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"John McCain's Private War"

George magazine
January 1999

“Cindy, remember: No one has died on this trail,” Senator John McCain tells his wife. Pause. “Some were hospitalized...a few institutionalized...”

The McCains, their four young children, and a couple of friends are following a Navaho guide single-file down a jagged cliffside. Six hundred feet below lies Canyon del Muerto (“Canyon of the Dead”), one lonesome nook in Northern Arizona’s 84,000-acre Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

“John, it’s slippery,” Cindy mutters as she baby steps over a tricky stretch of rockface.

“Mom,” whoops 12-year-old Jack McCain, “you’re gonna have to be airlifted out!”

“I promise it’s easy from here on,” Senator Dad assures his wife. “A day at the beach.”

The same might be said of McCain’s career: Surf’s up, politically. He is chairman of the high-profile Senate Commerce Committee and a revered Vietnam War heroes. He has made Time’s magazine’s list of the 25 Most Influential Americans and Vanity Fair’s Hall of Fame (putting him in the August company of, uh, Middle East peace envoy Carmine Diaz and Nobel Prize-winning economist Sean “Puffy” Combs). Democrat Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin liberal, hails McCain - a conservative from Arizona - as “one of the greatest Republicans of our time”.

Washington’s hit comedy, The Clinton Follies, has driven up the stock of maverick, straight-shooter politicians like McCain. At 62, he knows this is the moment to seize - probably his last moment - if he has presidential ambitions. The press, ever eager to spice up the campaign stew, seems to be nudging him in that direction. Mike Wallace, the world’s oldest living journalist, has said he’d consider ditching 60 Minutes to become McCain’s press secretary.. Proclaimed Iron Mike: “There’s something authentic about this man.”

A lot of heady, will-he-or-won’t-he-run? speculation swirls around McCain. But presidential big talk doesn’t jibe with the sight of him in short pants. It’s like catching Queen Elizabeth with curlers in her hair. Walking through the C-SPANless desert, wearing sandals and a floppy safari cap, John McCain doesn’t look like Super Senator wrestling with a momentous decision. He’s just another knobby-kneed tourist worried about his kids stepping on a snake.

McCain is simultaneously stumping for reelection and vacationing with the family. They’ll wedge hiking and fishing between town meetings and fundraisers. Canyon de Chelly is awash in history, which why McCain wanted to come. In Navy flight school, he read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire more than aviation manuals. During five-plus years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison (his bomber went down in 1967) he killed some time teaching a class to fellow POWs. He called it the History of the World from the Beginning.

Canyon del Muerto is decorated in spots with petroglyphs: the sun, the moon, a cow...stick figures of soldiers on horseback, rifles raised. In 1864, Colonel Kit Carson positioned troops along these canyon rims. They picked off hundreds of Navaho men, women, and children. Some 8,000 others were herded onto a reservation. “One of the great acts of cruelty by the federal government,” McCain notes.

The McCain family camps under a sky dusted with stars. The next morning, everyone piles into a Land Rover to tour the canyon’s archeological sites. First stop is a cluster of mud dwellings, or kivas, that resemble prehistoric Lego blocks. Dad, Mom, and the kids line up for a test photo.

“Every year, we have our family Christmas card picture taken somewhere,” the senator explains to their guide. “We’re thinking of having it shot here this year.”

That particular bone-colored ruin is more than 1,000 years old. Spanish conquistadors knew it as Casa Blanca. People today prefer its Anglo name: the White House.

* * *

Barry Goldwater, the founding father of modern conservatism, is dead, and John McCain has taken up his mantle of stubbornly independent Voice of the American West. It fits. He recently confounded Arizona conservatives by opposing an anti-affirmative-action referendum. Nationally, he has given his party fits by becoming Feingold’s tag-team partner in a legislative effort to body-slam soft-money campaign contributions. He’s beginning to talk like Goldwater. Last year, when a senator asked McCain if he was going to vote no on the budget, he barked, “I’m going to vote hell no!”

The history buff yearns to escape his own history, specifically the hero label, which, as he has said, “can make your skin crawl”. No use. It’s the bear bell tied to John McCain’s waist, constantly clanging as he moves through the forest of politics. “Truth is, it comes up a lot,” says an aide to a Democratic senator. “He never brings it up. And yet, that image is in everybody’s head I think.”

