IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Against all odds, McCain fights for GOP nod

Take a closer look into the life and presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.. For Senator John McCain, the campaign trail has always been a fight to survive, and it may just be a contest he's been preparing for his whole life.

In Decision 2008, a close race for the White House is sparking record turnout in many primaries as voters make their choices. Who are the candidates at the center of this historic election campaign, and how did they get here?

As the stakes get higher, there's also more controversy. Recently, a newspaper report raises questions about a potentially improper relationship with a lobbyist and about the media's role in campaign politics.

This month, Senator John McCain emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee for president. But on the heels of his taking a commanding lead in the delegate count, the New York Times publishes a controversial article: Anonymous sources allege that during his last presidential run in 2000, campaign staffers questioned a relationship between McCain and a Washington lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, whose clients had business before his Senate committee. The story threatens his momentum and his reputation.

McCain and Iseman deny they had a romantic relationship. McCain denies the accounts reported in the article, of staffers so concerned about the relationship they confronted him and tried to keep the two apart.

In the immediate fallout, the Times takes at least as much criticism as the candidate.

For Senator John McCain, the campaign trail has always been a fight to survive, and it may just be a contest he's been preparing for his whole life.

John Sydney McCain III is born
It's 1936 and FDR is in his second term. The Great Depression is waning and swing is the music of the era.

Across the Americas, in the Panama Canal Zone, John Sydney McCain III is born.

He's part of a legendary naval family, a lineage that extends all the way back to revolutionary times.

On Dec. 7, 1941, he's just 5 years old when the United States enters World War II. His father and grandfather are called into action.

As the war rages, his dad, Jack McCain, patrols the Pacific as a submarine commander.

And his grandfather, John "Slew" McCain, a Navy vice-admiral, fights the Japanese to Tokyo Bay.

When the Japanese formally surrender in September 1945, "Slew" McCain attends the signing ceremony aboard the USS Missouri.

Sadly, “Slew” McCain barely tastes victory, suddenly dying four days later in his San Diego home.

After the war, the McCains crisscross the United States, moving from base to base.

As Jack McCain travels the world, young John and his siblings are raised almost single-handedly by their mother, Roberta.

Sen. McCain: My father was gone so much at sea and so there was a kind of a self-reliance on ourselves and within the family.

The McCains move back east to Washington, D.C.

High school years
In 1951, John enters Episcopal High School, where he quickly discovers there's more to life than the military.

In high school, he loves music, partying, and chasing the girls.

And the heroes of McCain’s teenage years were the leading men of Hollywood: the rebels.

Sen. McCain: Marlon Brando was one of my favorite actors; James Dean, of course. I don't think there's any doubt that there's a certain emulation in my behavior of some of these role models of mine, both good and bad.

He's a lackluster student, but John excels in physical sports. And he continues to refine his rebel image.   

Joe McCain, brother: He was the coolest guy on Earth. I mean he was super cool. I always remember when he came around with his friends, he was always the guy with the joke, and when he smoked, it was always hanging out of his mouth. And he always had these kinds of wry expressions.

But in 1954, McCain’s fun-filled high school days come to an end.

Following in his fathers' wake, McCain sets course for the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, the class of 1958.

Sen. McCain: It was always a certainty that I was going to go to the Naval Academy as my father and grandfather had before me. Not that I didn't' want to go to the Naval Academy, but my sort of resentment that it was a preordained kind of an operation.

At first he enjoys the physical challenge of basic training.

But McCain refuses to submit to the rigid discipline and often humiliating hazing rituals. He spends the next four years fighting the system.

Sen. McCain: I viewed it as a competition, to see how much I could get away with, and at the same time remain at the school, a very careful balancing act [laughs].

While most midshipmen are towing the line, McCain spends much of his four years crossing it. Partying is becoming his trademark.

Frank Gamboa, Naval Academy Classmate: If you went to a party with John, you were going to party right until the absolute last man coming racing back to the Naval Academy just before the end of curfew [laugher]. So if you didn't want to live on the edge, then you never went to a party with John McCain.

