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Mary Altaffer/AP

Realistic idealist

Campaign 2008 | John McCain completes a nostalgia tour spiked with regret and confession

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

For the moment, John McCain is left to shadow-boxing. Without a designated opponent tripping into the general-election ring, the presumptive Republican nominee seems to be fighting the demons from his own past. In a nostalgia tour earlier this month of the places where he was stationed during the peripatetic life of a navy pilot, McCain used fresh language-at times full of regret-to introduce himself to voters. From Annapolis to Pensacola, his speeches formed a study in contrast to the Democratic candidates, who play experience as the great benefactor rather than the exacting teacher it is for most of us. As McCain told one audience, "I am, from hard experience and the judgment it informs, a realistic idealist."

McCain arrived in Pensacola in 1958, he told another audience, "to become an aviator, and, eventually, an instrument of war for my country . . . I was a very young man entering a very exciting profession with few priorities greater than my own amusement . . . my interests then were focused more on cultivating the image of a naval aviator that strongly appealed to my vanity than on becoming proficient in my chosen profession and understanding the purposes and full meaning of the duty to my country . . . I wanted to live the life of a daring, brash, fun-loving flier, indifferent to the hazards of his profession . . . I thought that image, which I doubt I ever quite perfected, would prove irresistible to everyone I knew, and especially so to girls whose attention I sought. There are compensations to growing older, my friends, but the late discovery that you were probably not quite the charming, irresistible young man you once believed you were, but rather callow, conceited, and often stupid is not among them. In truth, the image I aspired to was, in the end, only irresistible to one person-me, and it was a very childish attraction."

The confessional is striking for a decorated veteran who could have introduced himself to a generation not born when he was shot down over Vietnam in 1967 by telling war stories: how as a prisoner of war he chose solitary and torture rather than appear on a platform in Hanoi with U.S. anti-war activists; or how as a naval officer he refused to be released ahead of enlistees; or how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger knew his stubborn reputation well enough that, in a meeting with the North Vietnamese in Paris, he turned down an offer of McCain's early release.

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Instead McCain spoke in passing about the harsher testing of the POW experience that he says changed the "party boy" who graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy into a committed public servant. The sniper fire in McCain's tale, unlike Hillary's, is coming from within.

Grounds for criticism no doubt remain. Politico's Jonathan Martin said his speeches missed "any significant mention of religious faith." Beliefnet contended that the speeches contained "a veiled pitch to the Christian Right, laying out his views on the primacy of family." McCain, who was raised Episcopalian and now attends a Baptist church in Phoenix, has fumbled more than not in talking about faith. Personally I prefer the humble fumble, or the silence, to a polished but empty script.

What I saw in his nostalgia tour was reminiscent of a series of meetings in 1983, brief encounters, when McCain was a freshman congressman from Arizona. I worked for one of his senior colleagues, and we staff members met to brief the newcomer on matters as arcane as water rights, grazing disputes on federal land, and a copper mine recently designated for federal cleanup. Arizona natives came grudgingly to those meetings, resenting the command to brief "a carpetbagger." Many of them left, after McCain humbly confessed his ignorance and asked solid questions, with a kind of new respect for his willingness to learn, his lack of military machismo-the kind of respect that would win him five succeeding elections from the state to the House and Senate.

Is the humility genuine, or more the work of speechwriter Mark Salter, a longtime McCain aide who once worked as a spiker laying railroad track? Is a patriotic pitch enough to win faith-based voters?

What's plain is that, at 71, the GOP contender for the White House, despite 40 years in the public eye and 26 in office, remains a public figure we still are getting to know.

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