The Diagnosis: "Stable"

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COURAGE UNDER FIRE: Captured after ejecting, left, and mistreated by Vietnamese doctors, below, McCain came back with a broken body, and still walks with a slight limp

A POW lucky enough to make it out alive is always examined by psychiatrists and other doctors, and those examinations continue for several years. In John McCain's case they took place between 1973 and 1984, and are proving two decades later to be a godsend. For when his political enemies began whispering that his 5 1/2 years in prison had made the presidential candidate emotionally unstable, McCain had mounds of paperwork to prove otherwise. Last week his campaign staff allowed TIME to review those records--roughly 1,500 pages of them. The upshot: not only has McCain never displayed signs of a psychological disorder, but also in many cases his doctors' reports read more glowingly about his mind than McCain's best-selling autobiography. Wrote a doctor in 1974: "Patient is a very intelligent, ambitious, competitive, intellectually curious, caring person."

The most revealing reports are from the early years. In March 1973, two weeks after McCain's release, a psychiatrist deems his "emotional status" to be "stable" and says McCain has an "overdeveloped superego," or sense of conscience and morality, and an "unrealistically high" need for achievement. "He may tend to expect too much of himself and take it hard when/if things don't go as planned." Imprisonment seems to have cured one of McCain's problems as well: as one who had long sought to escape the shadow of his famous Navy father, McCain "feels his experience and performance as a POW have finally permitted this to happen," according to his 1974 evaluation. McCain also tells a psychiatrist that among the benefits of his POW experience "he learned to control his temper better, to not become angry over insignificant things." Included in the records is a 1984 IQ test. His score, 133, would rank him among the most intelligent Presidents in history.

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There are a few unflattering disclosures. References are made to McCain's "histrionic pattern of personality adjustment" or "mildly hysterical traits," but the technical terms sound more dramatic than they really are. In essence, the doctors were saying McCain was prone to emotional excitability. But they said he could control it. The campaign blotted out most references to his feelings about his family during the years when his first marriage was unraveling.

Most of the documents pertain to the wreck of a body McCain brought back from Vietnam, specifically the five or so shattered bones that had either gone untreated or were mistreated by his captors. In recent years, McCain has had several skin cancers removed from his face and shoulders. But the report from a 1980 physical included a potentially embarrassing mention of what the doctor believed to be "herpetic lesions" on his genitals. Navy doctors who reviewed his records in the past few weeks, however, say McCain has never had a recurrence of the lesions, making it "very unlikely" he actually suffered from herpes.

That McCain felt compelled to release all this information is testimony to two things: first, to the power of the whispered allegations against him; and, second, to McCain's instinct for candor. At a holiday party last Friday night, McCain joked about how the moderators at last week's debate seemed obsessed with his temper. "They kept asking, 'Are you crazy? Are you crazy?'" Answer: No crazier than anyone else who would run for President.