That “image” is the photograph - front page, New York Times - of McCain, gaunt and on crutches, arriving back in the United States in 1973, a crumpled lost letter finally delivered home. The picture was generations in the making. A distant relative of McCain’s was a member of General George Washington’s staff. A great uncle rode with General Pershing in Mexico. His grandfather and father were Annapolis grads who both became admirals and had ships named after them.

John McCain attended boarding school in Arlington, Virginia, where he slicked his hair back James Dean fashion and earned the nickname “McNasty”. But the Naval Academy, not reform school, beckoned. “I remember speculation as to what class I would graduate in before I was ten years old,” he recalls.

As a kid, an ensign, and a politician McCain has been a rebel with a pause: He knows when to stop pushing the envelope. He toed the academy expulsion line, but never crossed it, graduating fifth from the bottom, Class of ‘58. However, midshipman McCain made a superb bachelor-pilot; practicing dogfights by day, partying for real at night. In 1965, he married Carol Shepp, an ex-model and divorced mother of two. Life turned serious. When Vietnam called, it got deadly serious. McCain left for his twenty-third - and last - bombing run on October 26, 1967. A missile splintered his A-4E Skyhawk, and the plane went down in a Hanoi lake. McCain’s right knee and both arms were broken. Few, if any, POWs did harder time. Medical treatment was withheld. Beatings were liberally administered. McCain’s hair went white. He was on the Auschwitz Diet; his weight dropped to 100 pounds.

Oh, yeah, throw in two years of solitary confinement.

By then McCain’s father was commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. Propaganda alert! The North Vietnamese offered an early release. McCain refused to break the first-in, first-out rule of POW etiquette. More beatings. More torture. He eventually signed a statement saying “I am a black criminal and I have performed deeds of an air pirate.” Such “confessions” - as comical as counterfeit $20 bills bearing Michael, not Andrew, Jackson’s likeness - carry no real-world currency. But to this day McCain feels he let his country down. “I don’t know how people go about forgiving themselves. I never looked at it from that standpoint,” he says. “I just wish I could have done better.”

Yes, he’s serious.

His ordeal ended with the Paris peace accords. The party-boy pilot went off to Vietnam - a Tom Clancy creation, if you will - and came back a deeper, richer character from a Russian novel. The mind held together, but the marriage blew apart, for reasons that include his acknowledged infidelities. POWs are prone to divorce. McCain’s was made more awkward by the fact that during his absence Carol had been injured in an automobile crash and was left with a pronounced limp. Joe McCain, who bailed out of Naval Academy after one year, asked his older brother point-blank if that was a factor: “He told me, ‘You don’t love a woman because of her legs.’ A guy who wouldn’t get out of a POW camp for free isn’t going to abandon his wife because she’s been in a car accident.”

Chapter two of McCain’s life began in 1977 with a transfer to the Navy’s liaison office in Washington. He got a taste of government and on a business trip met Cindy Hensley, the daughter of a wealthy Phoenix beer distributor. They were married in 1980. Shortly thereafter, McCain retired from the Navy and made a methodical - critics contend, a coldly calculating - transition into politics. In 1982, the McCains settled outside Phoenix and he immediately ran for a vacant House seat as a Reagan disciple. When a primary opponent called his ex-wife to dig up dirt, McCain reportedly promised to “beat the shit” out of him if he didn’t back off. The campaign highlight came in a debate when someone asked whether he considered himself a political carpetbagger. “As a matter of fact,” McCain ad-libbed, “when I think about it now, the place I’ve lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”

Game. Set. Election.

Voters keep sending him back to Washington, even as his politics have become more iconoclastic. Things are humming along nicely. Beautiful second wife. Beautiful second family. Frequent guest shots on Imus. If only he could forget that air-pirate confession. “I wish he wouldn’t punish himself so much for it. I wish I could help him exorcize it,” Joe McCain says. “But apparently it’s something welded to the rest of him.”

* * *

There is the Arizona of painted deserts. And there’s the Arizona of “jackalope” postcards, leathery ranchers, and Bob’s Bang Room and Pawn Shop (which apparently caters to customers desperate for quick cash and either firearms or fiery women). The latter Arizona is where McCain ventures on his vacation. At a town meeting in Taylor, he declines to take the bait when a questioner vents about illegal immigration.