Sen. McCain: We had incredible enjoyable times with each other, and of course our constant search for female companionship consumed a great deal of our time as well. Not to mention the time we spent trying to illegally consume alcoholic beverages So, it was fun.

With bad grades and a rash of discipline demerits, McCain comes perilously close to flunking out of the academy.

But McCain hangs on, barely. In May 1958, with President Eisenhower himself passing out diplomas, McCain graduates, fifth from the bottom of his class.

Sen. McCain: President Eisenhower had asked to see the anchorman, the person who had finished at the bottom of the class. I remember at the time regretting a bit that I hadn't done a little worse so that I would have gotten to go up and shake hands with the president.

In August 1958, John McCain reports to Navy flight school in Pensacola, Florida and he arrives in style, driving his brand new Corvette.

Joe McCain, brother: The day he graduated from the Naval Academy he slipped behind the wheel of a brand new Corvette. He drove this white convertible with red leather interior in a pilot’s uniform just looking, [whew] you know.

At Pensacola, McCain’s life revolves around the sports car, the beach and the women. He's living the myth of the charmed pilots' life.

Chuck Larson, flight school classmate: He liked to have fun. People liked to be around John because of his charisma and personality. Just going on liberty with John at night, you knew it was going to be fun.

He becomes a competent naval aviator, and trains at a series of flight schools.

But one Saturday morning, while practicing take-offs in his A-6 Skyraider off the Texas Gulf Coast, the engine suddenly quits. McCain’s plane plunges into Corpus Christi Bay.

Larson: The last thing I remember is looking over my shoulder as I was flying south and I didn’t see him come to the surface. I banked my aircraft and looked back over my shoulder and I still didn't see a helmet floating in the water or someone come to the surface.

Knocked unconscious on impact, McCain comes to just as the plane hits bottom and he fights his way to the surface.

Larson: Typical John that night, they sent him home from sick bay. They said go to bed and they gave him some pain killers. They said we want you to take bed rest over the weekend. We'll see how you are Monday morning. John did that for about an hour. Then around supper time John said lets go over to the club, I feel fine.

In October 1962, after returning home from routine maneuvers in the Mediterranean, McCain’s ship, the enterprise, is urgently diverted to Cuba.

The Soviets are shipping nuclear missiles to the island. To stop them, the U.S. forms a naval blockade. The Enterprise is the first ship to reach Cuban waters, just as the world prepares for the worst.

But the Soviets take back their missiles, the crisis is averted and McCain returns to Pensacola.

By 1964, he's courting a Philadelphia model named Carol Shepp.

Bob Timberg, biographer: They had a kind of whirlwind courtship. Carol was very much like John McCain in that she was very vivacious, very fun-loving.

They marry in July 1965. A little over a year later, Carol gives birth to a daughter, Sidney.

Halfway around the world, America is getting more deeply involved in Vietnam.

In the spring of 1967, McCain is ordered to the aircraft carrier Forestal, off the North Vietnam coast in the Gulf of Tonkin

On the Forestal John McCain prepares for war.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): We'd only been in combat for a few days, so the adrenaline and excitement was still quite high.

On July 29, 30-year-old McCain climbs into his A-4e Skyhawk.

After a pre-flight check, his plane gets into take-off position.

But as captured in this real-life video, another plane's rocket ignites and soars across the flight deck. It punctures McCain’s external fuel tank, which erupts into a huge fireball.

Video cameras mounted on the flight deck record the raging inferno surrounding McCain’s plane.

Timberg: McCain is essentially engulfed in it. Very quickly and very cooly he realizes that his only way out is to pop open the cockpit. He climbs out, and there's this lake of fire. He drops into it, rolls and rolls through it.

But just as he turns around to help his fellow pilots escape, the first bomb goes off.

Timberg: Planes are exploding and rockets are exploding. Men are coming out and trying to put the fire out only to have the explosions kill them.

McCain is blown backward by the explosion. Dazed, but conscious, he drags himself to sickbay.

