Forty-one years ago, on the most fateful day of his life, Navy pilot John McCain heard the warning tone signaling that an enemy weapon system had locked onto his aircraft. He was moments from dropping bombs on his target, Hanoi, which, with Soviet help, had become the city most heavily fortified against air strikes in history.
McCain did not want to have to return to this hostile airspace. The 31-year-old pilot calculated that he could unload his arsenal and still avoid the oncoming missile. He was wrong.
His aircraft took the hit, and its right wing sheared off. As the A-4E Skyhawk plummeted from the sky, McCain ejected, suffering grievous injuries. He spent the next five and a half years, at times close to death after being tortured, in the so-called Hanoi Hilton, an infamous North Vietnamese prison camp.
How did the skilled aviator make the wrong call that day? At a life-and-death moment, McCain, like other pilots in war, had to comprehend lots of variables -- from the location of the target to the performance of his aircraft and, of course, the enemy's capabilities. This calibration of various factors during a mission is called "situational awareness," as described in Hard Call, a 2007 book by McCain and his longtime aide Mark Salter.
Reflecting on the decision that changed his life, McCain laments that he had "placed too much faith on what was beyond my knowledge or control: luck. And my luck ran out that day." McCain refers in Hard Call to the "lapse in self-awareness that prevented me from recognizing the cockiness that had blinded me to one of the immutable principles of war and life: Luck is unreliable."
Four decades later, as the Republican presidential nominee, McCain isn't confronted with anything close to a split-second, life-or-death decision. Still, one thing the silver-haired Arizona Republican has learned from that misjudgment in Vietnam: He cannot afford to rely on blind luck.
Although he's no stranger to casinos and enjoys playing craps, when it comes to policy, McCain is not about to simply roll the dice and hope for the best. He has, however, shown himself willing to stick his neck out and make calculated gambles. In fact, he has demonstrated, in this campaign and throughout his political career, a willingness to jump into risky situations and to confront his own party.
Even though he often makes speedy decisions that seem, at times, to be impulsive, his friends insist that McCain proceeds only after taking stock of the rewards and perils of a course of action. But that calculation does not end his decision-making.
Those who know McCain well invariably describe his strong reliance on his instinctive feel for an issue. What separates him from most other politicians is that the 72-year-old actually seems to relish pushing the envelope and doing the unexpected. While many lawmakers race away from risks, McCain seems to thrive on taking a bold stance.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who has traveled with McCain to Iraq and Afghanistan, observed, "He is willing to do things and go places that a lot of people fear to go. He trusts his gut a lot -- he makes some decisions that on the surface perhaps look very unconventional. He is a risk taker."
But that risk taking is not rash, insisted former Navy Secretary John Lehman, who has known McCain for three decades. "I wouldn't say [he's a] gambler," Lehman said. "John McCain is an excellent poker player because he is instinctively a very good and accurate calculator of risk [and] reward. That is not gambling."
Again and again, McCain has staked out positions on contentious issues despite warnings that he would pay a steep political price for doing so. His advisers cite a succession of issues on which McCain went out on a limb, from supporting more troops for Iraq, to backing an immigration reform proposal that nearly cost him the nomination -- not to mention helping to defuse an explosive partisan showdown over judicial nominations that threatened to gridlock the Senate.
Even his signature legislative success, passage of a sweeping campaign finance reform law in 2002, put McCain at bitter odds with a large segment of the Republican base, who still loathe the legislation.
More recently, as the nation tumbled into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, McCain lunged to play a central role. He even briefly suspended his campaign rather than merely offering counsel from the sidelines. Depending on who is telling the tale -- his supporters or his Democratic critics -- McCain either hastened the ultimate outcome by bringing various parties to the table, or he injected presidential politics into the negotiations and slowed down consummation of a deal.
His supporters call McCain's approach gutsy and decisive. They contrast his style to that of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who, they argue, rarely takes politically difficult stances.
