They're fierce political opponents, but John McCain and Barack Obama do agree on a literary matter. Each man has picked Ernest Hemingway's novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls" as a favorite, inspirational even. The book tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American who hides out in caves during the Spanish Civil War fighting the fascists. As part of "In Character," our series about famous fictional personalities, NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg takes a close look at Robert Jordan and why he might appeal to both candidates.

SUSAN STAMBERG: The hero of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is a man of honor with the passion to fight for a cause he believes in.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): I was thrilled by him. Robert Jordan was everything I ever wanted to be.

STAMBERG: John McCain recorded on a book tour in 2002. He had just written about Jordan in his memoir "Worth the Fighting For." This past July for Rolling Stone magazine, Barack Obama listed "For Whom the Bell Tolls" among the books that most inspired him. So late in this campaign season, we were unable to interview Senator Obama about books. So, two very different men finding the same man's story inspirational. Surprising?

Mr. ROBERT STONE (War Novelist): Both these men in their way are tough guys, and I think that their code is probably inherent in Robert Jordan. Robert Jordan is really a great and admirable character.

STAMBERG: War novelist Robert Stone.

Mr. STONE: Above all, stoicism, grace under pressure, the 20th century heroism. In fact, Hemingway kind of created the whole idea of the anti-fascist hero. I mean you can't really have Casablanca and Humphrey Bogart and all those characters without the Hemingway character. They all kind of derive from Robert Jordan.

STAMBERG: Scholar Gail Sinclair says Robert Jordan embodies what's called the Hemingway Code.

Dr. GAIL SINCLAIR (Scholar, Rollins College): The idea that we only have this world and that there probably isn't God or a world after this one, so you have to establish for yourself a code of behavior.

STAMBERG: Manly, honorable, Jordan is an idealistic stranger in a foreign land.

(Soundbite of movie "For Whom The Bell Tolls")

Mr. FORTUNIO BONANOVA: (As Fernando) Tell us, Ingles. Why have you come so far to fight for our republic?

STAMBERG: Gary Cooper played Robert Jordan in the 1943 film version of Hemingway's Book.

(Soundbite of movie "For Whom The Bell Tolls")

Mr. GARY COOPER: (As Robert Jordan) A man fights for what he believes in, Fernando.

Mr. BONANOVA: (As Fernando) But in his own country.

Mr. COOPER: (As Robert Jordan) Well, maybe you feel that I'm sticking my nose into other people's business, but I don't feel that way. It's not only Spain fighting here, is it? It's Germany and Italy on one side, and Russia on the other, and the Spanish people right in the middle of it all.

STAMBERG: Jordan's job is to blow up a bridge. It's a bad order, and he knows it. Yet he carries out his mission protecting the small band of fighters who've been helping him in the snow-covered mountains. He sacrifices himself for their cause.

Dr. SINCLAIR: You know, I think back on what Barack Obama had said about his mother saying, you must live so that you make a difference in the world.

STAMBERG: Robert Jordan tries to do that. Jordan is a bright, young American who leaves his comfortable teaching job in Missoula, Montana, to hide in caves with the partisans.

Dr. SINCLAIR: They are a rag-tagged group of guerillas, they are farmers, they are gypsies, and they are people who are disenfranchised from the larger society. So Jordan takes up the cause for those who are less fortunate but not less passionate.

STAMBERG: Barack Obama, Sinclair points out, is also a bright, young American who chose a life of public service over a well-paid law firm job.

Mr. STONE: That's pretty good.

STAMBERG: Novelist Robert Stone imagines another quality Obama might admire in Robert Jordan.

Mr. STONE: The kind of toughness that as a black person in America has to be summoned, you know, when there are so many traps, intentional and unintentional, to undermine somebody's respect and self-respect. And I can imagine that you have to be really tough to be as successful and as eloquent and persuasive as Obama is.

STAMBERG: Robert Jordan is tough, principled, heroic, and doomed. Yet he carries out his assignment. In that 2002 interview on WBUR's The Connection, John McCain said he thought about Hemingway's hero over and over again as a prisoner in Vietnam.

(Soundbite of WBUR radio show "The Connection")

Senator MCCAIN: I knew that Robert Jordan, if he were in the next cell to mine, he would be stoic, he would be strong, he would be tough, he wouldn't give up. And Robert would expect me to do the same thing.

STAMBERG: At the end of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," Robert Jordan is in a forest looking down at the bridge he was sent to destroy. His leg is broken. He tells his young lover, Maria - Ingrid Bergman in the film - when they make love, the Earth moves. He tells Maria she must go on without him

(Soundbite of movie "For Whom The Bell Tolls")

Mr. COOPER: (As Robert Jordan) You go now, Maria.

Ms. INGRID BERGMAN: (As Maria) No, no, I'll stay with you, Robert.

Mr. COOPER: (As Robert Jordan) No, Maria. What I do now, I do alone. I couldn't do it if you were here.

Ms. BERGMAN: (As Maria) No.

Mr. COOPER: (As Robert Jordan) If you go, then I go, too. Don't you see how it is?

STAMBERG: And then, alone, lying there on the pine needles, Robert Jordan faces his death.

Dr. SINCLAIR: He knows that life is good and that it's going to be a bad thing to lose his life. But he's very stoic about it, as Hemingway characters always are. He ends with a phrase that I know McCain has quoted before, and it's a very powerful one. "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for...

Senator MCCAIN: "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for, and I will very much hate to leave it." It's a beautiful phrase when you think about it. And to me, it means everything. Maximize your time. Care about the world, not just your own self. And accept your fate, accept your fate.

STAMBERG: Now fate has given John McCain and his presidential opponent Barack Obama the chance to make history. Their fight schooled, in part, on a fictional character they both admire: Robert Jordan, the hero of "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Ernest Hemingway took his title from a meditation by Renaissance poet John Donne. Writing about the interconnectedness of humanity, the poet observes, "No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of a continent, a part of the main." And Donne's meditation continues, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You can read the first chapter of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and watch clips of Gary Cooper in the 1943 film adaptation of Hemingway's novel on our Web site, This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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