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WASHINGTON — In John McCain’s mind, it is one thing to break rules, but another to break the faith.

He’s spent a lifetime walking the line between the two.

The high school troublemaker became one of the Naval Academy’s "Bad Bunch," graduating fifth from the bottom of his class. The underachiever at Annapolis became a "bad apple" to his captors in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, turning his defiance into a virtue. The "tough resister" of the Hanoi Hilton became an American hero, soon on the fast track to a seat in the Senate.

McCain never lost his anti-authoritarian streak along the way, though, and it has been both his greatest asset and Achilles’ heel in a lifetime of politics.

Ever disinclined to follow the herd, Republican McCain has achieved his greatest legislative successes when making alliances with Democrats. He’s also piled up a full repertoire of over-the-top wisecracks, and had enough flare-ups with colleagues that more than one McCain defender has felt compelled to offer assurances that "no punches were thrown" in one situation or another. This is not typically part of the boilerplate when discussing United States senators.


"He’s always had that somewhere-between-independence-and-renegade streak," says former Sen. Gary Hart, who served as a groomsman when McCain married his second wife.

Now, at age 72, McCain is trying once again to strike the right balance, this time in pursuit of the presidency.

He is offering himself both as a rabble-rouser and a reliable Republican standard-bearer.

He has written dismissively of the "obfuscation of politics." But he's also trimmed his sails in pursuit of the prize.

A lifetime before the war

So much of John McCain’s identity revolves around his history as a prisoner of war that it is easy to overlook all that came before.

And there was a lot — "a whole life," in McCain’s own words.

By the time McCain was shot out of the sky over Vietnam at age 31, he’d already crashed a plane into Corpus Christi Bay, ejected from another jet that flamed out as he was flying solo, survived an explosion aboard the carrier Forrestal that left 134 dead, and generally lived large, as he once said of his grandfather.


He’d toyed with the idea of joining the French Foreign Legion. (That idea fizzled when he found out the legion required nine years of service.)

He’d been poised to fly into combat from the deck of the USS Enterprise during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

He’d knocked down power lines flying too low over southern Spain.

He’d romanced a Brazilian fashion model in Rio.

He’d married a beautiful divorcee, adopted the former model’s two boys and had a daughter with her.

A predilection for what McCain describes as "quick tempers, adventurous spirits, and love for the country’s uniform" was encoded in the family DNA.

His father and grandfather, the Navy’s first father-and-son set of four-star admirals, had set such a low standard for good behavior at the Naval Academy that John Sidney McCain III’s self-described "four-year course of insubordination and rebellion" got little more than a yawn from his family.

Speaking of his father, McCain once pronounced himself "little short of astonished by the old man’s reckless disregard for the rules."


And yet, for all the raucous tales of misconduct, the midshipmen of the McCain family abided by the school’s honor code not to lie, cheat or steal.

McCain pronounces his son Jack an exception to the pattern of misbehavior at Annapolis, joking, "I’m astonished."


Tucked away in a corner of McCain’s Senate office, there is a yellowed, three-page telegram hanging in a simple black frame.

The once-secret cable recounts a conversation at the Paris Peace Talks between the top negotiators for the United States and North Vietnam.

In it, Averell Harriman, the U.S. negotiator, reports: "At tea break Le Duc Tho mentioned that DRV had intended to release Admiral McCain’s son as one of the three pilots freed recently, but he had refused."

The cable was written in September 1968. It would be four and half more years before "Admiral McCain’s son" came home.

His captors had hoped to use early release of McCain — whose father was soon to become commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific — as a propaganda ploy. When McCain refused to play along, they told him: "Now it will be very bad for you, Mac Kane."


McCain returned from 51⁄2 years as a POW on crutches and unable to lift his arms. He still can’t raise them above his head.

"He had to carry a different burden than most of us and he handled it beautifully," says Orson Swindle, a former POW cellmate who remains a close friend. "He didn’t need any coping mechanism; that’s just built into him."

