Who Is John McCain? McCain is a decorated war veteran who survived years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He's been a United States senator for 22 years. We know the facts of the Republican presidential candidate's life, but who is John McCain? We look beyond the policy and punditry to the experiences that shaped the man.
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Who Is John McCain?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Two weeks from today in St. Paul, Minnesota, Senator John McCain will accept the Republican Party's nomination for president. By now, almost everybody knows the highlights of his biography. A decorated naval aviator held prisoner in North Vietnam for five and a half years, he represented Arizona in Congress and the Senate for over 25 years, a Republican known to challenge his party's leaders and reach across the aisle, one of the lawmakers caught up in theKeating Five scandal of the 1980s, and an unsuccessful candidate in a bruising campaign for the Republican nomination eight years ago. Should he win in November he would be the oldest person to be elected president the first time. But what do we know about the character, the beliefs, and the events that shaped John McCain?

Later, our summer movie festival continues. Today, it's Femmes Fatales. Murray Horwitz joins us. But first, who is John McCain? We'll talk with people who know him from different stages of his life. We want to hear your questions too, not about his positions or his policies, you can find about those on the website. What you want to know about the personality, the character, the beliefs of the man who would be the next president of the United States. In case you missed it, we did a similar show about Barack Obama on Tuesday. Our phone number is 800-989-8255, email is talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogthenation. And we begin with BobTimberg , the author of "John McCain: An American Odyssey," which is an expanded version of his earlier book, "The Nightingale's Song." He joins us from the studios of member stationWYPR in Baltimore, Maryland. Nice to have you on Talk of the Nation, today.

Mr. BOB TIMBERG (Author, "John McCain: An American Odyssey"): Hey, nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And you write that John McCain's family is a record of military service going back to the revolution. His grandfather and his father were both admirals. You wrote that he sometimes (unintelligible) often grudgingly always did his best to live up to family standards. Grudgingly?

Mr. TIMBERG: Yes, I think without question, it was grudging, at least in those early years. John McCain did not, in his heart of hearts, have this incredible desire to be a naval officer or a naval pilot. If he wanted to do anything when he was a teenager, he wanted to go to a place like Princeton, but the Naval Academy was essentially part of the world he grew up in, the service to the country, patriotism, and that was the - he lived in an ether that was made up of those factors. And eventually, he essentially gave in to what was expected of him and went to the Naval Academy.

CONAN: When you grow up a Navy brat - obviously, his father served in many different places around the world - you're not really from anywhere except the Navy.

Mr. TIMBERG: That's really true and in fact in his - in one of the most stunning events of his career, this was one he was first running for Congress from Arizona in the early '80s, he was - people said he was a carpetbagger because he had, you know, he had just moved to the state about a year and a half earlier. And it was an issue that was really causing him problems, and at one point in a debate, one of the other candidates threw the carpetbagger charge at him, and McCain just snapped and said something along the lines of, listen, pal. I'm the son of a Naval officer. I've lived in a lot of places because when you're in the Navy, you get dragged all over the place. And now that I think of it, the place I've lived most longest in my life was in a prison cell in Hanoi.

CONAN: A devastating response.

Mr. TIMBERG: And - a devastating response and the carpetbagger issue was gone forever.

CONAN: We'll get back to those experiences a bit later on the show, but first let me introduce Frank Gamboa. He's on the line from Fairfax, Virginia. He first met John McCain in 1954 when they were first plebes, first year students at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. They were later roommates for three years. He's now working for McCain's election campaign. And it's nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. FRANK GAMBOA (John McCain's Former Roommate at the U.S. Naval Academy): Good afternoon, Conan, Bob. It's my pleasure to be here.

Mr. TIMBERG: Hi, Frank.

CONAN: And let me just ask you about - what's your first - your first impressions of John McCain when you first met him?

Mr. GAMBOA: Well, my first impression was that he was a total gentleman. He was very astute in judging people and he had a way of looking at you straight in the eye, and not confrontational but very intriguing, very interesting, high energy, and very funny. I mean, he's witty and very collegial. He's just a great guy to be around. And we became friends and we decided to become roommates at the end of plebe year. At plebe year, you don't get to decide anything, but at the end of plebe year, if you survive, they'll let you make a decision. And one of the most important decision is who you're going to live with, of your own volition. So JackDetrick(ph), Keith Vantain(ph ) and myself and John all decided to room together at the beginning of youngster year, and we remained roommates for four years - for three years.

CONAN: There's a great picture of McCain as a boxer at the Naval Academy in his book. McCain just leaning forward, and he says his style was just to come in, weighting in, aggressively throwing punches until either here the other guy went down. Does that sound like the guy you knew?

