endure the indignities of the school's Rat System even if they entered after their freshman year. McCain, who enrolled as a sophomore, was named Worst Rat after his first year. He wore the title as a badge of honor, which in some ways it was. One of his few friends, Malcolm Matheson, remembered him fondly as "a hard rock kind of guy, a tough, mean little fucker." Not everyone was so charmed by those qualities. Said another schoolmate, "He prided himself on being a tough guy. He was seemingly ready to fight at the drop of a hat. He was easily provoked, ready to be provoked."
Deeble ascribed McCain's behavior to his pre-Episcopal years as a Navy junior, trailing his father around the country and going to many different schools. "Most of these kids have a little bit of a shell," he said. "They have to develop it to survive. So they're skeptical of any new system they come into, and they've got their guard up and they're sort of looking around. And I think the thing that's important to them is not to let anything be imposed on them....McCain has that kind of lopsided grin. He just comes in here and looks around, and he's going to do as he pleases as much as he can. He lets you know that. I think you could call it constructive irreverence."
Rives Richey and John McCain, mainstays of Episcopal's wrestling team, were partners in crime as well, routinely flouting school regulations. "We kind of decided which rules we wanted to keep and which ones we didn't," said Richey. They were motivated by something else as well. "The game of it was appealing to both of us -- to outfox the school, the stealth involved, the brazenness. We made our own law a little bit."
McCain and his cronies occasionally snuck off on nocturnal sojourns to downtown Washington, often ending up at the Gayety or some other burlesque house on Ninth Street. McCain ran with a small clique that had a reputation, deserved or not, for doing what one schoolmate, Bentley Orrick, described as "deliciously unimaginable things with women.
"Their sins were more fancy than ours, whatever they were," said Orrick. "If we went over the wall to see a movie, they'd walk over the wall to get laid, or at least that was the projection. Everyone petted like crazy, but hardly anyone had hit the big four-bagger."
As a wrestler, Johnny was good, not great. Competing at 127 pounds, he could be counted on to win when he was supposed to and sometimes spring an upset. In one match he pinned his opponent in thirty-seven seconds, setting a school record. McCain and his teammate, Richey, seemed like peas in a pod, small, tough, cocky. "Maybe Napoleon was like that when he was young," said Riley Deeble. "But a lot of people who are small physically do seem to, certainly in the school atmosphere, become a little extra aggressive to make up for it. They create a little more space around themselves so they don't get stepped on."
Deeble, who coached the wrestling team for a time and remained an avid fan thereafter, discerned an indomitable quality in McCain and Richey. "They might be up against somebody a lot more knowledgeable or stronger or tougher and they might be getting knocked all over the mat," he said, "but they never backed off."
On one occasion having nothing to do with wrestling, McCain failed to display the fortitude others ascribed to him, and his friend paid the price.
During a summer vacation, Richey, who was fifteen, bought a car, a '47 Chevrolet coupe. One night he and McCain, who lived nearby in northern Virginia, and a third teenager decided to try their hand at picking up girls.
With Richey at the wheel and the other two boys jammed into the front seat with him, they cruised a nearby housing development. "We were total novices at this," said Richey, "all of us nervous, trying to be macho." Their pickup lines ranged from the surefire "Hey, you want to go for a ride, honey?" through its equally slick variations, earning amused looks and occasional guffaws from their elusive quarry. Seemingly immune to ridicule, they continued their quest until two girls, older than the others, told them to go to hell.
Their contempt was too much for McCain. Leaning across Richey, he shouted from the driver's window, "Shove it up your ass." Having delivered that show-stopper, the boys sped off. Richey had been driving for all of a week at that point and quickly got lost. Suddenly another car cut them off, forcing them to the side of the road. The car contained the girls who had been the target of McCain's wit and two very unfriendly men, the husband of one, the boyfriend of the other. Police were summoned. Names were taken.
A few days later the three miscreants, accompanied by their red-faced parents, were hauled into juvenile court on charges amounting to verbal assault. At the hearing, said Richey, the girls embellished their story. "They got up there and said that we used foul language, that we insulted them -- all total lies," he said. "All we did say was do you want to get picked up. The only person that said anything was John, who told them to shove it."
Both girls mistakenly identified Richey as the boy who had used the profanity, probably because he was the only one they got a good look at. Richey, aghast, waited for McCain to speak up and clear his name. Soon he was fuming at his friend's silence. It was a standoff. McCain wouldn't confess, Richey wouldn't squeal. The judge suspended Richey's license for six months, let McCain and the other boy off with a warning.
A week later Richey's parents made him sell his car. Afterward he confronted McCain, demanded to know why he had let him take the rap alone. "He had sort of a vague, 'Well, I didn't think you were going to get into any trouble anyway and I just thought the less we said the better,'" recalled Richey. "He may have been right." McCain did not dispute Richey's account, but said he didn't remember the incident well, adding, sheepishly, "Probably with good reason."