Others have a slightly different take in evaluating McCain's approach. "He is someone who can turn on a dime and make a decision that surprises even his closest advisers," said Darrell West, vice president and director of the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution. "That seemed to be the case when he put [Alaska Gov. Sarah] Palin on the ticket. He seems an impulsive-type individual, who trusts his instinct and makes decisions very rapidly."
Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University and an expert on the Senate who served in the Navy and was close to a number of pilots, agreed. "Even the squadron commander -- which Senator McCain was, particularly in a single-seat Navy fighter -- is in his own little world. If you have been targeted, your radar tells you there's a missile coming after you. You have to make a decision fast. I think Senator McCain took that with him into the Senate. He [flies] very much by the seat of his pants."
Forget self-doubt. When confronted with a problem, McCain moves ahead, confident that his involvement can ameliorate a situation or spur conflicting parties to reach an accommodation -- or that he can force action by denouncing bad actors. Earlier this year, for example, he was quick out of the box to denounce Russia as the aggressor in its conflict with Georgia; the Bush administration eventually echoed McCain's tough stance.
Since he was first elected to Congress in 1982, McCain has demonstrated that he does not avoid hot issues. Sometimes, as with his sudden decision to come off the campaign trail to work on the financial bailout legislation, critics say that he appears impetuous.
In recent weeks, the Obama campaign has pushed the theme that McCain is erratic and does not have a steady hand in times of crisis. But those who know him well adamantly disagree that he is rash.
Lehman, in praising McCain's ability at assessing risks, draws on his experience as a fighter pilot. "When you are in a dogfight, you have to make calculations on the best information you've got," he said. "You can't say, 'Wait a minute, let's call this dogfight off until I have more information.' In a presidency, [you must act] when you are going to have imperfect information."
The combination of his quick calculation of various factors and his willingness to ride against the political current was evident from the moment McCain took office. In 1983, his first year in the House, he opposed President Reagan's deployment of marines to Lebanon despite his great respect for the commander-in-chief and despite overwhelming congressional support for the move.
McCain's approach to that decision was similar to his modus operandi throughout his career. He questioned experts in the field, including Gen. Tom Carpenter, a Vietnam veteran who was then a corps commander at the U.S. Military Academy.
As McCain wrote in Worth the Fighting For, Carpenter had concluded that U.S. goals were unlikely to be met with the means that Reagan was prepared to employ. A force of 1,600 marines was at a serious disadvantage in the middle of a civil war.
"We're not going to keep the peace there -- not with this force -- and we shouldn't take any more casualties to figure that out," Carpenter said. "You should vote against it."
McCain immediately drafted a statement, with Carpenter's help, arguing that the presence of U.S. forces would not make a difference. "The longer we stay in Lebanon, the harder it will be for us to leave," McCain said on the House floor. "We will be trapped by the case we make for having troops there in the first place."
Carl Smith, a McCain pal who flew jets with him in the Navy said, "You had this rather peculiar, high-energy freshman Republican saying this [deployment] is not sound. That shows you that McCain did not acquire this independence through seniority. He always had it. He looks at these things, he comes to a conclusion, and, if he thinks [an action is] wrong, he will speak out. Damn the politics."
Within a month, McCain's stance was sadly vindicated when a suicide bombing killed 241 marines and 58 French soldiers in Beirut.
Fast-forward to the presidential campaign 25 years later, and McCain is sounding a lesson that he learned from Lebanon and subsequent policy battles: A commander-in-chief must act boldly and resolutely, sometimes even when information is sketchy.
"The next president ... won't have the luxury of studying up on the issues before he acts," he told a crowd in Virginia Beach, Va., on October 13. "He will have to act immediately.... I come from a long line of McCains who believed that to love America is to fight for her. I have fought for you most of my life. There are other ways to love this country, but I've never been the kind to do it from the sidelines."
Deal-Maker or Deal-Breaker?
A dramatic moment in the presidential campaign came in late September as the financial marketplace tottered on the verge of collapse. Congressional leaders scrambled to respond to a White House proposal for a mammoth legislative package to reassure investors, provide liquidity to lenders, and restore confidence on Main Street.