Mr. GAMBOA: Yes, he was aggressive but not overly so. Just always leaning forward, always wanted to lead the point of discussion. He had a wide circle of friends because he had a wide range of interest. And people just gravitated to him because of - he had such an interest in people that he would draw them out and establish a common basis for friendship. But mostly - you know, we did not have radios or televisions, so we look to each other to entertain each other. And that's why you bond so deeply at the Naval Academy. You just got each other. We were in a boys' school of 3,600 people.

CONAN: Not known as a great student?

Mr. GAMBOA: Well, you know, that's kind of a misnomer. He had the ability to study a subject immediately. We would spend two hours on our math and even spend a half an hour on it. And he would pass. He just had such an active intellect that he would prefer to read novels and history books. And he would do enough to master the lesson but he was very quick study. I was also impressed with his ability to grasp the subject so quickly.

CONAN: And is the...

Mr. TIMBERG: Neal, if I could just interrupt you...

CONAN: Go ahead, Bob Timberg. Yeah.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah, one of the interesting points is that, yes, McCain did not have great academic standing because as Frank said, he essentially blew off courses he didn't like. And he didn't like fluid dynamics. He didn't like thermodynamics. He didn't like calculus. He didn't like differential equations. He didn't like electric circuits. And he didn't like electronics. Well, that was about half the syllabus. The thing that was interesting though...

Mr. GAMBOA: He just (unintelligible).

Mr. TIMBERG: Is that even though he didn't like them, he could go in and talk to one of his classmates the night before a test and say, 'Tell me what I need to know.' And he could pick up enough to pass that test. You know, not - he didn't ace it, but he got through.

CONAN: But he passed. Yeah.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah, he passed it.

CONAN: It's also interesting that both his grandfather and his father were not exactly great students and both later became well known admirals, of course. FrankGamboa, we have something of an impression of him at the Naval academy as a hell raiser. Is that a reputation justified?

Mr. GAMBOA: Oh, that's been a little bit exaggerated. There was no question at all that he was socially vibrant. And especially - he lived in Washington, so he had a wide circle of friends, more important friends, of the opposite sex. So he would invite us to his home, the home of his father, Jack McCain, Captain Jack McCain, and his mother, the delightful Roberta. And they were gracious. They treated us to their hospitality for three years. One time, I came down early for breakfast Sunday morning and Roberta said, 'Well, how many of there are you, Frank?' I said, 'I have no idea. Let me go count.' I came back down, I said, 'There are 13 of us upstairs.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You know one of the…

Mr. GAMBOA: I don't know what - so she sent me out for more eggs and bacon. But you know, he was very social, very entertaining, and could do a good imitation of Marlon Brando.

Mr. TIMBERG: The other thing is, Neal, that - you know, Frank uses wonderful phrase that I've never heard before, about John McCain being socially vibrant. Well, you know, there's also been said of him that going on Liberty with John McCain was like being in a train wreck. So that's pretty vibrant, I guess.

Mr. GAMBOA: Those all apply.

CONAN: Frank Gamboa, what do you see in the man now that you first saw all those years ago and what has changed?

Mr. GAMBOA: Well, you know, because he was a Navy junior and because his father and grandfather were very distinguished naval officers, he had a lot of visitors - admirals that have fought the World War II with his father and his grandfather - and he would, we'd come back from class and there will be a note saying, 'Admiral so and so is in the rotunda to see you.' He'd come down and meet him and they would just be someone who knew his father or his grandfather and just wanted to say hello to John. He would come back and we would say, 'Who is that?' And he'd go with a quick thumbnail sketch of who the naval officer was or why he was known to the family and what relationship he had to his father or his grandfather. So we got a thumbnail sketch of naval history.

But out of all of that, it was obvious that John was very proud of his family heritage, he was very proud of the service ethic, and he was very proud of the Navy. He was just a little bit conflicted on whether he wanted to have the choice of following, but - early on we saw a lot of traits in him. His people skills, his ability to master subjects quickly, his - people just gravitated toward him. He had natural leadership ability. So those skills, I was not surprised at all that he went in to politics when he decided to end his naval career.

CONAN: Frank Gamboa, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. GAMBOA: OK, thank you.

CONAN: Frank Gamboa was one of John McCain's roommates at the U.S. Naval Academy in the 1950s. He was with us today on the phone from Fairfax, Virginia, and he is now part of John McCain's campaign and - well, I think we have answered that email question already about his standing in his class. He was fifth from the bottom, BobTimberg?

