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Rebel with a cause chases the presidency

In John McCain's thinking, it is one thing to break the rules and quite another to break the faith.
He's spent a lifetime walking the line between the two.
The high school troublemaker became one of the U.S. Naval Academy's "Bad Bunch," graduating fifth from the bottom of his class. The academy underachiever became a "bad apple" to his captors in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, turning his defiance into a virtue. The "tough resister" of the prison known jokingly as the Hanoi Hilton became an American hero, soon on the fast track to a seat in the Senate.
McCain never lost his anti-authoritarian streak along the way, though, and it has been both his greatest asset and Achilles' heel in a lifetime of politics.
Ever disinclined to follow the herd, Republican McCain has achieved his greatest legislative successes in alliances with Democrats. He's also piled up a full repertoire of over-the-top wisecracks, and had famous flare-ups with colleagues _ not typically part of the biography for most U.S. senators.
"He's always had that somewhere-between-independence-and-renegade streak," says former Sen. Gary Hart, who was in the wedding party when McCain married his second wife.
Now, on the verge of his 72nd birthday, McCain is trying once again to strike the right balance, this time in pursuit of the presidency.
He is offering himself both as a rabble-rouser and a reliable Republican. He has written dismissively of the "obfuscation of politics." But he's also trimmed his sails in pursuit of the prize.
When McCain was asked, in an AP interview, to list some adjectives to describe himself, "honorable" and "ambitious" were the first two words to tumble out of his mouth.
"In the political arena," McCain says, "you don't have to have gray areas on your principles and values, but you have to have some compromising postures in order to achieve a common goal."
Unlike Democratic hopeful Barack Obama, McCain has a long history as a prisoner of war, senator and presidential candidate. So much of his identity revolves around his years as a POW that it is easy to overlook all that came before. But, as McCain points out, that amounted to "a whole life."
By the time McCain was shot out of the sky over Vietnam at age 31, he'd already crashed a plane into Corpus Christi Bay, ejected from another jet that flamed out as he was flying solo, survived an explosion aboard the carrier Forrestal that left 134 dead, and generally lived large, as he once said of his grandfather.
He'd toyed with the idea of joining the French Foreign Legion _ until he looked at the minimum nine-year enlistment. He'd knocked down power lines flying too low over southern Spain and romanced a Brazilian fashion model in Rio.
He'd married a beautiful divorcee, adopted the former model's two boys and had a daughter with her.
A predilection for what McCain describes as "quick tempers, adventurous spirits, and love for the country's uniform" was encoded in the family DNA.
His father and grandfather, the Navy's first father-and-son set of four-star admirals, had set such a low standard for good behavior at America's naval academy that John Sidney McCain III's self-described "four-year course of insubordination and rebellion" got little more than a yawn from his family.
Speaking of his father, McCain once pronounced himself "little short of astonished by the old man's reckless disregard for the rules."
And yet, for all the raucous tales of misconduct, the midshipmen of the McCain family abided by the school's honor code not to lie, cheat or steal.
Tucked away in a corner of McCain's Senate office, there is a yellowed, three-page telegram hanging in a simple black frame.
The once-secret cable recounts a conversation at the Paris Peace Talks between the chief U.S. and Vietnamese negotiators. In it, America's Averell Harriman, reports: "At tea break Le Duc Tho mentioned that (North Vietnam) had intended to release Admiral McCain's son as one of the three pilots freed recently, but he had refused."
The cable was written in September 1968. It would be four and half more years before "Admiral McCain's son" came home. His captors had hoped to use early release of McCain _ whose father was soon to become commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific _ as a propaganda ploy.
When McCain refused to play along, they told him: "Now it will be very bad for you." And they were true to their word.
McCain returned home from his five and half years as a POW on crutches and unable to lift his arms. He still can't raise them above his head.
He says he's "never known a prisoner of war who felt he could fully explain the experience to anyone who had not shared it."
He seems more at ease joking about his incarceration than analyzing it. More than once he's quipped after a distasteful chore: "That's the most fun I've had since my last interrogation." And when a Senate aide's child got into hot water at school, McCain once advised, "Tell him to confess. ... It always worked for me.'"
The advice evoked his darkest hour in Vietnam, when McCain's will was broken and he signed a confession. Still, McCain defied his guards. To his captors, just as to his superiors back at the naval academy, he was exasperating.
"He had to carry a different burden than most of us and he handled it beautifully," says Orson Swindle, a former POW cellmate who remains a close friend. "He didn't need any coping mechanism; that's just built into him."
Even in prison, McCain played to the bleachers, shouting obscenities at his captors loudly enough to bolster the spirits of fellow captives. Appointed by the POWs to act as camp "entertainment officer," a "room chaplain" and a "communications officer," McCain imparted comic relief, news of the day, even religious sustenance.
It started with "Saturday night at the movies," Swindle says. That is, McCain rendering play-by-play action and line-by-line dialogue from famous films. It proved so popular, there was soon Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday "night at the movies" feature McCain's antics, Swindle recalled.
McCain told the AP his Vietnam POW experience "wasn't a turning point in me as to what type of person I am, but it was a bit of a turning point in me appreciating the value of serving a cause greater than your self-interest."
It taught him, he says, "that if you put your country first, that everything will be OK."
The choices in life, the friends and the enemies, would rarely be as black-and-white again as they had been for McCain in prison.
McCain's experience there gave him new confidence in himself and his judgment. But it did not tame his wild side, and his marriage was a casualty. McCain blames the failure of the marriage on "my own selfishness and immaturity" and has called it "my greatest moral failing."
One month after divorcing his first wife, Carol, McCain married Cindy Hensley, 17 years his junior.