“Until the Mexican economy improves,” McCain responds, “Mexicans are going to cross the border. You’d cross the border too. ....It’s no reason to kill ‘em.” At a pizza-lunch fundraiser held at Springville’s American Legion Post #20, he unloads on Clinton’s pay-as-you-go policy for Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers: “The bedroom of our greatest president,” he says, “is being treated like a Motel 6, with the president as bellhop.”

Three recurring topics discussed at these whistle stops earn McCain lots of talking-head mileage. On Iraq, he scolds Clinton for waltzing so long with Saddam Hussein and for turning to the United Nations for mediation help. Bashing Hussain won’t ruffle any colleagues’ or voters’ feathers. Not so campaign finance and tobacco reform. McCain’s biggest legislative crusades.

Last session, he and Feingold - having succeeded in getting a $50 cap placed on congressional gifts - cobbled together a package that would have eliminated soft-money election contributions, strengthened disclosure requirements, and put limits on third-party campaign ads; in short, it would have mucked up incumbents’ chances of getting re-elected. The bill passed the Senate but not with the two-thirds majority needed to squash a Republican filibuster. Likewise, the omnibus tobacco bill denied manufacturers lawsuit protection, raised the price of cigarettes $1.10. And cut curbs on advertising. It cleared McCain’s Commerce Committee, only to be picked apart by the Senate and then buried by big tobacco’s $60-million attack-ad blitz.

Those were bruising defeats. Yet, says McCain, “one of the things I did learn in prison is that there’s no upside to feeling sorry for yourself.” He may revisit tobacco and will “never, ever” pack it in on campaign finance reform. While those issues are big winners in Cactus Country, McCain is. “I’s like to see him run for president,” says Jack Husted, chairman of the state board of transportation, between pizza slices at American Legion Post #20. “We’re never gonna have another war hero. We’re not makin’ ‘em anymore.”

What works in Springville works wonders in Washington. McCain probably boasts the beset news clips in town. His explanation for the good ink? “One of the reasons why I have generally solid relationships with people is I don‘t bullshit ‘em.”

His staff jokes with McCain about being a “media whore”. He famously dragged himself out of bed at 3 A.M. on an eighteenth-anniversary trip to Hawaii in order to appear on Face the Nation. McCain would grant an interview to the Yellow Pages. Maybe it’s pent-up conversation from all those years in solitary. He returns every reporter’s call. “We used to call him ‘our senator’,” says Charles Groehnuijsen, D.C. bureau chief for Dutch public television. “It’s hard the for foreign press to get hold of senators. There’s no votes involved, you know. Who’s going to carry Amsterdam?”

Besides being accessible, McCain is a reliable quote machine. Saddam Hussein? “Calling Saddam Hussein a ‘head of state’ is like calling a pig a princess,” observes McCain. “He’s a bloody tyrant.” Leonardo DiCaprio? “I despise and hate everything about him. DiCaprio is an androgynous wimp, and all he does is smoke in the movie Titanic.” (Relax, Titanic heads. He doesn’t really hate Leo. At least no more than the rest of us. McCain just used him to highlight the perils of teen smoking.)

As for Congress’ failure to enact campaign finance reform: “The American people are beginning to think we’re selling subway tokens to the government gravy train.”

There is one cloud in the positive-press sky floating over sunny Arizona. “The biggest gap in this country’s politics right now,” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, “is the gap between the national media love fest for John McCain and the local media’s detest for him. They find him distant and difficult to deal with.”

That’s not unusual. Home-state reporters shadow politicians day in, day out. They’re ringside at every unhappy event. There have been two McCain doozies. The Keating Five fiasco broke in his first senate term. Political Santa Claus Charles Keating - the smooth operator of a shaky Arizona savings and loan that eventually required a $3-billion bailout - sought to get government regulators off his back by collecting political chits. He met twice in 1987 with a handful of senators. One was John McCain, beneficiary of $166,000 in assorted Keating contributions.

He also was tangled up with Keating in other, perhaps foolish ways, having vacationed for free at his Bahamian retreat several times. Cindy McCain and her father poured more than $350,000 into a Keating shopping center project.

The Democrat-controlled Senate Ethics Committee ignored its own special counsel’s recommendation that McCain and Ohio senator John Glenn be dropped from the case since they didn’t go to bat for Keating. The committee declined. The two men were dragged through the public hearings, but absolved of serious wrong doing. “The Democrats did a terrible thing...to McCain,” says former New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman. “He told me it ranked up there with being a prisoner of war.”