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah, he was fifth from the bottom. There is one element there, though, that needs to be clarified. Class standing at the Naval Academy is not totally a function of academic standing or academic prowess. It also includes conduct, in which John McCain stood very, very, very low. It also includes something called leadership qualities, which he most assuredly had, but the leadership grade is tied for obvious reasons to the conduct grade. So if your conduct grade is really low, your leadership grade is going to be really low as well, and those two things, you know, pulled down his class standing. Which is again, not to say that he did, that he was a star academically, because you know, as we discussed, he essentially blew off half the curriculum.

CONAN: Bob Timberg writes in his book that John McCain's instructors at the Naval Academy, like his captors later in North Vietnam, and Republican Party leaders later in his career learned that he did not have great affection for the rules all of the time. We will continue our conversation about what shaped John McCain, the presidential candidate. Stay with us, I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation, I'm Neal Conan in Washington. If you listened to the candidates in this year's presidential election, you'll hear about policy and platforms. Well, you could find that information on their websites. What about the men themselves? The experiences that shaped them, their influences. Tuesday, we focused on Barack Obama, today, John McCain. What do you want to know? Not about his positions or policies, but about his personality, the character, the beliefs of the man who would be the next president. 800-989-8255, email, talk@npr.org. Our guest is BobTimberg , the author of "John McCain: An American Odyssey," and editor-in-chief of Proceedings, the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute, and Bob, McCain'sia a remarkable story. As we mentioned down in his attack plane over North Vietnam, broke his right leg and both arms, he was bayoneted, tortured later by the North Vietnamese. At one point, he declined an opportunity for early release. Many people would call that the resume of a hero, but John McCain, in some ways, considers himself something of a failure.

Mr. TIMBERG: Well, it's interesting, various elements here. Number one, I spent hour upon hour interviewing Senator McCain, much of it about his time in prison. And I essentially detailed in "John McCain: an American Odyssey" what went on there. But I didn't get all that much of it from him, when we talked about his time in prison - what he wanted to talk about - and what he did talk about was the gallantry of his fellowPOWs , and not - whenever I brought up something that I had heard about in which he had acted in a heroic way, that I heard about from somebody else, he would essentially confirm it in a kind of brusque way, but would never elaborate.

And so much of this, much of what I have in my book about Senator McCain's - you know, the way he performed in prison, is from other people. But one thing that's for sure came from him was his explanation of how, of writing a confession, which he did after an extended time in prison in which he had been beaten, tortured, and essentially broken, as in fact, virtually every other prisoner of war there had been broken. Except he didn't know it at that time and when he wrote this confession - in which he wrote in very hyperbolic terms like, you know, say, I am a black pirate and, you know, I bombed hospitals which he never did, and talked about the great, good, wonderful, Ho ChiMinh. I mean, all of these were the kind of signals that he was trying to send that, hey, you know, this isn't doing normal...

CONAN: Writing this under duress.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah, yeah, they're torturing me. But the fact of the matter was that, you know, when he finished doing that and he went back to his cell, it was like - I mean, in his mind the - his father and grandfather, you know, were somehow there and they were scolding and condemning. And, you know, it was like, you know, he could not, you know, he couldn't deal with it and he actually took a shirt and rolled it up, and wrapped it around his neck and climbed on a chair. And fortunately, North Vietnamese guards were sort of watching him through this window in the cell, and they broke in and, you know, knocked him down. But as late as the '80s when I was interviewing him about this, you know, he talked about it as what he called the only blemish. And you know, he said, he'd never forget it.

CONAN: His father for much of the time he was in prison was the overall commander of U.S. Forces in the Pacific, including those in Vietnam. He was offered, famously, the opportunity to get out before other prisoners did and he famously declined that opportunity. Let's get a caller on the line. This is Jeff, and Jeff is calling us fromGreenbrier in Arizona. Or is it Arkansas?

JEFF (Caller): Arkansas.

CONAN: Arkansas, I always get confused - AR or AZ. I apologize.

JEFF: It's OK. Well, my question, you know, I have a lot of respect for John McCain's military service. And I think that it's a tragedy what happened to him, especially the fact that he was tortured, you know. I mean, that's something that at that time, America was not a country that tortured. And I can only imagine that had such an impact on the fact. He was forced to give false confession, the fact that he was beaten, the fact that - you know, all of the - you know, his arms - he can't move it above the shoulder because of medical treatment being withheld from him. And I just wonder how that affected his views on the American way of life once he got back to it. And how that has affected him now that his party's platform is basically to support what, you know, is called extraordinary rendition. The difference is being that in America, we still don't allow beatings and I don't believe he waswaterboarded . I just wonder - I wonder what impact this has had on him and how he has adjusted emotionally to having to offer at least the facade of support for a policy that seems to allow torture.

