ST. PAUL, Minn. - Media detectives seeking clues to the real John McCain have been tracing a well-worn path to the Naval Academy campus in Annapolis.
That's where McCain exhibited early signs of leadership, though not in a traditional way. He was the unlikely ringleader, more than half a century ago, of a group that came to be known as the Bad Bunch.
McCain led fellow middies on forays over the wall that surrounds the academy grounds, to local bars outside the seven-mile limit where they could drink legally and to other party sites. As a former classmate was quoted as saying, "Being on liberty with John McCain was like being in a train wreck."
You can find that line on page 34 of The Nightingale's Song, and it helps explain why Annapolis has seen that uptick in visitors. They've been coming to see the man who wrote the book on the future presidential candidate.
McCain's biographer is Robert Timberg, a fellow Naval Academy grad and decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. These days, he is editor in chief of Proceedings, the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute, an independent outfit dating to 1873.
The Nightingale's Song came out in 1995 (expanded and reissued last year as John McCain: An American Odyssey). It is an impressive - and durable - work of history, biography and, indirectly, memoir.
"Bob Timberg," McCain once said, "often gives me the unsettling feeling that he knows more about me than I do."
He certainly knows more than other journalists. Timberg was the first serious writer to concentrate in depth on McCain, and his research has stood up extremely well. Despite all the attention that has been paid to the candidate's life, from his childhood until his first White House run in the 1990s (the period Timberg researched), little new information has come to light.
Instead, Timberg's work is a gift that just keeps on giving to other journalists. Only the other day, after Joe Biden became Barack Obama's running mate, news organizations across the country carried a juicy anecdote: that evening, years back, when McCain, "a red bandanna clenched in his teeth," danced on a table in Athens with Jill Biden, the wife of his Senate colleague, during a Foreign Relations Committee trip.
The source? Who else?
Everyone from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to reporters for Australian TV have either cribbed from Timberg's writings or probed him in interviews for insights about McCain.
The two men met by accident, more than 20 years ago. Oddly enough, it was at the White House.
As Timberg recalls it, McCain, then a freshman senator, had gone to meet with President Ronald Reagan as part of a group of legislators summoned from Capitol Hill to discuss U.S. aid to the anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua.
Timberg, then The Sun's White House correspondent, was among the reporters clustered around the senators after they emerged from the West Wing.
McCain, spying an academy ring, asked Timberg where he got it.
"Same place you did, Senator," replied Timberg, who arrived in Annapolis two years after McCain graduated and came from a very different background.
John S. McCain III is an heir to Navy royalty. His father and grandfather were admirals and academy graduates. Timberg's father, Sammy, was a vaudevillian and wrote songs for Popeye, Betty Boop and other Max Fleischer cartoon characters.
The senator casually extended an invitation to visit his office, and the reporter accepted.
Timberg was already thinking about doing a book that would chronicle the impact of the Vietnam War on the lives of a handful of prominent academy graduates. McCain, he would realize, fit right in. Before long, the senator was getting the full Timberg treatment: an incredibly exhaustive research effort that, the author says now, was deliberately intended to leave no table scraps for others.
For three years, Timberg had a standing appointment with McCain. Every two weeks, he'd spend an hour quizzing the senator about his life. Out of those conversations came the first detailed retelling of McCain's courageous experiences as a prisoner of war.
Timberg says the best question he has been asked is: What is the quality that defines John McCain?
"The answer is: incredible resilience," he says. "I mean, you can't keep him on the mat. You think he's finished, and you go wandering off, and you leave him for dead - and he sure as hell seems dead, as he did in mid-2007," when his campaign collapsed. "But then you realize that somehow there's still a little bit of life in him, and then you realize, there is a lot of life in him, and then the next thing you know, he's coming at you again."
Timberg says that, as well as he knows his subject, McCain has surprised him in the current campaign. "Hopefully, it's an anomaly," he says, "but I never thought I would hear John McCain question another man's or woman's patriotism, as he did with Barack Obama, when he said [Obama] wants to win a campaign more than he wants to win a war."