It was Cindy’s turn. In 1994, a Phoenix newsweekly learned that, several years earlier, Mrs. McCain had become addicted painkillers following back surgery. Worse, she had stolen pills from a Third-World medical relief agency that she had founded. Cindy made a preemptive confession before the story ran. She reimbursed the charity and cut a community-service deal with prosecutors, officially putting to rest what’s known in McCain circle’s as “Cindy’s problem”.

Her husband clashed several times with local reporters during those scandals. He has shown flashes of his Scottish-Irish temper in Washington. In Russ Feingold’s first year on Capitol Hill, he took to the Senate floor to question expenditures for an aircraft carrier. McCain gruffly asked Feingold if he had ever been on one (no), then suggested that Feingold (now a close buddy) clam up until he knew what he was talking about. “John McCain is a human volcano. He has an extraordinary temper,” one Democratic senator says. “And this comes from somebody who likes him.”

Hill aides claim that nowadays McCain doesn’t erupt any more than other lawmakers. Actually, he’s more humor-impaired. He once irked some constituents by referring to their retirement community as “Seizure World”, not Leisure World (tepid stuff), compared Newt Gingrich’s popularity to that of serial cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer’s (getting warm), and last June told a lame joke at a Republican fundraiser about Janet Reno being Chelsea Clinton’s real father (blows the bad-taste circuit breaker). McCain apologized to the Clintons, who let the comment slide. Privately, “there were people who were quite upset,” says a senior White House aide, but “anybody who spent six years in the Hanoi Hilton really gets a lot of slack from me for telling a stupid joke.”

Like sleight-of-hand magicians, McCain works best in small-group situations. On TV, in particular, he can appear too tightly wound, as clench-jawed as any ventriloquist. Press secretary Nancy Ives describes him as “the guy you’d want to sit next to on an airplane.” Sounds about right. McCain is nice enough not to hog the armrest. Plus, in the event of a crash landing, he’s a safe bet to keep his head while you’re trying to inflate the in-flight magazine for use as a floatation device.

He spends a lot of time in planes, since the family stays in Phoenix and he commutes to Washington. For somebody who refers to himself as “the old geezer”, he moves pretty well, acting as ringmaster of a small traveling circus of staffers and family. His father lies in Arlington National Cemetery; but, eternally the Washington outsider, McCain plans to be buried on his getaway ranch in Arizona. That’s where he earned his black belt in barbecuing. That’s where his beloved fruit trees grow. That’s where he can be found on free weekends, which is something president’s rarely have. That weighs on a born-again family man, even one groomed from birth for public service.

“Megan is 14,” Senator Dad says. “There’s a place for me the next couple of years before, you know, she reaches 16 and parents are totally irrelevant. Jack is having trouble in school: clowning around, not doing his homework, wearing baggy pants. Jimmy is ten and Bridget is seven. For each of them, it’s important that I be around. I’ve seen so many politicians’ kids who have turned out badly.”

He and his wife are scheduled to have the Talk. About their children. About their future. About the P word. It’ll be soon. As soon as one of them feels ready. “Every time I casually mention it to Cindy,” he says, “she just freezes.”

* * *

Hemingway wrote that “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” John McCain is a cracked teacup that has been glued back together. There are no leaks, but walks slightly stiff-legged. You notice how he occasionally struggles to pick things up, his bowed arms a set of parentheses straining to surround a slippery word. Before every public appearance, an aide brushes his hair. McCain could comb his chest without assistance, but his shattered shoulders won’t allow him to reach as high as his head.

His heart may be strongest “at the broken places.” McCain has about him the contented air of someone who has concluded that he’d rather be a good person than a great politician. That’s what motivated him to accompany Bill Clinton to the Vietnam War Memorial in 1993, back when the President was catching draft-dodger flak. That sense of decency is what built a bridge to David Ifshin, a war protestor who made anti-American radio broadcasts in Hanoi at the precise time McCain was caged in a cell there. Ifshin later became general counsel to the Clinton campaign, and McCain’s dear friend. When Ifshin died of cancer in 1996, McCain said in his eulogy, “I always felt in David’s company that I was in the presence of a better man.”