(He'd lied about his age, telling her he was four years younger. She did too, telling him she was four years older.)
"He was everything I was looking for," Cindy McCain recalls of their first meeting, "and I wasn't looking."
McCain was lucky: Carol McCain, who had been in a crippling car accident while her husband was imprisoned in Vietnam, let him out of the marriage without theatrics or recriminations.
McCain's war story had made him a celebrity in Washington. And when he became the Navy's liaison to the Senate, he quickly established friendships with some of the younger senators, who would stop by his office, put their feet up, and talk about events of the day. The experience opened McCain's eyes to the impact that politicians could have, and to the notion that he could be one of them.
His 1981 marriage to Cindy, the daughter of a wealthy beer distributor in the western state of Arizona, helped clear the path forward. In one day, McCain signed his Navy discharge papers and flew West with his new wife to a new life. By 1982, he'd been elected to the House and four years later to an open Senate seat. He and Cindy would have four children, to add to the three from his first marriage. Their youngest child was adopted from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh.
McCain set about establishing a conservative voting record, a man who guarded taxpayer dollars. But just months into his Senate career, he made what he called "the worst mistake of his life." He participated in two meetings with banking regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a friend, campaign contributor and financier who was later convicted of securities fraud.
Keating became part of a scandal over mortgage institutions known as savings and loan associations, and McCain was tagged as one of the Keating Five _ five senators accused of trying to get regulators to go easy on Keating. McCain was cited for a lesser role than the others by the Senate Ethics Committee, which faulted his "poor judgment."
But to have his honor questioned, he said, was in some ways worse than being tortured in Vietnam. "It had an indelible impression on him," says former Sen. Warren Rudman, who sat on the Ethics Committee at the time. "It was an assault on his integrity."
In the 1990s, McCain shouldered another wrenching issue, the long effort to account for American soldiers still missing from the war and to normalize relations with Vietnam.
"People don't remember how ugly the POW-MIA issue was," says former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, a fellow Vietnam veteran, who credits McCain for standing up to significant opposition. "I heard people scream in his face, holding him responsible for the deaths of POWs. 'You came home alive in 1973. There are prisoners still alive and they're being tortured and mistreated because of you.'"
McCain spent years trying to live down the taint of Charlie Keating. Yet even in this campaign, he has been dogged by questions about the lobbying ties of his close advisers.
Over the years, he went to great lengths to prove himself. He became the standard-bearer for reforming campaign donations and railed against spending for legislators' pet projects. He even attacked Senators' own perks of office, like free, reserved parking spots at Washington airports.
That helps explain why John McCain is not the most popular senator on Capitol Hill. But it is not all.
"Everyone knows about his temper, his inability to get along with people," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said earlier this year.
McCain is famous for expletive-laced outbursts at his colleagues, but opinions differ on whether he deploys his anger tactically to achieve his goals, lets it loose as an expression of righteous indignation, or simply loses control.
"There's nothing strategic about being passionate about something," Cindy McCain told AP. "You are or you aren't. He's a very straight shooter."
Former Republican Sen. Bob Smith remembers an altogether different dynamic, particularly between McCain and fellow Republicans.
"He definitely could intimidate people," says Smith. "He could mock you, he could needle you, he could belittle you. He did it to me on a couple of occasions."
McCain loves the naval expression to "keep a steady strain" on the lines between ships. It's his way of telling aides and supporters not to get too cocky in the good times, too low when times are tough.
He's seen it all come together _ and apart _ more than once.
His upstart bid for the presidency in 2000 took flight in the first primary state, New Hampshire, only to get flattened by an ugly whisper campaign against his family.
He settled back into Senate business, helping create the Gang of 14 senators, Republicans and Democrats, who pulled the Senate back from the brink of a disastrous blowup over judicial nominations.
Cindy McCain says his desire to be president never really went away, but he bided his time through nearly eight years of George Bush.
"He always said if the opportunity arises again, 'I would love to try it again,'" she said. "But it wasn't like a dream he couldn't live without."
McCain's campaign for the Republican nomination this time all but destructed last summer as he ran out of money and there was a power struggle in his campaign staff. But he battled back, carrying his own luggage and sitting in the middle seat on airliners.
His path to the nomination this time inevitably invited comparisons to his insurgent campaign of 2000; it seemed less freewheeling this time, more calculated.
His shifts on issues such as taxes and immigration seemed designed to placate the Republican right.
"He appears less flexible," says Kerrey. "He appears to be something different than what he was."
Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican-turned-independent who backs Obama, credits McCain for going his own way in the Senate, but worries that in reaching out to the right during the campaign, he's "compromised his credibility."
Gary Hart, another Obama supporter, doubts McCain is a new man.
"I don't think you get to be 70 years old and then fundamentally change," says Hart. "McCain's gyrations have more to do with figuring out his own party than anything else. ... He's had to sublimate for obvious reasons."
McCain bats away that notion, saying it's a myth he's changed positions on key issues. "All I can say is that we all grow. We all grow wiser. And we all refine our positions," he said.
McCain points to his support for the surge in troops to Iraq, far from popular at its inception last year, as evidence he's unafraid to swim against the tide.
When John McCain was 64, he worried in print that the maverick "act might be getting a little tired for a man of my years."
"American popular culture admits few senior citizens to its ranks of celebrated nonconformists," he wrote in his memoir. "We lack the glamorous carelessness of youth and risk becoming parodies of our younger selves."
That was eight years ago.
Does McCain worry, in 2008, that his signature persona has lost its cachet?
"I hope it means I'll still put the country first and my party second," he says. "I hope it means that I'll still do what I think is right."

Updated : 2021-07-26 11:42 GMT+08:00