McCain tells The Associated Press that Vietnam "wasn’t a turning point in me as to what type of person I am, but it was a bit of a turning point in me appreciating the value of serving a cause greater than your self-interest."

An eye to politics

The choices in life, the friends and the enemies, would rarely be as black-and-white again as they had been for McCain in prison.

McCain’s experience there gave him new confidence in himself and his judgment. But it did not tame his wild side, and his marriage was a casualty. McCain blames the failure of the marriage on "my own selfishness and immaturity" and has called it "my greatest moral failing."

One month after divorcing his first wife, Carol, McCain married Cindy Hensley, 17 years his junior. (He’d lied about his age, telling her he was four years younger. She did too, telling him she was four years older.)

"He was everything I was looking for," Cindy McCain recalls of their first meeting, "and I wasn’t looking."


McCain was lucky: Carol McCain, who had been in a crippling car accident while her husband was imprisoned in Vietnam, let him out of the marriage without theatrics or recriminations.

McCain’s war story had made him a celebrity in Washington. And when he became the Navy’s liaison to the Senate, he quickly established friendships with some of the younger senators, who would stop by his office, put their feet up and chew over the events of the day. It opened McCain’s eyes to the impact that politicians could have, and to the notion that he could be one of them.

His 1981 marriage to Cindy, the daughter of a wealthy beer distributor in Arizona, helped clear the path forward. In one day, McCain signed his Navy discharge papers and flew West with his new wife to his new life. By 1982, he’d been elected to the House and four years later to an open Senate seat. He and Cindy would have four children, to add to the three from his first marriage.

McCain set about establishing a conservative voting record and a reputation as a tightwad with taxpayer dollars. But just months into his Senate career, he made what he’s called "the worst mistake of his life." He participated in two meetings with banking regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a friend, campaign contributor, constituent and savings and loan financier who was later convicted of securities fraud.

As the industry collapsed, McCain was tagged as one of the Keating Five — five senators who were accused of trying to get regulators to ease up on Keating. McCain was cited for a lesser role by the Senate Ethics Committee, which faulted his "poor judgment."

But to have his honor questioned, he said, was in some ways worse than the torture he endured in Vietnam.

Over the years, he went to great lengths to prove himself. He became the standard-bearer for reforming campaign donations. He railed against pork-barrel spending for legislators’ pet projects. He even attacked the senators’ own perks of office, like free, reserved, up-close parking spots at Washington airports. Oh my.

That helps explain why McCain is not the most popular senator on Capitol Hill. But it is not all.


"Everyone knows about his temper, his inability to get along with people," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said earlier this year.

Opinions differ, though, on whether McCain deploys his anger tactically to achieve his goals, lets it loose as an expression of righteous indignation, or simply loses control.

‘Keep a steady strain’

McCain loves the naval expression to "keep a steady strain" on the lines between ships. It’s his way of telling aides and supporters not to get too cocky in the good times, too low when times are tough.

He’s seen it all come together — and apart — more than once.

His bid for the presidency in 2000 took flight in New Hampshire only to get flattened by an ugly whisper campaign against his family in South Carolina.

He settled back into Senate business, helping create the Gang of 14 senators, Republicans and Democrats, who pulled the Senate back from the brink of a disastrous blowup over judicial nominations.

Cindy McCain says his desire to be president never really went away, but he bided his time through nearly eight years of George Bush.

"He always said if the opportunity arises again, ‘I would love to try it again,’" she said. "But it wasn’t like a dream he couldn’t live without."

McCain’s campaign for the GOP nomination this time all but destructed last summer as he ran out of money, and there was a staff exodus after a power struggle and leadership shake-up. But he battled back, carrying his own luggage and sitting in the middle seat on Southwest Airlines.

Hoping the old guy wins

McCain loves to go to the movies. He loves Hollywood endings.

Earlier this year, he and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., went to see "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," in which the veteran archaeologist is called into action again.

"I love it when the old guy wins," Graham told McCain after the movie. McCain liked Graham’s line enough to use it himself later.

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