Sen. McCain: And I went up to the sickbay and I walked in and there were a whole lot of people lying around that had been terribly burned, third-degree burns, unrecognizable. And one of them called me over and he said, “Mr. McCain, Mr. So-and-so, he didn't make it, did he?” And I said, “Well yeah, he did I just saw him around in the other room. And he said, “Oh thank God.” And he died.

The fire rages for hours. Planes are tossed overboard to prevent even further explosions. A curtain of fire-retardant foam is pumped out onto the deck in a desperate attempt to save the ship.

Down in sickbay, McCain looks on in helpless horror as a video monitor plays the scene.

Joe McCain: Here was this disaster occurring all around him, in which he could see his fellows, his comrades, his pilots, his beloved enlisted men just get cooked, and he's in the middle of this enormous chaos. This disaster was happening to everybody else.

Finally, after 24 hours, the fire is brought under control. The ship is saved, but at great human cost; 134 men lose their lives.

McCain is one of the lucky ones.

Timberg: Just to survive that, I mean that was one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the United States Navy. There were scores of men killed, millions upon millions of damage. McCain's plane was the one that, you know, that took the rocket that set in motion this entire conflagration.

The Forestal limps back to port in the Philippines, and McCain takes leave in Hawaii.

His friends and family are surprised by what they hear.

Larson: Certainly John had earned the right to have a little time off and recoup before he went back into the fray. But he immediately volunteered to go right back with another squadron. I think John had two things. First, a sense of his own mortality. But I think he also felt that I was cheated in a way from doing my duty.

As growing anti-war sentiment rocks Washington in October 1967, John McCain is back in action aboard the Oriskany, off the coast of Vietnam.

For a month he's been flying A-4 bombing raids like this one over Hanoi. On Oct. 26, he prepares for his 23rd mission. The target: a large power plant on the outskirts of the city.

Although his commander warns him to be careful, McCain isn't worried.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): Almost everybody I knew had the same air of self-confidence, even cockiness that went with a strong belief I wouldn't get shot down.

As he nears his target, McCain comes under heavy fire. He weaves his plane around surface to air missiles the size of telephone poles.

Just as he goes into his dive, a heat-seeking missile locks onto his plane. The moment he releases his payload, it slams into his jet.

Sen. McCain: When it happened, when the surface to air missile hit my airplane, I reacted instinctively.

Hurtling towards the ground at 550 miles per hour, McCain has just enough time to radio back "I'm hit!", then pull the ejection handle.

Sen. McCain: I was knocked unconscious by the ejection and injured, my arms broken, my leg broken.

McCain plunges into a lake in the center of Hanoi. He floats to the surface, where he's met by Vietnamese soldiers. They photograph the scene as they pull him to shore

Bob Timberg, biographer: There are people on the shore screaming. He's punched, he's hit. Somebody takes a rifle and jams it down on his shoulder and seriously injures it. Somebody takes a bayonet and cuts him in the groin. People are screaming. It's a horrible scene.

McCain is dragged to the infamous complex of prisons known as the Hanoi Hilton.

When his Vietnamese captors demand military information, McCain refuses and is beaten senseless.

Sen. McCain: I don't think there's any doubt that I was near death. I hovered near death for a long period of time.

Meantime, sketchy details of John McCain’s shoot-down are trickling back to the home front. His father, Admiral Jack McCain, now the commander of the entire Pacific fleet, receives word that his son has been shot down, nothing more.

Joe McCain, brother: My father called and he said John has been shot down. All of a sudden, the loss of this hero figure, of this brother. I remember being so distraught. Then I said, “What do we do next?” And my father said, “All we can do is pray for the boy.”

Back in the Hanoi Hilton, McCain, with no medical treatment, is left to die.

Timberg: He’s truly battered. If he's not at death's door, he's on the front lawn.

But just then the North Vietnamese realize he's the son of a famous admiral. Suddenly, McCain is transferred to the hospital ward and his captors share news of their prisoner with the world.

Joe McCain: I thought my brother was dead and now he's alive. I don't care what they're doing to him, he's not dead, you know? So [crying] one of the most difficult moments of my life, followed closely by one of the most emotionally elating moments of my entire life.

