On a humid summer morning, the Straight Talk Express is rolling along, en route from a town-hall meeting in Albuquerque to a private airstrip where a newly refurbished plane, also dubbed the Straight Talk Express, awaits.
Sen. John McCain sits stiffly in the back of the bus on a plush velvet U-shaped banquette. Eight journalists surround him, a scene reminiscent of the days when McCain would open a vein and bleed quotes to any reporter, any time.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, September 06, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
The imperfect hero: In Thursday's Section A, a caption for a 1961 photo accompanying a profile of John McCain gave his rank as lieutenant. When the photo was taken he was a lieutenant junior grade.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, September 08, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
"The imperfect hero": The profile of Sen. John McCain in Thursday's Section A said that Washington magazine once dubbed him "Senator Hothead." The magazine was the Washingtonian. Also, a caption for a 1961 photo with the profile gave McCain's Navy rank as lieutenant. At the time he was a lieutenant junior grade.
Instead, the 20-minute ride is devoted to a dry recitation of why Sen. Barack Obama was wrong about the troop buildup in Iraq. McCain, reading from notes, says nothing new. He is tense, serious and, as a reporter later relayed to his longtime chief of staff, unwaveringly on message (buildup good, Obama bad).
"Was he?" asked a delighted Mark Salter, who is also the coauthor of McCain's five bestsellers. "Well, God bless him, 'cause it's taken a lot of work to get him there."
McCain has always been hard to predict -- witness his surprising choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Over the course of his 72 years, he has been called (and has called himself) many things: charming bad boy, wise-ass, underachiever, warrior, coward, maverick, apostate, straight talker, liar, war hero.
The contradictions give rise to questions about the essential McCain. Is he an opportunist with a conscience, or a man with so singular a moral compass that sometimes only he knows where it points?
In fact, McCain lives by a series of honor codes, instilled in him by his father (an admiral) and his father's father (also an admiral). To boil them down to their simplest formulation: One must never lie, cheat or steal. McCain would be the first to admit that he has failed, sometimes spectacularly, at all three. But he also has perfected the familiar American ritual of coming clean and moving on.
"He is the best apologizer in politics," said Dan Schnur, who was McCain's campaign spokesman in 2000 and now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
The codes inform McCain's reformist zeal and often set up clashes between his independent thinking and Republican orthodoxy.
His championing of a bipartisan campaign finance reform bill -- which passed in 2002, setting limits on corporate political donations -- infuriated many Republicans, who accused him of undercutting the party's interests and attacking free speech. But the guts of the reforms have withstood court challenges.
He opposed a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage, saying it was an issue more properly decided by the states. He has voted to expand stem cell research and to raise fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, has pushed for criminal background checks of gun show customers and -- with Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a conservative's bogyman if ever there was one -- has supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
He has alienated colleagues in both parties by waging war on congressional perks -- big things like pork-barrel spending (Alaska's infamous "bridge to nowhere") and smaller things like close-in parking at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport for federal officials and gifts and meals from lobbyists.
And he has changed positions, sometimes blatantly. He voted twice against the Bush tax cuts, questioning their morality, but now says they should be made permanent. He was against offshore oil drilling; now he's for it.
"From a political point of view, he is really very courageous," said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who can be found so often on the campaign trail with McCain that he jokes he's being held hostage.
Brutalized in the 2000 presidential race by pro-Bush forces who spread rumors that the Vietnam War had made him mentally unstable (untrue), that he'd fathered an illegitimate black child (he and his wife adopted a Bangladeshi orphan) and that his wife was a drug addict (a dependence on pain killers after back surgery sent her to rehab), McCain struck back at the Republican base and conservative evangelicals -- whom he called "the forces of evil" and "agents of intolerance."
He was so alienated from the GOP that he allowed Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry to court him as a possible running mate in 2004. He and Kerry had worked together in the mid-1990s to resolve questions about Americans who remained missing in action in Vietnam, paving the way for the United States and Vietnam to establish diplomatic relations.
"I was approached by a McCain operative at my house and told 'John McCain's interested in talking about it,' " Kerry said during a recent interview in his Senate office. "So we talked about it." Nothing ever came of it.
That same year, he began what many believe was a calculated move back to the fold, in order to position himself for this year's race. A photograph of McCain embracing the president at a Bush reelection rally in Florida is often used by former fans as Exhibit A that he has sold out.