CONAN: Rob Timberg?

Mr. TIMBERG: I don't think - yeah, I don't, you know - I mean, I don't think it's even a facade. I mean, John McCain was the single most forceful and eloquent Republican in challenging the whole issue of torture andwaterboarding. I mean, and I will tell you that if there's something about waterboarding in the Republican platform, which I don't believe there is, if John McCain were president, it sure in hell isn't going to happen.

CONAN: Both he and Barack Obama have called for Guantanamo Bay to be closed.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yes, they have.

CONAN: Let me ask you also a question. After he got back from Vietnam, it was interesting at - just last weekend in the interview with theSaddleback Conference that he said, he thought his greatest failure was the failure of his first marriage.

Mr. TIMBERG: Well, I think it's close, that's for sure.

CONAN: What happened there?

Mr. TIMBERG: His marriage to Carol McCain?

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. TIMBERG: They had a very warm and loving relationship before he went to prison, before he was shot down. While he was in prison, Carol was in a horrible car accident, which crippled her, put her in a wheelchair for a long period of time. And this was about, as I recall, two, two and half years before McCain was ever released. And Carol, you know, sent the word to the people in the Pentagon, Don't tell John that this happened to me. He's got enough problems of his own. And, you know, there were channels by which, you know, the Pentagon could get a small amount of information to thePOWs , and this is what Carol was trying to stop. At any rate, he never found out about it and he came back in 1973, and, you know, the Carol that had actually been the subject of what I think of as overheated prison thoughts, was not the long tall Sally that he...

CONAN: Remembered.

Mr. TIMBERG: That he remembered. And, you know, he had to - also he confined that, you know, he was just out of prison and, you know, nobody - you know, a very few other people that came out of prison suddenly adjusted really quickly. And he sort of did and sort of didn't, and the marriage just, you know, died. I mean, his...

CONAN: He...

Mr. TIMBERG: Because I think I put it at one point, you know, they had won the war and lost the peace. And...

CONAN: He refuses to put the blame on the war. He says it's been entirely his fault.

Mr. TIMBERG: Well, I know he does. But the fact is that it was this measurable extent of the war. And - but I mean, it certainly was, to a larger extent, his fault, but let's also keep in mind, you know, what he had just gone through. And, you know, he's never one to dodge things but - and certainly it wasn't Carol's fault so, you know, but it was not pretty. Oddly enough though - and this is something I think is very, very interesting - is that Carol McCain, his first wife, remains a very close friend of his. And, you know, Carol will absolutely not say a bad word about him. And, you know, they stay in touch - as they say, they are friends. And during his first campaign, again, that famous first campaign in Arizona for the House, one of the - one of his opponents in the primary called up Carol and said, you know, Hey, I...

CONAN: I tried to dig up dirt.

Mr. TIMBERG: Carol refused to talk to him, and then called John McCain and told him that this guy called her up. And McCain got it, called his rival and said you know, if you ever do anything like that again to any member of my family - and I'm not quite clear what followed that, but it was certainly very threatening.

CONAN: Joining us now on the phone from Scottsdale, Arizona is Bill Shover. He met John McCain back in the '80s as an executive at a newspaper company that owned the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette. McCain had recently moved to Arizona. He was looking to make a business and social connections to gain support for a possible run for office. BillShover and John McCain were friends until - well, Bill Shover, why don't you tell us what happened?

Mr. BILL SHOVER (Retired Newspaper Executive): Well, I don't think we were actually friends. We knew each other, but I did meet John by happenstance at a meeting at the ArizonaBiltmore and, I think the date was June 30, 1981. It was a meeting - Phoenix Chamber of Commerce was hosting a meeting for John Rhodes, who was then the congressman from Arizona. And I just happened to sit next to John at a table of about six people and we started talking and he had told me about his career at the Naval Academy, and I said well, I used to scout the Naval Academy for the Fiesta Bowl, and I know some people there, and we talked about the athletic director and the coaches and people like that who were - people in common we could talk about and John proceeded, to tell me about his experiences in Vietnam and enchanted the entire table. I think about six or eight of us were on the table talking. And he was very impressive, and I came back to the office and told our publisher at that time. His name was Darrow Duke Tully. I think you have information about Duke and his career. And I said, you know, he's a pilot like you, Duke. And he's a man who has served in Vietnam and he had this experience and you ought to get to know him.

