Is America ready for a maverick?

Beyond John McCain's legendary temper and past heroics is real passion.

John McCain's fellow captives in Hanoi will never forget the day he refused early release from prison.

It was early in 1968, and the Navy flier's captors filed into his cell, prepared to let the "Crown Prince" go home to America. Lieutenant Commander McCain's father, after all, was commander in chief of naval forces in Europe, and early freedom for John would have given the North Vietnamese a big propaganda coup.

McCain greeted the men with a string of obscenities that sent them reeling back "like tumbleweeds," a fellow prisoner later told biographer Robert Timberg. McCain went on to more than five years in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison, enduring torture and long stretches of solitary confinement.

"John was an inspiration to all of us," says Orson Swindle, another ex-POW who slept alongside McCain in prison for about a year and a half.

John McCain is now in his third term as a Republican senator from Arizona. And as he pursues the biggest conquest of his life - the presidency of the United States - much is being made of his outsized story: from Vietnam to a high-octane career in politics, including a brush with infamy in the Senate's Keating Five scandal and his crusade for campaign-finance overhaul.

But it's McCain's temperament - his passion for causes that go against GOP orthodoxy and a temper that he has worked for years to control - that's getting the most attention lately, especially as his rising poll numbers take the sheen off Texas Gov. George W. Bush's inevitability for the Republican nomination.

To put it bluntly: Is McCain suited for the presidency? Can an intense man who seems to relish maverick causes work effectively with Congress to do the nation's business?

In a way, McCain is not the outsider he paints himself to be. As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, he steers toward completion much of Congress's most important legislation. His staff members are very loyal to him, staying on average eight years.

But he, like all politicians, brings his past to the table - and his is more gripping than most. While most politicians' memoirs hit the remainder bins almost instantly, McCain's, called "Faith of My Fathers," has been on the bestseller list from the moment it hit the stands.

Still, the McCain story is not a single-dimensional tale of "military hero gone to Washington." Rather, it is the story of a complex man, as revealed in interviews with friends, critics, and the senator himself.

That was then, this is now

Even as a young man, McCain showed a rebellious streak. True, he bowed to family tradition and attended the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., as had his father and grandfather, even though he had hoped to study literature and history at a university like Princeton. But at the Naval Academy, he lurked near the bottom of his class and became something of a leader among the party boys known as the Bad Bunch.

He was a ladies' man, and admits that extramarital affairs led to the demise of his first marriage after his release from Vietnam in 1973. He has now been married to his second wife, Cindy, for 19 years, and - before he launched his presidential campaign - returned to Phoenix as often as he could to check in with the home state and be with his family, which includes four school-age children.

Today, though, no one faults McCain's intellect. On a recent bus tour around New Hampshire aboard his Straight Talk Express, he held forth on subjects ranging from the nuclear test-ban treaty to prescription drugs for seniors to caribou on native American lands.

In alternate moments, his legendary sense of humor shines through - often self-deprecating, always quick, and occasionally landing him in hot water, such as the time he referred to the retirement community called Leisure World as "Seizure World."

As a legislator, McCain is better known for his failures, such as the fight against Big Tobacco, than for his successes. It must be noted, though, that as one of the most powerful members of the Senate he has pushed through sweeping legislation on telecommunications, transportation, and other business issues. On international and military affairs, he is one of the Republican Party's most sought-after spokesmen.

Still, his most famous cause clbre, to the dismay of his party, is campaign-finance overhaul. He wants to ban the so-called soft money - unlimited contributions to political parties - that he says allow for undue influence by special interests in the political process.

"I've always been a reformer," says McCain. "I've always been advocating a line-item veto, gift ban, lobbying ban, no earmarking, no wasteful spending, no pork-barrel spending."

The record, though, is more complicated. McCain did not become a champion of amending campaign-finance practices until after his brush with political death in the Keating Five scandal 10 years ago. In that episode, five senators, including McCain, were found to have pressured bank regulators on behalf of savings-and-loan operator Charles Keating, a campaign contributor.

The Senate Ethics Committee admonished McCain, the only Republican of the five, but found that he hadn't broken any Senate ethics rules. Still, for a man who values honor and integrity above all, the episode was devastating.

He often calls it the most painful experience of his life - worse even than prison camp in Hanoi.

"It was a transforming moment for John McCain," says former Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, who presided over the Senate's Keating Five inquiry and is now a co-chairman of McCain's presidential campaign.

Senator Rudman says McCain's label as a maverick is overblown. He has a solid conservative voting record, a history of bipartisanship, and even on campaign-finance reform, McCain eschews the most liberal stance: public financing of campaigns. McCain critics complain his blanket indictments of the Senate as a corrupt institution make him appear self-righteous.

Rudman also maintains the issue of McCain's temper is "phony," calling him a passionate man who won't abide injustice. But McCain himself knows his reputation for temper is his political Achilles' heel. Over lunch at a diner in Peterborough, N.H., the senator spoke about how he's worked particularly hard over the past 10 years not to fly off the handle over others' failings or perceived slights.

As a Navy flight instructor, he rode his young charges pretty hard, he says, because "I was emotionally committed to their success." In later years, he came to regret how tough he was on people. At a POW reunion in 1978, one of McCain's former students recalls introducing himself and getting in response an immediate apology: "I'm sorry for the way I was then."

McCain knows the spotlight is on his comportment - and Senate foes during the most recent round of campaign-finance debate tried mightily, and failed, to get him to blow up.

"George Washington and Dwight David Eisenhower would give in to anger on occasion, and Bill Clinton, too," says McCain, digging into a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich that he has generously salted and peppered. But, he continues: "In the 10 months of this campaign, no one has ever been able to say that I've lost my temper.... On the floor of the Senate the other day, I had a clear understanding that the worst thing I could do is show anger. I knew it would be incredibly harmful to me, my effort, my friends and supporters."

McCain even feels bad about the time, several years ago, when he got so angry at his son Jack - then age six or seven - that he pulled over his Suburban and shook him hard by the arm. "I don't know if he remembers that, but I sure do," says McCain.

Journalists, too, have faced his wrath, particularly those at his hometown paper, The Arizona Republic. After the paper published a biting cartoon several years ago about his wife's then-addiction to prescription drugs, McCain didn't speak to the paper for a year.

Ask him anything

But outside of Arizona, his good relations with the press are legendary. McCain religiously returns journalists' calls and welcomes the intellectual challenge of tough questions. If elected president, he says, he promises weekly press conferences. Riding around New Hampshire from dawn till dusk in the back of a bus with reporters, fueled by doughnuts and coffee, McCain never announces "last question." His staff are relegated to the front of the bus.

Whether or not McCain ever reaches the Oval Office, his friends are convinced he's found his calling. Former POW Everett Alvarez recalls the first time he ever met John McCain, at the prison camp.

"Here's this white-haired fellow, talking to everyone, patting 'em on the back, talking away," says Mr. Alvarez, who went on to high-level Republican appointments in Washington. Upon finding out who that was, Alvarez thought to himself, "Well, hey that's John McCain. He's either going to be a politician someday or the world's greatest used-car salesman."

"Believe me," he adds, "he's no used-car salesman."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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