The episode cooled the friendship between Richey and McCain, but did not shatter it. They had two more years together at Episcopal and, even though the car incident still rankled, Richey eventually regained his high opinion of McCain.
"I would say that John was basically a true friend, and he would have been a guy that I would have liked to have had walking down an alley with me," he said. "You just get the feeling that John would be there. He wouldn't duck out on you."
Near the end of their time at Episcopal, Richey was surprised to learn McCain was going to Annapolis. He had never heard him talk about it. And, as much as he liked him, he had never noticed anything remotely resembling leadership qualities in his friend.
"You know, frankly, honest to goodness, if they'd have rated everybody in the class for likely to succeed, I guarantee you he'd of been in the bottom ten, without any question."
Much the same might have been said about Jack McCain in his youth. At Annapolis he stood 423 out of 441 in the Class of 1931, eighteenth from the bottom, worse than his father, better than his son. His problems were not solely academic ones, either. For most of his senior year he was banished from Bancroft Hall, the midshipmen dormitory, and forced to live in hack on the Reina Mercedes, an old rust bucket moored to the Academy seawall.
The seagoing life made him largely an absentee father, though his workaholic temperament no doubt contributed to that. His son recalled that one day in 1941, when the family was living in New London, a fellow officer drove by, hollered out, "Jack, the Japs have attacked Pearl Harbor," and that was the last he saw of his father for more than a year. To John, then only five, it no doubt seemed that way. Actually, his father didn't leave for several months, but he was rarely home, laboring day and night to get his crew and World War I-vintage submarine ready for action.
Jack, or Junior as he was more commonly known in the Fleet, commanded three submarines during the war, winning both the Silver and Bronze Stars for heroism. He was known as an able commander at sea and a wild man ashore. By war's end he was battling a drinking problem, a malady that afflicted many submariners, who relied on alcohol to ease the tension of sixty-day combat patrols. At one point, according to a fellow submarine officer, a senior admiral warned Jack that drinking was jeopardizing his career. He got the message. He did not beat the bottle, but his drinking became more circumspect.
Moving up the Navy ladder, he made a name for himself by putting together a much admired lecture and slide show extolling the importance of seapower to the security of the nation. Small, feisty, his chest overflowing with medals, he plugged the Navy to anyone who would listen, from powerful congressional committees to local service clubs. In the opinion of many, the seapower presentation became the vehicle that McCain rode to four stars.
During this period McCain took on two jobs that some feel jump-started a career on the verge of stalling. As the Navy's first chief of information, a public relations post, he cultivated influential Washington correspondents. A short time later he became the Navy's senior congressional lobbyist. Soon many of the nation's most powerful politicians were streaming to the spacious McCain town house at First and C., S.E., now the Capitol Hill Club, the GOP's official watering hole.
Few men who rise to the Navy's top ranks are universally admired, and Jack McCain was no exception. At times, report some observers, his ambition to emulate his father so gripped him that he seemed possessed. But he had amazing resilience, thanks in part to his wide-ranging political contacts. By the mid-sixties he was considered washed up. Yet in 1967 he was dispatched to London as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, his fourth star firmly in place.
With the promotion to full admiral, Slew and Jack McCain became the first father and son to achieve that rank in the history of the U.S. Navy. Jack's joy was short-lived. A few months after arriving in London, he learned that John had been shot down and taken prisoner in North Vietnam. A year later Jack was handed new orders. He was being transferred to Honolulu as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, the senior military man in the theater of operations that included North and South Vietnam.
Whatever his own failings, Jack attempted to instill in his son the same code of personal honor by which he tried to live. "My strongest impression of my father is of this sense of integrity and honor, a code of gentlemanly conduct that was a trademark of his behavior until the day he died," said John. But Jack had no avocations, so father and son did not hunt or fish together, go to the movies, museums, or ballgames. Nor was there much give and take to the relationship, though occasionally they would disagree over the length of John's hair or if he should be smoking during wrestling season. Roberta said she doesn't remember Jack ever disciplining John. "Jack was really kind of removed from things in a way," she said.
John spoke of pride, honor, and integrity when discussing his father, but rarely love, as if their relationship was one of respect, but not real affection, at least from John's standpoint. There also seems to have been some resentment, hints of which occasionally peek out from between the hundred-dollar words. "I didn't spend as much time with him as maybe I would have if he'd been more committed to being around me," he said on one occasion.
Jack's drinking, which he never fully conquered until friends helped him battle it late in life, also took its toll on the relationship. "Obviously, it wasn't disabling, but from time to time he would drink way too much," said John. "I didn't like to see him drunk. It changed my image of him." Normally open and gregarious, he grows guarded when asked about his father's drinking. Was it a serious problem? "Yes, it was a problem." For a long time? "Yes."
Its silly aristocratic pretensions aside, Episcopal High School left a lasting impression on McCain. The academics were challenging, the athletics invigorating, the all-male faculty in the main thoughtful, well educated, and committed to the school and the boys.