CONAN: Duke Tully turned out to be important to John McCain's first campaign and subsequent campaigns. They became great friends, but then Tully - it turned out he had lied about his war record and resigned in disgrace. John McCain then - well, didn't exactly stand by his friend.

Mr. SHOVER: That's right. Duke and John became very, very close friends. They traveled together, they vacationed together. Duke, I think, he was even the godfather of their daughter, Megan. And they were very, very tight all the time doing events out at the air base, they would fly together and everything. So it was just a natural thing when John started talking to him about politics. Duke came to me and said, do you know anything about the career of John Rhodes? What he's going to do? And I said no, I don't know that. He said there's a rumor that John is not going to seek nomination again, and he may step aside. John was then the Speaker of the House from Arizona. He had a distinguished career, a Republican. So he said, you know John very well. Would you call him and find out? And I said sure, I'll find out. So I called John and he was very discreet about it. He said, Bill, I can't tell anybody about this because I'm not announcing it to anyone. And I said this is between us, John. Not for the reporters. So he told me, he said yes, I'm going to announce in a short time that I will not seek reelection. And I didn't tell him the reason why and so, he was fine with that. So I told Duke. And Duke said well, stay where you are, and McCain is going to call you in a few minutes. And within a half hour, John McCain called me. There was a lot of noise in the background and I said John, where you? He said I'm on a freeway. I'm out to way to do a buy a home on Mesa, I think he said within Tempe.

CONAN: That would have been in the district.

Mr. SHOVER: In the district. And I said what are you doing? He said well, tell me about Rhodes. I said well, it's between us, but he is not going to seek reelection, so he's not going to be a candidate. And John said, I'm on the way. So that was the start of what I thought was kind of a question about - of his character. And I told Duke about this, and it didn't mean anything to Duke. And so, John got into a very crowded primary, and I think there were four candidates on the Republican side, and Rhodes had favored one of the other candidates. But we sought out through our editorial power to make John into a national hero, supposedly. So we can - stories about him that he was this man from - who moved in here and had this Vietnam record and all this, and so we built him up as really beyond what we would do for a person in a primary, at least anyway.

CONAN: Bill Shover, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. But thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. SHOVER: Certainly.

CONAN: Bill Shover, a retired newspaper executive, with us by phone from Scottsdale, Arizona. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And here's an email that we have from Tamara or perhaps Tamara. I'm not sure how it's pronounced. I read recently - I believe it was a New York Times op-ed that John McCain has a terrible temper and can be simply mean sometimes. To those who have worked for or with him agree with this. If it's true, is it a significant character flaw for president? BobTimberg, what do you think?

Mr. TIMBERG: I think it's overblown. I mean, John - you know, Senator McCain got mad at me once and flared and you know, 35 seconds later, it was over. And the fact of the matter is my knees didn't go wobbly. And you know, I don't - you know, maybe - I'm an old Marine. I got a pretty thick skin. So this - you know, people getting mad at me doesn't exactly, you know, wipe me out. But you know, I think, you know, that temper thing is - you know, maybe the people that, you know, claim that are - you know, maybe he's really done it. I mean, they may also be overly sensitive, you know, for all I know. In addition, I also know that temper can be a very valuable leadership tool.

CONAN: Here's another…

Mr. TIMBERG: All I know is I have never seen anything about John McCain that indicated to me that he was out of control. I mean, certainly, does he get mad? Yes. But you know, out of control? I've never seen it.

CONAN: We just have a minute left. I did want to ask you about something you wrote about a lot in the opening of your new book. And that's about John McCain's politics since the 2000 election. And well, you used the phrase in your book the allegation that he has been pandering to the right.

Mr. TIMBERG: Well, I mean, pandering to the right, I think, is simply not the case. Although I have to say that in his relationship with Jerry Falwell, that certainly - you know, it falls under the category of if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it must be a duck. And you know - so I found that. You know, if you want to say that's pandering to the right, I'd have to say yeah, I agree. At the same time, I don't think it's been something that he has done consistently over the years. I mean, one of the things that, you know, people looked at was - you know, during the 2004 campaign on their campaign trail together, they hugged.

CONAN: Him and Bush.

Mr. TIMBERG: President Bush and John McCain. And I looked at the video and it seemed to me that President Bush was the aggressor. So if the President of the United States wants to hug you, what precisely do you do if you think that's not a great thing?

CONAN: Bob Timberg…

Mr. TIMBERG: I think you just let it happen.

CONAN: Thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. TIMBERG: Yeah. It was fun, Neal.

CONAN: Bob Timberg's book is "John McCain: An American Odyssey." Stay with us, the TOTN Summer Film Festival.

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