Military culture, pragmatism shape McCain

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

mary altaffer/ap
Getting things done: Republican presidential candidate John McCain on board his campaign plane last month during a tour dubbed 'It's Time for Action.'
john duricka/ap/file
Time in the spotlight: At left, John McCain appeared at a Senate Ethics Committee hearing in 1990 about the so-called Keating Five scandal.
stephan savoia/ap/file
GOP candidate McCain addressed a town-hall meeting in Spartanburg, S.C., during his last presidential run in 2000.
Air Force officers greeted Navy Cmdr. John McCain at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama upon his release from captivity in North Vietnam in 1973.

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.

"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.

What is clear is that McCain beats both Democratic presidential rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton on values, in part because of his military background. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 54 percent of registered voters said McCain "has background/set of values I identify with," compared with 46 percent for Ms. Clinton and 45 percent for Mr. Obama. If McCain is going to be elected president, it will be because of values, and in spite of the unpopular Iraq war he supports and a struggling economy, analysts say.

The fact that McCain has far more life experience than Obama, the likely Democratic nominee and 25 years McCain's junior, could also work to his benefit. But just as important will be how McCain touts his experience and how he explains his quirky Senate record.

To some McCain observers, the senator's military career goes a long way toward explaining how he approaches policy.

"When you come from a military background, I think you're less ideological, less partisan," says Margaret Kenski, a Republican pollster based in Tucson, Ariz. "It's a career that's very much task-oriented, getting a vital job done."

McCain himself, in a Monitor interview last fall, touted the apolitical traditions of the military. "I don't think my father ever voted," he said. "Generally speaking, most military officers try to keep a very big separation between their military duties and the political side."

Indeed, the last career military man to serve as president, five-star general and war hero Dwight Eisenhower, had no political affiliation during his long service. He was recruited by both major parties to run for president in 1948, but declined. In 1952, a Republican "Draft Eisenhower" movement succeeded.

From Navy man to congressman

For McCain, the transition from military to political life was more deliberate. In 1977, his flying days over, McCain was assigned to be the Navy's liaison to the Senate, a position his father once held. According to Timberg, McCain got "the classic Potomac fever." The senators, likewise, took to the irreverent military officer with the extraordinary back story.

"Suddenly, he's with people generally his age – the Bill Cohens, Gary Harts [then senators] – and he finds out that he really likes this stuff," says Timberg. "He not only likes it, but he says, 'Hey, I can do this, and I bet I can do it well.' At that point, I think everything starts to move in one direction."

By the time McCain arrived in Washington, his personal life was in transition. His marriage was already falling apart – McCain accepts the blame – when he met and fell for the young, beautiful daughter of a wealthy businessman from Phoenix. In early 1981, McCain retired from the Navy, and he and his new wife, Cindy, settled in Arizona. As if by design, the congressman from the district near Phoenix suddenly retired, and McCain won the seat. Four years later, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater – the godfather of Republican conservatism, whom McCain had gotten to know during his Navy liaison days – retired and McCain easily succeeded him.

In McCain's House and early Senate years, conservatives considered him "an upcoming conservative hero and a conservative stalwart in Congress," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU). Then in the late 1990s, McCain began to "move left," Mr. Keene says.

While McCain's lifetime ACU rating of 82 percent puts him within the conservative range (defined as 80 or above), that masks his annual scores of the past 10 years, which routinely dipped below 80, sometimes into the 60s. The nonpartisan National Journal magazine, in its member rankings, also found that McCain has moved toward the center since the mid-'90s, when the GOP took control of the Senate. When Mr. Bush became president, having defeated McCain in a contentious nomination battle, hard feelings were evident as McCain voted often against his positions.

McCain's presumptive nomination – made possible only because Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee split the conservative vote – has left some conservatives deeply dissatisfied.

And there's a larger problem: This presidential race will be fought in the center, and so McCain must walk an ideological tightrope, trying to convince the right that he really is conservative – or at least conservative enough – while going after the moderate and independent voters who may be more appreciative of his forays off the Republican reservation.

The McCain record

The senator's voting record shows consistency on some core Republican matters, such as opposition to abortion and support for free trade. He has also been an ardent supporter of the Iraq war from the start, but not always in lock step with how the White House has prosecuted it – for example, pushing early on for more troops than Bush was willing to send.

McCain has been a longtime crusader against earmarks, or "pork," the money legislators slip into bills for special projects in their states and districts.

In other areas, such as tax cuts, he is fairly consistent – except when he's not. In 2001, McCain was one of only two Republicans to vote against Bush's $1.35 trillion 10-year tax cut, complaining that it disproportionately benefited the rich. Two years later, he voted against additional tax cuts, repeating his earlier reason and also citing the cost of the Iraq war. Now he favors making the tax cuts permanent, arguing that letting them expire is essentially a tax hike.