An examination of this volatile period gives a snapshot of how McCain responds as a crisis unfolds. The GOP presidential nominee relied on the advice of confidants and took risks to advance what he saw as the broad national interest.
It began with jockeying on Capitol Hill as lawmakers wrestled with the White House's $700 billion plan to rescue the financial marketplace. "We need the Republican nominee for president to let us know where he stands on what we should do," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on September 23.
The senator from Arizona called Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, perhaps his closest ally on Capitol Hill, to get a take on Reid's statement. "John calls me and says, 'What the hell is that all about?' " Graham recalled in an interview. "I said, 'Well, they are trying to make you own this, John.... They are trying to set you up to be the fall guy if they can't pass this thing -- and intimidate you, obviously, into signing on to any package they come up with.' "
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was not about to hold a vote on the package unless it had some Republican support, Graham told McCain. But many Republicans were so unhappy with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr.'s proposed bailout -- and his initial take-it-or-leave-it approach -- that they wanted to vote against it.
Graham made the case to McCain that his personal involvement could make a difference. The South Carolinian understood his GOP colleagues' unhappiness. They were being asked, just six weeks before Election Day, to support an unprecedented intervention by the federal government into the marketplace, a move that their constituents overwhelmingly opposed.
"I said, 'John, Bush can't move these [House Republicans]. Paulson has alienated them.... The only way we are ever going to get a better deal is if you come back here and we try to get the House Republicans on board.' "
Graham added, "It wasn't good for the country or for us politically to just have this thing hanging out there."
As in other high-wire situations, McCain made a quick decision. He announced on September 24 that he was suspending his campaign to return to Washington, and he urged the president to convene a meeting of political leaders to achieve bipartisan consensus.
"We must meet until this crisis is resolved," he said, adding that the presidential debate scheduled for September 26 should be postponed. "Now is our chance to come together to prove that Washington is once again capable of leading this country."
When McCain arrived on the Hill on September 25, senior senators in both parties were scrambling to work out the broad contours of a deal. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Republican conference chairman, said that more than 40 GOP senators backed a proposal that incorporated much of Paulson's approach. Graham and other McCain allies, however, say that those numbers were not real. "That agreement did not have a snowball's chance in hell of passing, because it had 20 percent of potential revenues, profits [from asset sales], going to ACORN," Graham said, referring to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a group now being accused of voter-registration fraud that could have gotten money from a housing trust fund designated in the bill.
When Graham and McCain joined a lunch meeting of Republican senators, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire was outlining "the deal." McCain said that the Senate could not ignore the House Republicans, who preferred that the government offer insurance to the banking industry rather than make direct purchases of mortgage-backed securities.
As the Arizonan left the meeting, he delivered a blunt message. "He said, 'Thank you for all the hard work, but I am not going to support any deal if it doesn't take care of the taxpayers,' " Graham recalled. McCain went on: "I didn't come back to sign on to anything. And just like Iraq [on the surge], if I have to be alone, I will be."
That shook up the meeting, Graham said. "You know, Lamar [Alexander] and these guys are great guys, but they wanted to roll the House."
When a White House meeting convened later that day, McCain didn't say a lot -- except to make clear that policy makers could not ignore the concerns of House Republicans in the rush to get an agreement. His comments set off fireworks, and the meeting exploded into a partisan meltdown.
Democrats were miffed. They thought that a deal was close at hand and that McCain had thrown a lit match into the negotiations. But House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, was grateful. "If it were not for John McCain supporting me at the White House when I said, 'Whoa, whoa, time-out,' they would have run over me like a freight train," he later told reporters.
Then, even though no agreement was near, McCain flew to Mississippi for the first presidential debate, which went on as scheduled. Graham insists that McCain had indeed changed the situation, and that House Republicans would have a seat at the table.
Things hit a rough patch when the House initially rejected the deal on September 29. But when the Senate passed it after adding insurance and tax provisions (and dropping the ACORN-related provision) to make it more palatable, the House followed suit on October 3.
Was McCain erratic, as Democrats charged, in grandstanding on Capitol Hill, or did he help bring the parties together?
