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Military culture, pragmatism shape McCain

John McCain's military experience and Senate record show a presidential candidate who values integrity and getting things done.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 19, 2008

Getting things done: Republican presidential candidate John McCain on board his campaign plane last month during a tour dubbed 'It's Time for Action.'

mary altaffer/ap

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John McCain once called it the worst thing that ever happened to him – worse, even, than his 5-1/2 years in a Hanoi prison.

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"It" is the so-called Keating Five scandal of 1989, in which Senator McCain of Arizona and four other senators were accused of corruption, nearly destroying his political career and reputation. For three years, as McCain fought to clear his name, he "alternated between anger and depression, the resilience his Vietnamese captors failed to beat out of him only fitfully evident," writes McCain biographer Robert Timberg.

But how could any experience on Capitol Hill have come close to the torture and extended isolation he was subjected to in North Vietnam?

"In this case, it was his integrity that was being not just challenged, but challenged in a way that people believed that he had … not acted with honor," Mr. Timberg says in an interview. "That's a very big deal with him."

McCain stood accused of inappropriately aiding a friend and contributor, savings and loan operator Charles Keating, by attending two meetings with federal regulators on his behalf. In the end, the Senate Ethics Committee found McCain's involvement to be minimal and issued a mild rebuke.

That brush with political death, as much as his POW experience, has shaped his career in Washington. In addition to being a leading voice on national security issues, especially since 9/11, he became a champion of campaign-finance reform, to the chagrin of conservatives. Now, as he takes on the mantle of presumptive Republican presidential nominee, the McCain brand – a "straight talker" and sometime maverick, willing at times to buck GOP orthodoxy to do what he thinks is right – is under scrutiny like never before.

The McCain brand

Before McCain ever had a notion of going into politics, he was a military man. Born on a military base in Panama, the son and grandson of Navy admirals, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, and a 23-year veteran of Navy service, McCain is steeped in military culture.

Over and over, his campaign ads come back to the values – courage, integrity, patriotism – that political analysts say have made him competitive in a presidential race that, by most indications, should heavily favor the Democrat.

More than anything, the grainy footage of Lieutenant Commander McCain in prison in Hanoi, lying in bed while answering an interrogator's questions, has become the iconic image of his campaign – an unassailable reminder that, short of dying, McCain made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. But in and of itself, McCain's military experience may have limited appeal to voters. After all, in recent presidential cycles, even after 9/11, decorated military veterans have lost to candidates with less distinguished service, or no military service at all – including McCain's loss of the Republican nomination in 2000 to George W. Bush.