McCain rebels -- within own limits

`Individualist' defies system, won't reject it

Campaign 2000

January 17, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

John McCain is posing in his underwear, presiding over a dozen men in his Naval Academy dorm room under a hand-painted sign that reads "CAC." It stands for Century Athletic Club, a rebel group he helped form that included only midshipmen with enough demerits to risk expulsion from Annapolis.

In the fading color photograph, McCain wields a bayonet like a gavel, sitting with an academy rule book open in his lap, a self-styled agitator holding the obedient world in his judgment.

But skip from this picture in a friend's photo album to the Class of 1958 yearbook, and there is McCain, done up in dress whites, smiling from his now-famous spot fifth from the bottom of the class. A poor showing, no doubt, but a remarkable one for the guy who once led an insurgent group in his skivvies. The young McCain may have flirted with the idea of washing out of the academy, but it never happened. He survived in the system as much as he defied it.

"He'll cut his own path," says old friend Frank Gamboa, "but he won't cut his own throat."

Long before McCain became a Navy flier, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a congressman, a senator and now a Republican candidate for president, he was a mutinous midshipman brawling with an institution that reared generations of McCains. But he battled only to a point: Even as McCain rebelled, he never self-destructed, ever mindful of the family legacy that shadowed him -- and always aware that it was more fun to buck authority from inside the room than out on the street.

Today, the 63-year-old candidate still offers himself as a maverick, but once again he is fighting from inside the establishment. His attack on the moneyed interests of Washington has defined his campaign, but he still plays by rules that allow for aggressive fund-raising and flights on private corporate jets owned by campaign donors.

The three-term Arizona senator has never entertained leaving the fold and becoming a third-party candidate, even as he has clashed with the GOP's traditions and some of its most senior leaders.

These dueling McCains -- the one who rejects the system, the other who glides within it -- were given their first full expression at the academy. There, he was not battling just the academy rules, but also the expectations of a powerful naval family. McCain's father and grandfather were celebrated academy alumni and decorated war commanders. Theirs was an ever-present force behind the academy walls.

"Whenever I would get right up to the line, I was constantly reminded that my father was a captain, and my grandfather was a very well-known naval leader," McCain said in an interview while campaigning in New Hampshire, sitting in an empty hotel banquet room before heading to a veterans' event. "I always knew people would look at me and say, `That's Admiral McCain's grandson.' "

Even so, McCain's academy career was marked by near-misses. In his last semester, he risked expulsion after getting slapped with extra demerits for a messy room. McCain appealed to superiors to save him. His mother said she called the commandant, a personal friend, and wondered aloud whether such unfair treatment could drive a young man to hang himself -- her son excluded, of course. The campaign paid off, the demerits were reduced. Mrs. McCain's son was spared.

At school, he learned how to break the rules without violating the academy's sacred honor code. Ten seconds after 6: 15 every morning, when the 10th bell rang ordering all midshipmen awake with their beds stripped, McCain just kept sleeping. The trick: He did so on the floor, resting on a pile of blankets, so that no one would have to lie when reporting to a superior that none of his roommates were in bed.

Late at night, McCain would jump over the academy wall for a drinking sortie at the Town Hall, an Annapolis bar. But when shore patrol came near, he reacted with the ferocity of a soldier in enemy territory, jumping in strangers' cars for lifts back to the dorm. He never got caught.

In class, he found ways to pass subjects he rarely studied. In any course that bored him, such as the trade school-style lessons on naval mechanics featuring excruciating reruns of the film "The Magic of Steam," McCain hit up his friends for the essential details. He did just well enough to pass.

"You know those ads of a dog with an invisible fence around it? Somehow John's always known what the perimeter is -- not just a line, but a perimeter around his whole life -- and he goes up to it, but he never crosses to the other side," said Joe McCain, the candidate's younger brother, who is working on the campaign.

Following defiant footsteps

In the McCain family, where the men were born short and pugnacious, the academy was a place for rebellion before it became a conduit to better things.

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