From a Vietnam prison to the United States Senate

FAITH OF MY FATHERS by John McCain Random House 349 pp., $25

If nothing else, the recent history of American politics has shown the importance of "character" as a key issue in gauging and choosing leaders. It's been both painful and amusing to watch politicians of all parties and persuasions try to explain or deny "youthful indiscretions," some of which occurred well into adulthood.

John McCain, United States Senator from Arizona and Republican presidential candidate, has had unusual opportunities to learn about character. "Faith of My Fathers," his new family memoir, details a life marked by privilege and excess as well as the kind of challenges that most of us can barely imagine.

It's a fascinating history of a remarkable military family. McCain's grandfather and father were both four-star admirals and sea-going combat commanders in World War II. More important, their records show them to have put the well-being of their sailors above all else, including their own careers - a lesson they taught John McCain. They also showed by example the importance of fatherly love. They may have spent long periods away from home, but they were not distant or distracted fathers.

This book (written with Mark Salter, the senator's administrative assistant) will be better known for its break-your-heart account of McCain's five-plus years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Shot down over Hanoi in 1967 on his 23rd combat mission, he was tortured and placed in isolation for long periods - once for more than two years.

During one particularly bad time, he was continually beaten and trussed up in ropes for several days until - after what he calls "feeble attempts" at suicide - he was forced to sign a confession of "war crimes." Although many POWs had the same experience (and although he refused an offer of early release), McCain still sees this as a personal failing.

Many such stories are told here, stories of courage and humor and love among men who - like most military pilots - had a reputation for physical toughness and macho independence but who, in the end, survived on tenderness, community, and a different kind of mental and spiritual strength.

Of his fellow prisoners McCain writes: "They were a lantern for me, a lantern of courage and faith that illuminated the way home with honor, and I struggled against panic and despair to stay in its light." Here, he gets to the core of those ineffable qualities of wartime brotherhood and self-sacrifice that are so far beyond common notions of "patriotism." "Faith of My Fathers" does this better than any other book I've read by a Vietnam vet, with the possible exception of Michael Norman's 1989 work, "These Good Men."

Elected officials typically affect a self-deprecating manner, but McCain shows genuine regret for his "crude individualism," his "long history of transgressions and improprieties" at the Naval Academy, and for a temper that not only plagued him in school and in the Navy but surely helped bring upon himself the wrath of his North Vietnamese tormentors.

"When you're left alone with your thoughts for years, it's hard not to reflect on how better you could have spent your time as a free man," he writes. "I had more than a normal share of regrets."

Like most Vietnam "ex-cons," as they jokingly refer to themselves today, McCain matured and moved on, having learned, he says, some of life's most important lessons during his incarceration. His second career as an elected official has been marked by mistakes, embarrassments, and setbacks as well as a noted independence on such issues as campaign finance reform. But whatever he accomplishes will have been forged on the anvil of Vietnam.

*Monitor correspondent Brad Knickerbocker was a United States Navy combat pilot in Vietnam.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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