But the families' elation over his survival would soon be tempered by these harrowing broadcast images of john McCain, prisoner of war.

"What is your name? John McCain.”

As part of their propaganda blitz, the Vietnamese have invited a French film crew to interview McCain from his hospital bed. McCain agrees, thinking his wife and family do not yet know he's alive.

An emaciated McCain appears dazed and frightened as he recounts his ordeal.

I was hit by either missile or anti-aircraft fire, I'm not sure which. And the plane continued straight down. And I ejected and broke my leg and both arms. And went into a lake, parachuted into a lake. And I was picked up by North Vietnamese, and taken to the hospital, where I almost died [voice cracks].

Joe McCain: I remember just sitting there watching that image of John with his arm up in the air. And that cigarette in one hand, and looking beaten up and very white, and his lips trembling and whatever. I've never seen him like that before. And it was awful to watch for me.

I would just like to tell my wife [voice cracks] that I will get well. I love her and I hope to see her soon. I'd appreciate if you'd tell her that.

Once the cameras are put away, McCain is sent back to his roach-infested hospital room. He's never once bathed or cleaned. His condition worsens.

He's eventually moved to a prison cell occupied by Americans.

Bud Day, former POW: My first impression was, “My God, here's this old man with white hair. He's in a huge body cast. His right arm juts out of it like a stick out of a snowman.”

McCain weighs less than 100 pounds. He can't eat or go to the bathroom by himself. His fellow POWs don't think he'll make it.

Day: I was just certain that he was on the verge of death and that the Vietnamese had dumped him on us so that they could say well he was out there with Americans and they just let him die.

And the worst is yet to come.

January 1968. The North Vietnamese launch a surprise attack on Saigon: the Tet Offensive.

Americans tune-in to a Viet-Cong invasion of the U.S. Embassy compound. 

It's a turning point in the war and for John McCain as well.

After sharing a cell for months with his fellow POWs, McCain is suddenly dealt a dehumanizing blow: he's transferred to solitary confinement.

Bud Day, former POW: Solitary of course, was very bleak. You had to get back into your mind to inspire yourself to think for hours on end. Remember; keep your, your mind occupied.

Believing that McCain’s isolation has weakened his will, his captors ask McCain if he wants to go home.

Day: It was very clear that the Vietnamese were trying to turn John around. What they had in mind was to make John some kind of a willing accomplice in their propaganda efforts.

Orson Swindle, former POW: He's trying to hang on long enough to live. He does an admirable job and then later, they come along and say, you will go home. And he's still not well, he could still die. He knows what they want to do and he tells them to stick it in their ear.

Driving McCain’s refusal is the POW code of conduct: first captured, first released.

Bob Timberg, biographer:  This infuriated and enraged the North Vietnamese. But he made it stick, and he refused to go. For his pains, he was beaten and his arm broken again. He was pounded, but he wouldn't go!

The Vietnamese throw him back to solitary, where he will spend the next two years.

In the summer of '68, America is at war with itself. Violence comes to the streets of Chicago during the Democrats' national convention.

Back in Hanoi, McCain’s agony worsens.

His captors now demand he sign a war crimes confession. When McCain refuses, he's pushed to his physical limits.

Swindle: They would torture you and we'd all go through the torture. It came in brutal fashion.

Day: They would put you in the ropes, which amounted to taking arms, pinning them behind your back, and then roping your arms around behind your back. Then they bent you over and put their foot into the middle of your back and then pull up with your arms.

Unable to resist any further, McCain reaches his breaking point and an unbearable moment of despair.

Timberg: He took his shirt and rolled it up and laid it across his shoulder, and fed the one end of the rolled-up shirt which was in effect a rope, through the louvers in the door. It appeared that he was preparing to hang himself. At which point, his guards crashed in through the door and knocked him down and it never got to this point.

McCain signs the war crimes confession. It's the darkest moment of his life.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): You get to a point in those situations where first, you like to last for another day, then you'd like to try to last for another hour, and then you try to last for another minute. And I wasn't able to last for another minute.

