Maybe it was the late hour or the way the swarm of people had waited patiently, fervently, in the cool night air as he made his way to the rally at the town firehouse. John McCain could only give in to the wonder of it all.
"This is the noblest experience in the world. . . . It's marvelous and I can't tell you how uplifting it is," McCain softly told the crowd at yet another rally, speaking of his roller-coaster presidential effort.
"I seize every moment, every moment I can, to be in this campaign. . . . In my darkest days, long ago and far away, I never, ever believed that I would have this golden opportunity."
It was a fleeting reminder of the time he spent, long ago and far away, as a Navy pilot held prisoner in North Vietnam. As he said it, past and present merged, the glory of the presidential campaign he now wages suffused with the indignities he once suffered. It was fitting, for more than any other presidential candidate in memory, that McCain's past has defined his present and will go a long way toward determining his future.
McCain bridles at the notion that his time as a prisoner somehow characterizes him; ask him what has most influenced his life and his response could be anyone's: school, his parents, his various jobs. Indeed, although his Vietnam years built the platform for his presidential campaign, they are but the best-known period in a life that foreshadows the arc of his candidacy--epic highs, thundering lows and an effusive McCain soundtrack every step of the way.
In his 63 years, the Arizona senator has survived three airplane crashes, a randy reputation even by fighter pilot standards, more than five years in a POW camp, a divorce of his own making, a career-threatening Senate scandal, a legislative record marked more by loss than victory and the outright animosity of many of his colleagues. And today he is running for president with that astonishingly fallible biography as his weapon.
In some ways, his maverick flamboyance is skin deep. While he revels in its imagery as much as anyone, he is at heart a man who has always known which line he would not cross. He may have rebelled to the brink of banishment from the Naval Academy, but he graduated nonetheless. He may have dated "Marie, the Flame of Florida," an exotic dancer, but he settled down to a conventional life of marriage and children. He may be running as a Pied Piper of reform, but his politics are firmly conservative.
But risk is still his occasional companion. In a few short months, with charm and insults, candor and raffishness, he has managed to set the rarefied world of presidential politics on its ear by manhandling the Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Once again, he is pushing the envelope.
John McCain defines himself: "One who doesn't mind getting up on the high wire and doesn't mind fighting."
Drafted on Day He Was Born
He was drafted on the day he was born, in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father was serving in the Navy. John Sidney McCain III, the namesake son and grandson of acclaimed admirals, heir to a military lineage that dates to 17th century Britain, never considered any other calling.
From his mother, he got prematurely white hair, the gift of charm and a manic embrace of life; at 88, Roberta McCain keeps a fire-engine red BMW in Europe to use during her regular jaunts there with her twin sister, Rowena. From his father, now dead, he got a rigid code of honor, a hellacious temper and a heroic image to measure himself against.
With his older sister and younger brother, he was firmly rooted in the rootless culture of the military, separate from the other kids in their many schools. It groomed an outsider.
When he got to his teens, McCain's parents sought some stability for their oldest son by enrolling him at Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Alexandria, Va. If McCain was used to feeling apart, Episcopal hardened the sentiment.
"It was a very different culture, an Episcopal high school, all very prominent sons and members of very prominent Southern families," McCain recalled. "I was the son of a naval officer. There was a certain culture shock."
"I would fight at the drop of a hat. I was very defensive of my individuality, much too much so, no doubt about that."
He perfected a James Dean insouciance. He won the nickname "Punk." He defied the dress code. His yearbook printed a remembrance that would echo accurately 40 years later: "His magnetic personalty has won for him many lifelong friends. But as magnets must also repel, some have found him hard to get along with."
After graduation, he set off for Annapolis.
From a civilian perspective, McCain's transgressions there amount to little more than sloppy dress, an inability to properly make his bed and a penchant for searching out a good time. By the stiff standards of the Naval Academy, he was a hell-raiser.