You look at the man today — immaculately tailored suit, ramrod-straight posture, confidently articulating complex beliefs in a swanky Midwestern hotel — and it's almost impossible to fathom who he was between 1967 and 1973.
But John McCain 2008, the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting and scion of two generations of Naval admiralty, ended the 1960s and began the 1970s in prisoner's rags as an American POW in Vietnam — refusing a North Vietnamese offer to go home early because he was the son of someone important.
Today, it's abundantly clear when you talk to him: McCain doesn't want to be defined by his wartime experiences alone. But when the Arizona senator talks the talk of service and sacrifice, it's never less than crystal clear that, for five torturous years, he walked the walk.
"I hope that my judgment and my views and my principles ... are formed over a long period of time and not just defined by one event, although that one event or that one episode was very impactful," McCain says.
Service and sacrifice
During a recent campaign stop in Cleveland, McCain agreed to sit down and talk with The Associated Press about service and sacrifice — his own and that of the American people, whom he believes have an instinct for sacrifice embedded in their DNA that emerges particularly starkly during troubled times.
"It's throughout our country's history. I think it's been greater at times than at other times, depending on what the external and internal challenges have been. ... But I think it's always been a trait and a characteristic of the American citizen," he says.
Then he adds: "With all due respect to citizens of every other nation of the world ... I don't think, because of the very nature of our history, that they match up to our citizens' willingness to serve and sometimes to sacrifice."
It's odd, talking to McCain about this stuff. He understands sacrifice, is passionate about it, clearly wants it to be front and center. He believes a leader should inspire the people to service and sacrifice, yet beyond a promise to provide opportunities, he doesn't offer much of a blueprint as to how.
Instead, he cites American institutions and their roles in creating a hunger for service.
Schools in particular, McCain says, have been bullish about alerting students to service opportunities; that's where his own kids found out they could contribute their time to the house-building organization Habitat for Humanity.
Like any good Republican candidate, McCain is loath to criticize President Bush; to do so could alienate portions of his party at a crucial time. But he speaks of a missed opportunity after 9/11 when, he says, Americans were primed for sacrifice. Yet Bush's return-to-normalcy message shortly after the attacks did not demand much of America: Get back on the planes and go shopping.
Asked if Bush missed an opportunity, McCain demurs. "I think all of us missed an opportunity," he responds. "I think the Congress missed an opportunity. Because Americans were united and ready to serve."
Leaders, McCain says, could have exhorted the public: "We're asking you to invest your most valuable commodity, your time and effort, in making America safe and helping us win this struggle."
Step away from the XBox
Since 9/11, though, McCain sees something different in America's latest generation of young adults — something serious, something contributory.
Gently, carefully, he invokes a classic GOP chestnut — taking a shot at the 1960s. "I think there's cycles," he says. "And maybe you could argue that we went through a '60s into the '70s kind of materialistic attitude or set of priorities and now we've kind of come out of that into the more public-service oriented attitude on the part of this generation of Americans."
But whether you agreed with the tactics or not, the protest movement of the late 1960s — even putting aside the civil-rights movement entirely — included a variety of sacrifices that might not fall under the banner of traditional service. Protesting at Kent State or the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was hardly comfortable and was, for many involved, aimed at creating a better America.
Which is exactly the trait McCain sees in many members of the post-Sept. 11 generation: a willingness to step away from the XBox and "American Idol" and give up time and comfort to make a difference.
"I think they're worried about America. I think they're concerned about our future in the world. I think they're appreciative," McCain says. "They understand this nation has a great challenge and, through our efforts, we can prevail. But it's going to take a lot of work."