John McCain's memoir -- a second life in politics

October 27, 2002|By Mike Leary | By Mike Leary,Sun Staff

Worth the Fighting For: A Memoir, by John McCain with Mark Salter. Random House. 396 pages. $25.95.

John McCain's life has already inspired two remarkable books -- The Nightingale's Song, by my Sun colleague Robert Timberg, and his own Faith of My Fathers, both animated principally by his military service, during which he exhibited more bravery and resilience than all but a few can imagine. After his A4-E Skyhawk crash landed in the middle of Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967, he spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, alternately taunting his captors and boosting the morale of his fellow prisoners with his irrepressible spirit.

Mustered out of the military, casting about for a second career, he landed in his wife's home state of Arizona, determined to become a politician. His unsought celebrity as a POW eased his passage to Congress and the Senate and deflected any allegation that he was a carpetbagger. "I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona," he snarled in righteous anger at an opponent who raised the charge, "but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."

This memoir is the story of the rest of McCain's life, and it is not a criticism of him that his passage as a politician is not nearly as compelling as the first half of his life. How could it be?

While McCain was born into the military -- his father and grandfather were both admirals -- and almost instinctively knew the right path to walk, he has made plenty of stumbles on the political stage. In the book, he is derided as an "opportunist," a "wise-ass," a "ridiculously poor student of experience," a naif, "immature and unprofessional," possessed of a legendary temper and willing to lie for political gain. And those are self-criticisms. The appealing thing about McCain is that he is convincing when acknowledging missteps, and more than willing to correct his course while maintaining fidelity to his core beliefs.

The book, like McCain's political career, meanders. There are detours to discuss figures who have had some sort of influence on him, however remote: Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata as played by Marlon Brando; the apostle of air power, Gen. Billy Mitchell; and baseball hero Ted Williams, who endorsed his foe in the 2000 presidential primaries, George W. Bush.

There is an overlong discussion of why politicians shouldn't get preferred parking privileges at Reagan National Airport, and a predictable, wordy explanation of his questionable behavior as one of the "Keating Five," accused of doing favors for a powerful land developer and financier who was a generous campaign contributor.

But he gives short shrift to his abortive run for the presidency, almost certainly his last shot now that he has turned 66. And his principal legislative achievement (inspired in part by the Keating debacle) -- a law that chokes off soft campaign contributions to national political parties -- is mentioned in almost the book's last breath.

The book is strongest, most insightful -- even humorous, at times -- when he writes about Vietnam, the search for MIAs, and his ultimately successful campaign to restore diplomatic relations. Why would someone who was tortured by the Vietnamese, whose downing is still commemorated by a statue in the heart of Hanoi, feel that way?

Because, he said, in what has become a personal credo, he was interested in doing "what's right."

Mike Leary is the national editor of The Sun and a former books editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he also was European correspondent. He has lived in both Germany and England.

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