Prodded on the campaign trail to talk about his compelling personal story, John McCain usually demurs. "I'm very reluctant to do so, as you know," the presumed Republican nominee told a donor at a small fundraiser here this week.
But McCain and his campaign have still found a way to remind voters with some regularity of his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and his family's long tradition of military service.
On Wednesday, his campaign expanded the reach of his first major television ad of the general election campaign — a commercial where McCain speaks directly to the camera about being shot down in Vietnam and his years of captivity.
For McCain it represents a tension between his attempt to remain humble about his story of courage and survival and the desire by his campaign to turn his experience into a political asset.
Inside the venerable restaurant 21 Club on Tuesday night, a donor recalled hearing McCain speak in 1988 in Hawaii. "You actually spoke about your life and you spoke about it freely. And when you left the room, the room was, as usual, in awe," the donor, who did not identify himself, said. "We sort of know that you have an uncomfortableness in talking about your life, but as it relates to this campaign, against this guy, the younger generation, guys younger than me, people in this room, want to know about that."
McCain replied: "I don't think I did anything that any other American wouldn't do and the great honor and privilege of my life was to serve in the company of heroes and to observe a thousand acts of courage and compassion and love."
At that point, country western star John Rich, a guest of McCain fundraiser Georgette Mosbacher, weighed in. He pointed out that he has long admired his own grandfather's military service in World War II and said that as a 34-year-old he and other young people look up to that kind of commitment to the country.
"You should take that point very seriously," Rich said. "If you want to activate the youth of America, one way to do it is to remind them of that."
It's a point some Republicans strategists have also made. McCain aides took note when Karl Rove, former political adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote recently that people need to know more about McCain, describing a dinner he had with McCain's fellow prisoner of war, retired Col. Bud Day.
"There is something admirable in his reticence, but he needs to overcome it," Rove wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion column. "Unless he opens up more, many voters will never know the experiences of his life that show his character, integrity and essential decency."
Spotlight on service
McCain's declarations of reluctance aside, he and his campaign have found ways to draw attention to his military service.
During a debate last year, McCain criticized Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for earmarking federal money for a Woodstock museum to honoring the three-day 1969 rock concert. "I wasn't there, I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event," he joked. "I was tied up at the time."
The campaign promptly turned the quip into an ad that included footage of McCain as a POW.
And this week, the campaign is running a new ad called "Safe" that displays black and white photos of McCain's father and his grandfather — both admirals — followed by images of the wreckage of his shot down A-4E Skyhawk and of a wounded McCain imprisoned in Hanoi.
"Only a fool or a fraud talks tough or romantically about war. When I was five years old, my father left for war. My grandfather came home from war and died the next day. I was shot down over Vietnam and spent five years as a POW. Some of the friends I served with never came home. I hate war. And I know how terrible its costs are. I'm running for president to keep the country I love safe," McCain says in the ad, speaking directly to the camera.
Sons in service
There is one aspect of his family's military service that McCain does try to keep out of the political conversation however — his two sons.
One, Jimmy, is a Marine corporal who returned from serving in Iraq earlier this year. Another son is attending the Naval Academy.
When Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman introduced McCain at the 21 Club Tuesday, he recalled a trip he took with McCain to Iraq's Anbar province last Thanksgiving. "John McCain will never tell you about this," Huntsman said. "I watched a dad step off the helicopter and embrace his son. I saw a connection there between a father and a son. No photographers, no members of the media, no one. Just a dad very, very proud of his son who has learned how to put service before self."
McCain said he appreciated Huntsman's remarks. But perhaps with an eye on the four reporters in the room, he quickly added: "We don't talk to the media about our son."