Former President Richard Nixon: I want to welcome you all to the 1970 Pageant for Peace.

Christmas, 1970. After 31 months in solitary confinement, John McCain is transferred to a room with 50 other Americans.

Bud Day, former POW: That was an incredible night [laughs]. We grabbed each other and hugged each other and hung on like we hadn't, were never going to see each other again. And, it still makes me misty eyed. It was just so wonderful to hear his voice and to see him.

McCain gets his Christmas wish, but his prayers for freedom on his terms remain unanswered. Months go by.

Former President Richard Nixon:  I have ordered attacks on enemy military targets.

Then, in April 1972, President Richard Nixon, trying to end the war quickly, resumes the bombing of the north.

Ironically, it's McCain’s father, Jack, who must carry out the order to bomb the very city of his son's imprisonment.

Sen. McCain: But he never let it interfere with the performance of his duties. At the same time, he could not change the fact that he was my father, and it was very, very tough on him.

Late one night, the prisoners awake to the rumble of approaching B-52s.

Swindle: All of a sudden all hell breaks loose. Sirens go off, missiles are being fired and the whole sky turns red. All of a sudden we start hearing, boom, boom, boom!

And the tears are coming down our cheeks. Hey we're going home. We're going home.

Former President Richard Nixon: At 12:30 Paris time today, January 23, 1973…

After months of on again, off again negotiations and bombing, President Nixon announces an end to direct U.S. involvement in the war on Jan. 23, 1973.

Video of NBC live coverage of first POWs.

... Here they come [shouts]!

The first group of POWs is released in February.

And then, on March 14, 5 1/2 years after being shot down, John McCain steps into freedom.

Joe McCain, brother: He came down that stairway, and he had to hold onto the railing. I remember I could not stop crying, and I don't think [crying] I stopped crying for about 25- to 30 minutes. People were rubbing my neck and hands in concern. Then I said, don't worry about it, I'm loving every second of this.

From the moment he steps out onto the tarmac, McCain is determined to put his POW past behind him.

He reunites with his wife and children and starts planning for the future.

After 5 1/2 years in prison, John McCain comes home to a fundamentally altered world. 

He dedicates himself to catching up.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): I did want to catch up, I did want to hurry, I did want to read and study as much as I could, and I wanted to get back into life.

But as he tries to find his place, he's also struggling to save his marriage. It will not be easy.

Bob Timberg, biographer: They had courage and strength, and for a time, they hung together and hung together very strongly.

But they can't keep it going. While still married, McCain begins to see other women. The marriage falls apart.

Sen. McCain: I have no idea why I behaved irresponsibly.

With his injuries guaranteeing an end to active military service, McCain ponders a new career in politics.

Former President Ronald Reagan: You know you see these men, and it strikes you.

He forges a relationship with then California Governor Ronald Reagan.

In 1977, McCain begins to see politics up close when he becomes the Navy's chief liaison to the senate.

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News: He'd become extraordinarily popular, not just with Senate staff people, but with senators. So he really knew the territory.

Soon, he meets a beautiful 25-year-old from Phoenix, Ariz., named Cindy Hensley. After courting for some time, the two marry in 1980.

A year later, McCain ends his 27-year military career and decides to run for congress in a newly created district near Phoenix.

Sen. McCain: I'm announcing today my decision to become a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. congress from Arizona’s first district.

It's a bold move considering he's just moved to the state.

But he gains popularity when he positions himself as a new "Ronald Reagan conservative".

In January 1983, John McCain returns to Washington, this time as a politician.

As Washington mulls over McCain the politician, America is reminded about the other McCain, the POW.

In 1984 McCain returns to Vietnam with CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, entering the Hanoi Hilton for the first time since his imprisonment.

McCain in Hanoi.

Sen. McCain: Those shutters were closed almost completely.

McCain’s lost years as a POW contrast markedly with his new manic life as a congressman.