After his town meeting in St. John’s, McCain - dressed in a Mickey Mouse shirt and trousers with a mended tear in the rump - drives the side streets looking for a landmark. “There it is!,” the senator exclaims, pointing out a modest brick house. It’s the birthplace of Morris Udall, one-time Arizona congressman and Democratic presidential hopeful. Affable Mo Udall, not prickly Barry Goldwater, is McCain’s political guiding light. He embraced a know-nothing freshman Republican. Got him involved in Native American. Poured him a stiff drink of bipartisanship.

They haven’t spoken in a while. That’s because Udall can no longer talk. He has advanced Parkinson’s disease and lies virtually comatose in a Washington veteran’s hospital. McCain visits every few months to sit with his friend, a prisoner of his own body. “I know he likes to see me,” McCain says. “I see the glint in his eye.”

How many other Congressmen visit their old colleague?

“Unfortunately, none I’m told,” McCain says, gazing out the car window as the desert blurs by like jumbled of memories.

* * *

McCain remains a true-believer conservative - pro-life, pro-small government, pro-tax cuts, God bless our guns - but not a predictable one. He’s a conservative you could have a beer with and not get into a fistfight over fetal tissue research, which, to the dismay of some, he supports. He was the only Republican senator to vote against the 1996 Telecommunications Act, feeling it stopped short of genuine industry deregulation. He pushed hard for normalizing relations with Vietnam, which enraged the MIA loonies who insist he was brainwashed while in captivity. He likes the Head Start school program and bilingual education, is wary of U.S. involvement in Bosnia, and nips at Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott for funding pet pork-barrel projects down home in Mississippi.

“McCain is the kind of man I think we’d all like to be president if we could appoint the president,” says New Jersey senator Robert Torricelli. “But John’s uncompromising manner and his ability to stand on principle is difficult to imagine in a presidential primary campaign.”

That impassioned stubbornness rankles some colleagues, who find him self-righteous. House majority leader Dick Armey accuses McCain of trying to make political hay out of campaign financing. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell (who controls Republican purse strings for senatorial candidate spending and is so fond of soft money he probably prefer auctioning off congressional seats) mocked McCain-Feingold on the Senate floor. Trent Lott - who, unlike McCain, has a flair for backroom bargaining - personally filibustered campaign finance reform to death and badmouthed the tobacco deal as a “big spending bill”.

McCain won’t snipe at the Republican leadership. But one statistic speaks volumes about why the tobacco and campaign reform bills died on the Capitol Hill vine: According to the Federal Election Commission, in the first quarter of 1998 Philip Morris donated $100,000 to the Republican National Congressional Committee in the first three months of 1998, the largest contribution the Republican National Campaign Committee, the largest contribution to roll in.

The tobacco industry bombarded Arizonans for months with anti-McCain radio and TV ads. His poll negatives quadrupled. But, come November, he glided to re-election with 68 percent of the vote. It was the GOP bandwagon that blew a tire. Just before the election McCain sat in his Phoenix office and voiced criticism that presaged the Republican fizzle. “For the first time in 24 years, we didn’t pass a budget,” he said. “You’re going to hold up funding for the U.N. because of the abortion issue? It seems to me Republicans haven’t been setting an agenda of things we can do, things we need to fight on.”

The party will be change its tone, if not its tune. Compassionate conservatism is suddenly hip and, thus George W. Bush is the lead-dog presidential nominee. McCain likes and admires Bush. He’s just not yet convinced he’s the Man. Nothing personal: “If there’s anything wrong with G.W.,” he says, “it would be whether I’m more qualified.”

Or hungrier. Nowadays, running requires more than fire in the belly. It takes thermonuclear desire.”That’s something I continue to worry about,” McCain adds. “I’m not unaware of what all this entails and how it would change the rest of my life if I succeeded.”

McCain, a known national security watchdog (which Bush is not), hammers Bill Clinton for having an ad hoc foreign policy. There’s a new twist that smacks of a campaign theme in progress, sort of “It’s the global economy, stupid.” Clinton talks about Japan needing short-term stimulation. McCain prescribes major retooling (pry open markets; break up the oligarchy of bankers, businessmen, and bureaucrats) so the yen doesn’t tank and take Asia with it. And stop lowering interests when Wall Street sneezes. “We’re now functioning on the theory that Alan Greenspan can control the economy of the world,” he says.