In McCain's day, all masters had to live on campus. From the small homes provided for them on the lush, tree-shaded grounds, they and their wives would dispense tea and sympathy and otherwise guide the development of the boys in academic and social areas. Episcopal boys normally gravitated toward one master with whom they had a special rapport. In McCain's case, it was William Bee Ravenel III, football star at Davidson College, holder of a master's degree in English from Duke, and much-decorated veteran of Patton's tank corps. "Every school has its master teachers, and during our time here, he was one of the gods," said Sandy Ainslie, '56, the current headmaster.
Ravenel headed the English Department. After classes he coached the junior varsity football team, on which McCain was a scrappy, underweight linebacker and offensive guard. Short, muscular, and outspoken like McCain, Ravenel seems to have served, if not as a surrogate father to John, then as a combination big brother and Dutch uncle.
"I worshiped him," said McCain. "He saw something in me that others did not. And he took a very personal interest in me and we spent a good deal of time together. He had a very important influence on my life."
The Episcopal class of 1954, McCain's class, dedicated its yearbook to Ravenel. "Teacher, leader, coach -- he taught us what we know about writing and about literature; he directed and sustained our best efforts; he inspired us on the athletic field." Said McCain, "He was the one guy I wanted to see when I got out of prison....There wasn't anybody I felt I could talk to about it. I just wanted to see Ravenel. I wanted to tell him that I finally understood there in Hanoi what he had been trying to tell me all those years about life and what it means. I wanted to thank him and apologize for being so stupid." He never got the chance. Ravenel collapsed and died of a massive heart attack in 1971. He was only fifty-three. McCain didn't find out until he was released from prison two years later.
McCain cannot explain his erratic behavior at Episcopal in any logical way. Usually he describes himself as a rebel without a cause, a James Dean type, though it's just as easy to imagine him as Holden Caulfield, red hunting hat askew, railing about phonies, sneaking cigarettes, driving old Ackley-kid crazy. In part he seemed to fit Riley Deeble's picture of the wary, much-traveled Navy junior. Beyond that, though, he resisted throwing in with any organization capable of imposing on him a conformity that might rob him of those unique qualities that made him who he was. At the time he did not know what they were, only that they were worth defending against all comers.
The specter of Annapolis also influenced his behavior. "All my life I knew I was going to the Naval Academy," he said. "From my earliest age I remember people saying, 'He's going to be at the Naval Academy like his father and grandfather.' It was just something that was going to happen. And perhaps that's why I practiced this rebellion against the system, always walking the edge."
Interestingly enough, he was not turned off by the idea of becoming a naval officer, thought he probably would enjoy it for a few years, if not a full career. The more he thought about it, in fact, the idea of flying jets off a carrier sounded like a hell of a lot of fun.
Annapolis was a different story. He thought he would hate it, as indeed in many respects he did. But he saw no alternative. Like many boys his age, he had no focused career goals, just a fuzzy sense of his own competence and individual worth. At Princeton or some other civilian college he might have used the early undergraduate years to seek his own direction. But Annapolis, with its regimentation and lockstep curriculum, would provide no such opportunity. Annapolis was a commitment, more so for McCain because of the family tradition. Under the law he could get out of the Navy four years after graduation, but would he? Here he was at Episcopal, feeling himself drawn toward a school he despised by forces he felt incapable of challenging. Was there any reason, then, to believe that after four years at Annapolis and a similar period as a naval officer he would be able to defy those same forces -- whoever they were, whatever they were -- and resign his commission to embark on some new, ill-defined career path?
In some ways McCain at Episcopal was like a man trapped in an unhappy marriage who is unwilling to take the painful actions necessary to terminate it. Rather than tell his wife he wants a divorce, he puts himself in a variety of compromising situations, subconsciously hoping that the word will filter back to her so that she will take the initiative, leaving him guilt-ridden but free. One can almost picture the scene between father and son.
"John, this time you've gone too far," says his father. "You'd better forget about Annapolis."
"What?" says John, seemingly horror-stricken. "No. God, you're kidding."
"No, John. Forget Annapolis. Start thinking of someplace else."
"Omigod," John says to his father; to himself, gleefully, "Holy shit!"
But McCain at Episcopal never went too far. He flouted the rules, sure, but given his pedigree it would have taken the hand of God to transform his childish pranks and boyish transgressions into something serious enough to bar him from Annapolis. And God, it seems, was otherwise occupied or knew something about McCain that McCain didn't. McCain himself seemed unwilling to make the moves that might have kept him out of the Academy. An indifferent student except in English and history, he might have taken a dive on the entrance exams. Instead, he aced them, claiming his birthright. And so, on an early summer's day in 1954, in a car driven by his father, John McCain journeyed to Annapolis, raised his right hand, and marched joylessly into his future.
Copyright © 1995, 1999 by Robert Timberg