Torrie Clark, former press secretary: This is a guy with bad legs, and he'd be running a hundred miles an hour, down those stairs, saying, come on, come on, and you'd just have to hustle like crazy, figuratively and literally, to keep up with him.

After another house term, McCain runs for the senate in 1986. He plays up his connection to President Reagan.

Former President Ronald Reagan: The people of Arizona can do themselves and me a big favor by electing John McCain to the U.S. Senate.

McCain connects with retiring Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, whose legendary seat he hopes to win.

For two years he sails along, standing with conservatives against abortion rights and gun control.

And he's mentioned as a possible running mate for George Bush in the 1988 presidential campaign.

(Jane Pauley and McCain)

Jane Pauley: Senator, there was a rumor yesterday you were on standby for the ticket, should Senator Quayle be removed.

Sen. McCain: No, no. I simply don't believe that. They haven't even looked at my tax returns [laughing]. 

Then, in October 1989, a shockwave.

Senate investigators go public with charges that five senators, including John McCain, have used their political influence to help financial kingpin Charles Keating save his struggling savings and loan empire.

The media runs with the story.

Mitchell: The first time that the news media figured out a way to cover the Savings and Loan scandal was the Keating Five investigation. That became a symbolic way of explaining to Americans why they were spending billions and billions of dollars to bail out private industry.

The senate ethics committee opens hearings on the "Keating Five".

Sen. Howell Heflen: Many of our fellow citizens apparently believe that your services were bought by Charles Keating, that you were bribed, that you sold your office.

The most serious of the charges involves two 1987 meetings, during which the senators allegedly pressure federal regulators to help bail out Keating’s failing savings and loan.

Longtime Keating friend John McCain is among them.

Sen. McCain: When he came to see me in March 1987 and asked me to do something I thought was improper, I said no. In all of the conflicts and combat that I had with the Vietnamese, there was never a question about my honor and my integrity. And in this particular situation, my entire life's reputation is at stake.

Over the next several months he wages a vigorous public fight to regain that reputation.

Sen. McCain: I do not deserve and I only speak for myself, to be strung out, week after week, month after month.

Mitchell: He was so determined to prove his integrity. Imagine John McCain, with his background, having come through five and a half years in captivity, catapulted into politics, with an unlimited career, all of a sudden having this terrible blemish on his record.

Tom Brokaw, NBC News: There's an attack underway on Iraq, on the city of Baghdad...

It’s 1991 and America is at war with Iraq.

Suddenly, the press can't get enough of John McCain.

Bob Timberg: McCain, because of his own experiences as a Navy pilot, was called on by many television stations to comment on what was happening.

This would prove especially true when Iraq captures American servicemen.

POW on camera: I would to tell my wife and family that I am alive.

(Bryant Gumbel interviews Sen. McCain)Gumbel: To what extent can any American pilot be trained for the trauma of enemy captivity?Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): They are taught name, rank, Social Security number, date of birth and then resist to the best of their ability and we acknowledge they are resisting to the best of their ability.

As the war rages, the "Keating Five" investigation quietly winds down. In February, the ethics committee releases its report.  While some senators are heavily criticized, McCain receives a mild rebuke for "poor judgment" for attending meetings with banking regulators.

Sen. McCain: I believe the people of Arizona will accept this verdict and I will maintain their full trust and confidence.

Less than a year later, McCain is re-elected to the senate.

But as McCain basks in triumph, his wife Cindy is losing a secret battle of her own.

After two back surgeries, Cindy McCain becomes addicted to painkillers. She steals supplies from a medical charity, which she founded.

Cindy McCain: When you're dependant on something, you don't think rationally, or think the way you should. And obviously that's what I did. I never compromised a mission or anything like that. I compromised myself a great deal.

She avoids prosecution by seeking counseling. Although she's drug-free, she continues to struggle.

Cindy McCain: I will always be in recovery. This is not something just because I quit and it's over with I can walk away from.

Meantime, John McCain is creating a new stir around an old, familiar topic: Vietnam.

Sen. McCain: It's probably time for us to consider moving forward with our relations with the Vietnamese and fully heal the wounds of that unhappy chapter in America's history.

