McCain: Loving His Misspent Youth

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Terry Ashe

This reproduction photo shows Senator John McCain in a military uniform during his youth.

There aren't too many politicians in America who would dare admit they once frequented a strip club. Fewer still would cop to dating one of the dancers, especially if she had a nickname like the "Flame of Florida," or a habit of packing a switchblade in her purse. And among that select crowd, there are barely any who call themselves conservative Republicans, or would ever dare dream of running for President.

But then, this nation has historically afforded certain privileges to its military personnel, and the old Navy flyer John McCain is confident he has earned a pass. "I enjoyed every single moment of my life here," he announced in a prepared speech Wednesday in Pensacola, Fla., "from learning to fly to blowing my pay at Trader Jon's."

The otherwise conservative crowd of more than a thousand supporters burst into approving applause and laughter at the mention of their storied downtown watering hole, which had dancing girls back when McCain served in the area as a young pilot. McCain's own knowing smile only added to the moment. Indeed, all week, the Republican nominee-in-waiting has been alluding to the wild days of his younger years, and crowds have been eating it up.

Watch McCain's routine here

"I remember with affection the unruly passions of youth," he said Monday in Meridian, Miss., where he once helped organize an off-base toga party — the furniture swapped out for mattresses — for his military buddies and some local girls. On Tuesday, he returned to his Virginia high school to announce that his frequent disobedience earned him the nickname "worst rat." (He used to sneak away to hop a bus to Washington, D.C., for the burlesque houses and bars.) On Wednesday morning, he stood outside the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where he spoke of his "nocturnal sojourns" beyond those school's walls and the hundreds of miles he was forced to march in punishment for "petty insubordination."

None of these confessions were muttered accidentally. After McCain dropped the line about the strip club in Pensacola, I asked Mark McKinnon, the campaign's media advisor, if drunken escapades at strip clubs were a good message for a presidential campaign. "That's why we like him," McKinnon said with a smile. "That's why he has potential appeal to young people."

McKinnon's answer was mostly a joke, but he was hinting at the real message behind McCain's weeklong "biography" tour around the country. The purpose was not just to show the places and experiences that had shaped McCain, but to draw for voters and the media a clearly defined narrative of what those experiences signify. The tumultuous early years are, for McCain and his campaign, the first parts of a story of redemption, of a transformation from irresponsible youth to the wise elder, from selfish child to selfless adult.

"I wanted to live the life of a daring, brash, fun-loving flyer, indifferent to the hazards of his profession, calm and stoic when the adrenaline flowed, fatalistic about life-and-death situations," McCain explained in Pensacola. "In truth, the image I aspired to was, in the end, only irresistible to one person — me, and it was a very childish attraction."

On Thursday, at an airbase in Jacksonville, Fla., McCain completed the thought by telling the crowd what he had learned in his five years as a prisoner of war, where he was tortured so badly that he signed a false confession and later contemplated suicide. "I once thought I was man enough for almost any confrontation. In prison, I discovered I was not," he said. "But when I had reached the limit of my endurance, the men I had the honor of serving with picked me up, set me right, and sent me back into the fight."

And so McCain's redemption tale conveniently charts a clear course from a strip club in Pensacola to a North Vietnamese prison to the steps of the White House. He was saved in captivity, he says, by his fellow soldiers, and their shared sense of common cause. "For me that cause has long been our country," he said in Meridian. To drive home the point, the sides of his motor coaches were laminated with the words, "Service to America."

As a genre, the redemption tale is not unheard-of in American politics. In 1999, George W. Bush introduced himself to his conservative base by speaking of the moment he gave up alcohol and hard living, for family and God. Barack Obama has written of a time in college when he was unfocused, dabbling in marijuana and cocaine, before finding direction. Bill Clinton, at various times, claimed to have reformed his less-than-honorable ways, as well.

What distinguishes McCain's redemption tale is its elaborate detail. Two books, Faith of My Fathers, which McCain co-wrote with his speechwriter and adviser Mark Salter, and The Nightingale's Song, by Robert Timberg, flesh out in intimate detail the misbehavior of McCain's youth, as the set-up for a hero's narrative.

We learn that when he lived in Virginia Beach, Va., McCain participated in the "most raucous and longest beach parties of any squadron in the Navy." We learn of the strip club dancers, the toga party and the nights spent sneaking away from school to drink. We read about the "slim and blond" fashion model in Rio, whom he dated on shore leave in 1957, and their final moonlit night when she greeted him on a terrace "not dressed for dinner." We further learn that his hard-partying habits were genetic. McCain's father, a submariner-turned admiral named Jack, told stories of drunken nights on shore leave that involved ransacking an officer's club or throwing a box of bullets on a fire.

If not for the setting of military service, such hijinks could be seen as disqualifying for a presidential contender. But for McCain they are part of his very argument that he is qualified for the job. McCain's political advisers have lined up a spring full of regular events to define McCain in advance of open combat of the general election. Having already traveled overseas last month and burnished his biography this week, he is set to return to Washington, D.C., next week for the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus, who is commanding the military effort in Iraq. That will be followed by a continued tour of parts of the country not often visited by Republican candidates, like New Orleans and Appalachia, as a way of displaying McCain's maverick character and hope for expanding his party's base of voters.

In strategic terms, this is the McCain campaign's storytelling phase. And as any Hollywood producer will tell you, every story gets a little better with a bar scene and some romance. As if this point might not come across otherwise, the campaign changed the pre-event soundtrack Thursday before the speech at Cecil Field Naval Air Station. Instead of the McCain road show's usual songs like U2's "City of Blinding Lights," the speakers played "Danger Zone," the Kenny Loggins pop song made famous in the film Top Gun, a story of another hot-dog naval aviator who overcame immaturity and adversity to serve his country with honor.