SAN DIEGO -- John McCain endured 5 1/2 years of captivity, beatings that broke bones and months in solitary confinement. When he emerged from a Vietnam prisoner of war camp, he was a hero. Yet still he worried how his father would react to his confession under duress.
Adm. Sidney McCain Jr., who bombed the city where his son was imprisoned, already knew from naval intelligence sources that his offspring had confessed to crimes against the people of Vietnam.In their first meeting, father and son embraced.
"I'm proud of you," the older man said. "You did the best you could."
More than 25 years later, tears well in McCain's eyes as he slowly repeats those words -- "I'm proud of you" -- his voice hushed.
The searing story of his POW experience is central to McCain's presidential campaign. The Arizona senator's war record sets him apart from the rest of a crowded GOP field. Name one other true-blue hero in the bunch, his advisers challenge.
They are shipping videotaped biographies across the country and urging their candidate to share his war story more freely. When California Republicans gathered for a recent convention, McCain aides had the biography playing 24 hours a day on one channel in the delegates' hotel rooms.
McCain is writing a book about his father and grandfather (both were Navy admirals) and his POW experience. It is due out in September, a few months before the primary season.
Driving from speech to speech, McCain calls back to Washington and asks his staff, "How many veterans have called?" They're signing up in droves, senator.
In a series of interviews during his first big campaign swing, McCain squeezed out memories of his time in captivity and discussed how they shaped the politician he became -- and the president he wants to be.
A Navy brat, he was a troublemaker at the Naval Academy. He flouted authority. He now discusses his youthful indiscretions with a dose of pride, flashing an ain't-I-cute smirk when he tells GOP crowds that he finished fifth from the bottom in a class of 894.
He was shot down during a bombing mission over Hanoi in 1967, dragged from a lake by Hanoi residents and taken to prison critically injured.
He was told he could return to the United States but refused to leave until Americans captured before him were released. He feared the Vietnamese wanted to release the admiral's kid as a propaganda move.
Rejecting the deal kept him in jail until the war ended and made him a war hero. Yet McCain admits that he nearly accepted the communists' offer.
"I agonized over that decision for a long period of time, but I kept coming around to it being a public relations ploy," McCain said.
Every Christmas, McCain's father would visit U.S. troops at the South Vietnam border and wander off alone -- a few feet into enemy territory. He would stand and stare toward the northern horizon.
McCain's campaign is forming a group of veterans called "the Warriors," led by war buddies who plan to march on Iowa and New Hampshire to help him. His staff has identified 150,000 veterans in New Hampshire as potential supporters.
"He would be the very best president," said retired Air Force Col. George "Bud" Day, a trial lawyer in Fort Walton, Fla., who was McCain's commander in prison. "It's got a lot to do with the war. John went into a POW camp a young man and came out of there basically a seasoned cold man who learned an awful lot about how brutal life can be and how wonderful men can be and how wonderful this country is."
After McCain refused to return home, the beatings and abuse began. His jailers wanted him to confess to crimes against North Vietnam.
One jailer, a man whom the U.S. prisoners only knew by the vulgar nickname they gave him, woke McCain every morning and yelled, "Bow."
McCain never would, and paid the price. "I started every day with a beating," he said.
Recalling the tormentor one day on the campaign trail, McCain spit out the five-letter nickname between clenched teeth. "If I saw him on the street today . . . ."
He didn't finish his sentence. With his hands suddenly balled into fists, he didn't have to.
Bob Dole's heroism in World War II did little to boost his fortunes as the 1996 GOP nominee, but advisers believe McCain's case is more relevant. McCain's war story burnishes his carefully cultivated image as a maverick; advisers say it helps explain why he withstood political pressure and bucked his party in ill-fated missions to reform campaign finance laws and crack down on the tobacco industry.
"This goes to his tenacity and grit," said McCain pollster Bill McInturff. Most politicians say they'll cut pork-barrel spending, but people don't believe them, he said. "When John McCain says that, people say, 'Given his history, if he says he'll stand up and not back down, I believe it.' "
"He has an interesting shtick for his campaign. Unique," said Scott Reed, who ran Dole's unsuccessful bid. "I think most Americans know somebody who was in Vietnam or whose life was touched by Vietnam and can relate a lot easier than to World War II experience."
McCain puts it this way: "It's given me a greater sense of confidence that I know the difference between right and wrong, that I can look at an issue and determine a position and stick to it."
His lowest moment came after a beating left him with a broken arm. "I was at the end of my rope, mentally and physically," McCain said.
He signed the confession.
"I remember every detail. It's vivid. The shame and disappointment," he said. "But I knew I had to bounce right back. The guys who didn't ended up like Pavlov's dog -- walking around doing whatever they were told."
Though McCain is praised for resisting the Vietnamese, doubts linger in his mind.
"I still wonder if I did everything I could, if I could have done more to resist," McCain said, yanking at his collar. "There were guys who did better, who were tougher. Those are the guys I really admire."
McCain says the POW experience showed him the best and worst in people.
"It was in a way the best time in my life," he said, strange as it sounds. "Funny times. Acts of bravery. Great friends."
Being held captive "crystallizes you down to the essence of your being. Those who are good become their very best. Those who were weak become their very worst."
He thinks it made him become his best: A House member, a senator and perhaps a president.