As the presidential campaign has progressed, the list of issues where McCain has veered from his maverick position has grown, providing ammunition for Democrats who say he's no straight-talker. In February, he sided with the president when he opposed a bill that would have required the Central Intelligence Agency to follow the Army Field Manual's rules for interrogating prisoners, which prohibit torture. Human rights advocates say McCain betrayed his usual outspoken opposition to torture, but the senator argues that he voted no because he believes interrogators' options should be kept open – a stand that blurs his usually bright line against torture.

A recent study by the Arizona Republic newspaper found that, since 1999, in cases where McCain cast the deciding Senate vote, he almost always sided with his party. But after 21 years in the Senate, McCain is best known for teaming up with Democrats on high-profile issues that anger conservatives. On campaign finance, he and Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin began working together 13 years ago and, in 2002, produced the most significant reform in a generation, banning unlimited donations to the parties and limiting issue ads.

On immigration, he has teamed up with liberal icon Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts during the past few years and proposed legislation that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and a new guest worker program. McCain's unorthodox position nearly sank his presidential hopes, and since last summer, he has generally stuck to the party line, emphasizing border security first.

On climate change, McCain has worked with independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, but has failed to pass legislation. On the campaign trail, McCain has made climate change one of his top issues – a clear pitch to the political center and a swipe at Bush, who opposes mandatory limits – but in the larger arena of environmental issues, McCain's voting record is mixed.

In fact, on any given day, on many issues, it can be difficult to predict how McCain will vote.

"McCain is more conservative than most people think," says William Dixon, a political scientist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. But, he adds, "I honestly don't think McCain has an ideology that is coherent.... He has a grab bag of issue positions that he adopts because, in many cases, he thinks it's the right thing to do, but in others, it's a question of what will advance [his] interests at the moment."

Not that there's anything wrong with that, Mr. Dixon notes. Advancing one's interests is standard behavior among politicians. But McCain is aiming higher, trying to maintain the image of the maverick truth-teller he has carved out for himself. In a way, he has put himself on a pedestal, almost inviting the press and his political adversaries to show the ways in which he is just another politician. And, in a twist that has political observers salivating, McCain's likely opponent in November, Obama, faces the same challenge.

McCain has caught flak for how he has used his wealthy wife's corporate jet for campaign travel. Some critics have also taken issue with his claims of integrity, given his acknowledged infidelity while still married to his first wife.

Recent news stories focusing on land-swap deals in Arizona have shined a spotlight on how McCain campaign contributors have benefited from legislation he has pushed. The latest one centered on a measure in 2005 that allowed an Arizona rancher to trade remote land for federal property that was then developed by a major McCain fundraiser. The deal was aided by lobbyists who used to work for McCain.

A McCain spokesman says no lobbyist influenced the senator on the deal, and that McCain believes so-called legislative land swaps, when properly employed, benefit conservation. But such stories could cast a shadow over McCain's efforts to present himself as squeaky clean on the role of money in politics, and on Washington's revolving door of lobbyists in and out of government service.

McCain has taken heat for having so many lobbyists at the top of his campaign, though the other candidates have also dealt with conflict-of-interest issues with top aides. The challenge for McCain, going forward, will be to spin his extensive Washington experience as a plus in a campaign where voters want change. He has served as chairman of a key Senate committee, Commerce, and shepherded major legislation through to the Oval Office. He has also served on the Armed Services Committee since he joined the Senate and is currently the top Republican there.

But his high-profile bipartisan projects are what the campaign will tout. Former aides to McCain speak of his natural inclination to try to work across the aisle when controversy arises. For example, in 2005, the so-called Gang of 14 – seven senators from each party, with McCain as the lead Republican – successfully defused tensions over judicial nominations.

A President McCain, sure to face expanded Democratic majorities in both houses, would be expected to follow the same impulse. "He'll constantly be seeking out [Democrats] to find compromises to get things done," says a former staffer.

McCain as leader

Though McCain has no executive experience in government or business, he did, for a few years, reach management level in the military after his release from Vietnam. With McCain as commander, Replacement Air Group 174 in Jacksonville, Fla., received its first-ever Meritorious Unit Citation.

Former McCain aides describe a civilian leadership style that comes straight out of the military.

"He really tries you out and tests you early on, then if he likes you, you get a lot of leash. And if you don't do well, then the leash gets yanked and maybe cut off," says Lorne Craner, a former staffer in McCain's Senate office who now heads the International Republican Institute, which McCain chairs.

Some former McCain aides have fallen out with the senator, and declined interview requests. McCain's well-documented temper – which the senator himself acknowledges, and has worked to control – may well be part of the story.

Other former aides have happy memories of their time with McCain. "I'm gonna sound fatuous: He's inspirational," says Dan Schnur, communications director of McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. "There are a lot of people who have very strong, negative feelings about him. But once he decides that you're going to be part of the cause, he's one of the most inspiring leaders you'll ever see."

Experience profiles of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama ran April 16 and April 17, respectively.

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