Senator regales Mids with tales of academy McCain's career there was less than honorable

September 18, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

U.S. Sen. John McCain is venerated today as a Vietnam war hero, leader of an uphill battle for campaign finance reform and a potential Republican presidential candidate.

But when he was a raunchy high school student in Alexandria, Va., he was known by another name: "McNasty."

And when he entered the Naval Academy in 1954, he became leader of an unseemly senate: the Bad Bunch, a band of midshipmen notorious for slipping over the walls to booze in local dives, according to Robert Timberg's 1995 book "The Nightingale's Song" about USNA graduates in the Vietnam war.

So it was with irony and insight that the senator from Arizona lectured 4,000 midshipmen at Alumni Hall last night on the necessity of virtue in an increasingly cynical America.

His discussion of honor came at a time when the elite officer training school is recovering from a series of scandals involving cheating, car theft and drug use.

The white-haired 61-year-old McCain stood before a sea of white uniforms and explained that he learned much about virtue in the darkness of a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp from 1967 to 1973.

"The most enduring truth I learned was that honor was not synonymous with public acclaim. Virtue is not determined in moments of public attention to our behavior. Courage, devotion, humility, compassion -- all the noble qualities of humanity -- are not practiced in pursuit of public approval. 'Character,' said a 19th century evangelist, 'is what you are in the dark.' "

On a lighter note, McCain joked that he couldn't lie about his "terribly misspent youth" and poor record at the academy.

This was because the man standing beside him -- Admiral Charles Lawson, the academy's superintendent -- was a fellow member of the class of 1958 and roommate in pilot training


Lawson quipped: "John was recently named one of Time magazine's top 25 most influential people in America. If we could have bet your company officer that would have happened back in 1958, we could both have a lot of money."

During his three decades of public life, McCain's reputation has risen, fallen and risen again.

Although he was the son and grandson of Navy admirals and academy graduates, McCain finished fifth from the bottom of his class.

But he went on to win several awards for heroism in Vietnam, including the Silver Star and Legion of Merit, after his Skyhawk airplane was shot down by a missile over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967.

McCain was imprisoned for 5 1/2 years and was tortured by the North Vietnamese. But he refused to be released by his captors until servicemen from less famous families than his gained their freedom.

After his speech, a midshipman in the audience asked McCain if he was going to run for president.

"I am very flattered by all this attention," McCain said. "But I would remind you that as a senator, unless you are under indictment or detoxification, you always consider yourself a candidate for president."

After the audience stopped laughing, another midshipman asked McCain if he could share any "dirt" about his old classmate Larson.

McCain recalled that once when his parents were away from their home in Washington, he invited 300 buddies to a party that "completely destroyed" the residence.

One of those at the wild bash was Larson, who left a lighted cigarette on the family's piano. The cigarette burned down and left a scar that remains to this day, McCain said.

But Larson's reputation was so angelic -- in contrast to McCain's own "McNasty" image -- that when McCain's mother learned who burned the piano, she dismissed the incident.

"If it was me, my mom would have killed me," McCain said. "But with Charles, my mother said, 'Oh, it was Chuck? That's OK.' "

Pub Date: 9/18/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.