Cover Story

Maverick man

Campaign 2008 | Eight years after a messy showdown with the religious right, Sen. John McCain is building bridges to evangelicals and gaining traction in his campaign for the White House. "I was angry," he said. "And I'm not angry anymore."

Issue: "Not angry anymore," Dec. 1, 2007

Arizona Sen. John McCain wishes to see again one person from the past: a prison guard at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" where McCain-then a pilot in the U.S. Navy-endured five-and-a-half years of imprisonment, deprivation, and torture as a POW during the Vietnam War.

But it's not revenge that causes McCain's voice to catch when he speaks of this jailer. Instead, it's reconciliation.

During a recent campaign appearance in Washington, D.C., the Republican presidential candidate quietly described how the Vietnamese guard intervened one evening when McCain's captors bound him with ropes and left him to suffer in a painful position for hours-a common form of torture for POWs in the camp.

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The guard silently entered the room and loosened McCain's bonds, relieving his pain. A few hours later, he returned to tighten the ropes before the next guard arrived.

Two months later, the prison officials allowed the American POWs briefly to step outside their cells on Christmas Day. "And who walks up and stands next to me but this guard?" said McCain. Without a word, the guard drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal. "And he just stood there," McCain remembered.

After a few moments, the guard rubbed out the cross and walked away. "I will never forget that man," said a visibly moved McCain. "He's the one person I've always wanted to have an opportunity to be with again."

McCain later told WORLD that he doesn't gloss over the difficulty of war, or of campaigning for the presidency-but he said, "My life has been characterized by reconciliation."

McCain's campaign for the White House has also been characterized by the theme of reconciliation: The candidate is courting evangelical voters after years of acrimony with some religious right leaders. He is talking more often about issues like abortion and traditional marriage that represent top concerns for the conservative core of the Republican Party.

McCain is still a maverick. While the candidate strikes a conciliatory tone on the campaign trail, he embraces positions unpopular among some Republicans. On immigration, for example, McCain earlier this year sponsored legislation with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts that included a temporary worker program and a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants already in the country. That bill failed, but some conservatives assailed the senator for a proposal they considered akin to amnesty for illegal immigrants.

This year, though, McCain is a politicized maverick. He has adjusted his stance on immigration, saying that he would focus on border security first. He is open to compromises he seemed closed to in 2000, when he won the New Hampshire primary, largely by appealing to moderates and independents. "I say to independents, Democrats, Libertarians, vegetarians: Come on over," McCain said at political rallies at the time.

After New Hampshire, though, an ugly couple of weeks of campaigning in South Carolina led to a McCain nosedive.

McCain fought opposition to him on policy grounds but also rumors that he had fathered an illegitimate child. Richard Hand, a professor from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., circulated an email with the false allegations, and anonymous fliers and recorded phone messages reporting the rumors popped up around the state as well. Actually, McCain and his wife, Cindy, had adopted the child in question from Bangladesh, and McCain was furious.

When he lost the South Carolina primary, McCain responded by lambasting some Christian right leaders. He told an audience in Virginia: "We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson. . . . We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones." Later, the senator referred to Liberty University president Jerry Falwell as an "agent of intolerance." Any remaining chance at nomination for McCain went up in smoke.

The bridge with evangelicals seemed burned until 2005, when McCain and Falwell met to clear the air. Several months later, McCain marched next to Falwell into Liberty University's basketball arena to deliver the school's commencement address. Falwell praised McCain, saying: "The ilk of John McCain is very scarce, very small."

One year later, Falwell died in his university office. McCain told WORLD he was glad he reconciled with the minister before his death, and he said his feelings about the Christian right have changed. "I was angry," he said. "And I'm not angry anymore." McCain said he hopes other evangelicals will "do as I do, and that's look forward, not back."

For McCain, part of looking forward-and connecting with evangelicals-is talking more openly about his religious beliefs. McCain grew up in the Episcopal Church but recently said that he is Baptist. For several years, McCain and his family have attended North Phoenix Baptist Church, a large evangelical congregation in Arizona, though McCain is not a member.


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