Domestically, he has begun to worry aloud about a two-tiered society of information haves and have-nots, saying the high-tech revolution is causing ripple effects that have not been seen since the invention of the printing press. Hey, isn’t that the domain of Al “Information Highway” Gore, the on-deck president? “Gore, in his own anal way, is looking at it in a serious fashion,” McCain admits. “I’m not sure he’s looking at it in a broader perspective.”

McCain may not have a campaign staff and a Campaign 2000 PAC, but he’s not without resources. His list of past donors includes Bill Gates, Donald Trump, and Ted Turner. Assume he can dredge up the requisite $20 million to make a White House run. How viable is it?

Conventional wisdom says...long, long shot. It’s still early, but his name recognition is low. McCain barely registered in a New Hampshire presidential poll taken in September. Could he launch a few deadly humor missiles under campaign pressure? Possibly. More troublesome is his maverick streak. Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan, a liberal who’s hosted several luncheons for McCain, thinks he’s alienated too many key players: “Mitch McConnell won’t be for McCain,” Nyhan says. “Tobacco, oil, and telecom [money] will not be for McCain. You’re a conservative Republican and you don’t have those guys behind you? You’re kiddin’ yourself.” Most ominous, however, is that Democrats historically ride dark horses. Republicans, like POWs don’t cotton to line jumpers. They bet favorites.

Unconventional wisdom says character will count big-time in the wake of Clinton’s problem-child presidency. Torie Clarke, who was McCain’s press secretary before joining the Bush White House, contends he has Colin Powell-like crossover appeal. Gary Hart notes that he’d be “very attractive to independent voters and some disaffected Democrats.” But former Reagan White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein sees another parallel: “His philosophy is from the heart and not from poll numbers. He does what he thinks is right. There’s an awful lot of Ronald Reagan in that.”

Unlike Reagan, McCain is not beloved by GOP honchos. Not to worry, Warren Rudman says. “I don’t pay much attention to ‘party leaders’, ” growls Rudman. “Trent Lott? Mitch McConnell? They’re not gonna cut any weight in New Hampshire. If John decides to run, he’s going to be a very credible candidate.”

That’s if he runs. The wild card is Cindy McCain. A lovely woman, but Cindy sightings are as rare in Washington as shark attacks in the Tidal Basin. She has limited affection for politics. Privately she has said ‘Over my dead body,’ ” remarks an Arizona political insider who knows the McCains. “That’s not to say they can’t work it out and come to some accommodation. But she’s no Hillary Clinton.”

Torie Clarke believes there will be an accommodation and her old boss runs. “John McCain does not look back,” she says. “You don’t go through what this guy has gone through in life and say, ‘Boy, I wish I’d done that.’ You do it.”

* * *

John McCain didn’t sleep well one night on his pre-election swing through Arizona. He wasn’t ill. He didn’t have a spooky dream about the Republicans nominating Leo DiCaprio for president. “I woke up at midnight,” he announced the next morning, “and suddenly it occurred to me why the chicken was so bad: It was the kerosene from the charcoal briquettes!”

Quick. Call a press conference.

The McCains had borrowed a friend’s cabin, and come suppertime the senator tossed a half dozen hefty chicken breasts on the front-porch grill. They were quickly devoured, but he kept insisting that something didn’t taste quite right. Nobody paid him any mind. Rain was drumming softly on the roof, the beer was cold, and the music of children’s voices drifted onto the porch from inside the cabin. This is America...life, liberty, and the pursuit of barbecued chicken.

McCain was raised to put duty, honor, and country before self. His second marriage has given him a second shot at happiness. He has said that he finally “learned what’s important.” It ain’t the Iowa caucuses. Standing by the grill, jumbo fork in hand, he talked about Bridget’s adoption, about “Cindy’s problem”, and his flameout first marriage. What inviting media targets they’d be for sharpshooters in the presidential press corps. POW, POW, POW. Like Kit Carson gunning down unarmed Navahoes at Canyon del Muerto.

“I’m one of the only ones who has gotten through a feeding frenzy,” he mused, not needing to mention the Keating Five. “It’s obviously something you think about. I don’t know if I want to put my family through that.”

Modern presidential campaigns are peculiar torture chambers, the White House a gilded penitentiary. If memory serves, John McCain has been through this before. In Vietnam. Only this time, he holds the key to the prison door. Will he lock himself up? Or set himself free?