Former President Bill Clinton: Today I am announcing the normalization of diplomatic relationships with Vietnam.

The agreement is signed in 1995. But McCain pays a political price.

Mitchell: He reached out to the President and offered to give him political cover. It was not popular with many of the more conservative people in his own party.

Indeed, McCain seems to thrive on political risk.

He is re-elected in 1998, and that same year establishes a presidential exploratory committee, formally announcing his candidacy in 1999.

In the 2000 presidential race, McCain takes on the republican establishment with campaign finance reform on his agenda.

McCain beats frontrunner George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, but he's outspent by the Bush machine.

McCain’s Straight Talk Express runs out of gas and the Texas governor takes both the nomination and the general election.

By the spring of 2001, his tireless efforts to reform campaign finance laws are starting to pay off.

His bipartisan bill banning fat cat contributions passes the senate easily but gets stalled in the house, where it faces strong opposition.

But soon partisanship will be set aside.

On Sept. 11, 2001, America is under attack. 

John McCain watches the tragic events unfold on television from his office on Capitol Hill.

If it hadn’t been for those brave Americans on the flight over Pennsylvania, that plane was headed for the capitol or the White House, not only were they heroes for America, but they might have saved my life as well. 

Days later, the war hero offers words of comfort to the son of a different kind of hero, a fallen New York City Fire Chief.

Sen. McCain: Your father and the other firefighters will be a example to me about what America is all about.

He has harsh words for those responsible

Sen. McCain: God may have mercy on these terrorists, but we will not, we will not.

Months later, campaign finance legislation, largely forgotten in the aftermath of Sept. 11, is revived.

After the collapse of Enron, and revelations that the energy company contributed nearly $6 million to political campaigns, supporters of reform get enough signatures to bring the issue back for a vote.  This time it passes and the president signs it into law despite continued Republican opposition.

Sen. McCain: What we've really done for a couple hundred million Americans is to give them the opportunity to be heard again here in our nation's capitol.

In 2004 John McCain is elected to his fourth term as U.S. senator from Arizona.

He alienates conservatives with his positions on some hot button topics like immigration, but remains squarely behind President Bush when it comes to the war in Iraq.

In April 2007, just after returning from a trip to visit U.S. troops in Baghdad, Senator McCain announces he is going to make another run for the White House.

Sen. McCain: I don't seek the office out of entitlement. I owe America more than she has ever owed me. I'm not running for president to be somebody, but to do something; to do the hard but necessary things.

All does not go smoothly on the campaign trail. A few months after entering the race McCain shakes up his staff when the campaign comes up short on cash and short in the polls.

But McCain is determined and by the New Hampshire primary he hits his stride.

Sen. McCain: I always told you the truth, as best as I can see the truth. And you did me the great honor of listening.

By early February he's well ahead in the delegate count and his primary rival Mitt Romney suspends his campaign.

Sen. McCain: I know I have a responsibility, if I am, as I hope to be, the Republican nominee for president, to unite the party and prepare for the great contest in November.

On President's Day, a boost from former President Bush:

Former President George H.W. Bush: And the indisputable fact that unites the greatest number of Republicans, the most independents and many good Democrats as well, is the fact that no one is better prepared to lead our nation at these trying times than Senator John McCain.

Senator John McCain has made a huge comeback, and he is the presumptive Republican nominee for president, but he has his work cut out for him to unify the Republican Party behind his candidacy.

And things only get more complicated when the New York Times runs an article alleging that during McCain’s first run for the White House, members of his staff were concerned about an improper, perhaps romantic, relationship between the Senator and a female lobbyist named Vicki Iseman.

Both McCain and the lobbyist deny any romantic relationship and McCain, his wife by his side, defended his integrity.

Sen. McCain: At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust.

And he is determined to focus on his campaign and the work in front of him as he continues his run for the White House.

Sen. McCain: I will continue to serve, and I focus my attention in this campaign on the big issues, on the challenges that face this country. I think that's what the American people are very interested in hearing about.