"If he hadn't come back, you would have had bicameral gridlock," Graham insisted. "The House was set in stone. They weren't going to move, and nobody was able to get them to the table other than John. Here's how he did it: He listened to them. He didn't accuse them of being Neanderthals."
Charles Black, a senior adviser to McCain, contrasts the veteran senator's conduct during the episode to that of Obama -- who remained mostly on the sidelines.
Obama and the Democrats had a different take. "You remember the first day of this crisis, [McCain] came out and said the economy was fundamentally sound," Obama said at a campaign rally in Dayton, Ohio, on October 9. "Two hours later, he said we were in a crisis. I don't think we can afford that kind of erratic and uncertain leadership in these uncertain times."
From Disgrace To Reform
A turning point in McCain's political career came after he made what he has described as "the worst mistake of my life." He twice met, in 1987, with federal regulators who were investigating the practices of Charles H. Keating Jr., who was "a good friend and generous supporter."
Keating, as described in Worth the Fighting For, was unhappy at regulators' tough treatment of his thrift, Lincoln Savings and Loan. In fact, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board found such serious wrongdoing at Lincoln that it ended up referring the case to the Justice Department.
McCain and four other senators whom Keating had also showered with campaign donations, met with regulators at the businessman's request. Although McCain writes that he limited his actions to inquiring about the status of the regulatory board's examination of Lincoln and its valuation of the thrift's property, his participation -- and his friendly relations with Arizona resident Keating, including several vacations at Keating's Bahamas retreat -- landed him among the "Keating Five."
Ultimately, Lincoln collapsed. Taxpayers wound up footing a bill of $3.4 billion for its reckless and illegal actions. Keating did prison time for securities fraud before an Appeals Court overturned his conviction.
By November 1989, as more thrifts collapsed, the story of the Keating Five made headlines. The Senate Select Ethics Committee launched an investigation and, after protracted proceedings, chastised McCain and Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, for "poor judgment." It found no improper conduct on their part. The panel harshly rebuked the actions of the other three senators -- Alan Cranston, D-Calif.; Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz.; and Donald Riegle, D-Mich. -- effectively ending their political careers.
McCain writes of going through hell during the 14-month investigation. "He told me that from his point of view it was worse than being in Vietnam and in prison," former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., said in an interview with National Journal in 1997. The questioning of his honor was almost more than McCain could bear. "He said to me once on the floor while it was dragging, 'Warren, please, if you want to line us up against the wall and shoot us, do it. But please do something -- this is agony.' "
"The calculation [by McCain] was, 'I am dead serious about changing the culture in Washington.' "-- Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
After he was exonerated with the slap on the wrist, McCain became Capitol Hill's most zealous advocate for limiting special-interest money. His campaign finance reform crusade put him at odds with most members of his party. During the long struggle to get the measure enacted, McCain displayed a greater deftness in legislative strategy than he had previously demonstrated.
He reached out to an unlikely ally in 1994, Russell Feingold, D-Wis., a liberal, studious, first-term senator who was not especially well known. Feingold told NJ in an interview in 2001 that McCain called him "out of the blue" and said that he had been looking at his voting record on various reform issues and was impressed.
Feingold agreed to join the Arizonan in an effort that began with attacking "earmarks" -- projects stuffed into appropriations measures without scrutiny. That effort led to their battle for broader reform to limit the influence of money in campaigns.
The pair's push for campaign finance reform failed five times over a six-year period. McCain's relentlessness was clearly fueled in part by his desire to rid himself of the stench of the Keating Five episode. Throughout this period, then-Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, one of only four senators who backed McCain's presidential candidacy in 2000, said that the Arizona lawmaker infuriated his colleagues.
"Someone turned to me on the Senate floor and said, 'Why does McCain do this? Doesn't he understand that senators don't like it, it's not helpful, it makes them mad, it will hurt his relations with them?' I looked at the guy anhttps://login.yahoo.com/config/mail?.intl=usd said, 'I just don't think John cares.' "
But McCain did care about getting campaign finance reform legislation signed into law. As Elizabeth Drew describes in her book Citizen McCain, he learned from earlier setbacks. For example, as his colleagues took potshots at his self-righteousness, McCain reined in his famously fierce temper. He told Drew that after the battle for reform in 1999, he would not rise to the bait.
"I'm not going to let them pull me into personal combat," he said. "I'm not going to engage in that again."
In her somewhat fawning 2002 account of McCain's efforts, Drew concluded that McCain had shown that he could be disciplined and even "remarkably good-humored."
"He turned out to be more long-sighted, a shrewder strategist, a more sophisticated legislator than had been generally thought," she wrote. "This was a different man than the one in earlier fights. He had learned and grown, and put that knowledge to good use. He led."
Enactment of campaign finance legislation is clearly McCain's biggest achievement in Congress. Yet when President Bush signed the measure in the early morning of March 27, 2002, he did so in private. No photographers and none of the bill's sponsors were invited.
The Palin Pick
Before the 2008 Republican National Convention, few people even in Washington knew who the governor of Alaska was. So when McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, he surprised the political cognoscenti.
As with his decision to call Feingold, however, McCain says he had studied Palin's record as a reformer and picked her because she would be unafraid to take on the Washington establishment. Appointed to the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2003, Palin had raised questions about the chairman's conflicts of interest with oil companies. He ultimately resigned. Palin later filed an ethics complaint against the state's attorney general. He, too, eventually resigned. Then she challenged Frank Murkowski, the Republican governor in 2005, and won.
"She's a reformer through and through," McCain said during the final presidential debate. "It's time we had that breath of fresh air ... coming into our nation's capital and sweep out the old-boy network and the cronyism that's been so much a part of it that I've fought against for all these years."
Still, the 44-year-old former mayor of Wasilla has been in the state's top job for only two years. So why did he choose her?
Some of McCain's closest confidants, including Graham, had pushed for Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn. "I was very high on Senator Lieberman, simply because I thought that would be a statement to the country that the old model was going to be replaced by a new model, but I couldn't be more pleased with Sarah Palin," Graham said. "The calculation [by McCain] was, 'I am dead serious about changing the culture in Washington. I am going to pick somebody not from this town who has got a demonstrated, proven record of doing things fundamentally different from most politicians -- take a corrupt system and turn it upside down.' "
The vice presidential choice gives as good a window into a presidential nominee's decision-making as any other judgment in the campaign. McCain's allies see his selection of Palin as a combination of reassuring true believers in the party, who have never been enthusiastic about him, and sending the message that his administration would not be business as usual. But Democrats, and some Republicans, see the pick as a rash gamble that further reinforces their critique that McCain is impulsive.
Lehman responds that "he calculated the risks, and Governor Palin really appealed to him because he believes it is time for really fundamental rebooting of the way government does business. He had done an awful lot of due diligence on her and her record up there, and read her speeches; and so clearly he felt she'd be a great complement, somebody to really become his understudy."
"It was about energizing the base," added Torie Clark, Mc-Cain's press secretary in the 1980s. "It was, 'Can this person bring some of what I hope to bring to Washington and be willing to poke somebody in the eye if you think that person is wrong, and be willing to go after the old-boy network?' He loves that."
Democrats see the pick as further evidence that McCain is a reckless gambler. "It showed incredibly poor judgment," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said in an interview. "His selection of Sarah Palin -- who is wholly unqualified for the office of vice president, and certainly for president -- showed that John McCain cares more about throwing a Hail Mary pass and winning an election rather than selecting someone who would be best positioned to help him run the country."
Thune sees the choice as reflecting McCain's classic decision-making style. "He was doing something that was not what everyone else expected," he said. "It was very McCainesque."
And what exactly is McCainesque? "It is consistent with his career in public life that he has not been afraid to go against the grain, and not necessarily follow the logic and the wisdom of the political intelligentsia," Thune said. "These are decisions made from his gut, and that's part of what people find very attractive in him, especially at a time in America, and particularly in politics, when there are so many inauthentic people who say one thing and do another. That authenticity is one of his most attractive qualities."
This article appears in the October 25, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.