Vocal on War, McCain Is Silent on Son’s Service
One evening last July, Senator John McCain of Arizona arrived at the New Hampshire home of Erin Flanagan for sandwiches, chocolate-chip cookies and heartfelt talk about Iraq. They had met at a presidential debate, when she asked the candidates what they would do to bring home American soldiers — soldiers like her brother, who had been killed in action a few months earlier.
By JODI KANTOR
Published: April 6, 2008
Mr. McCain did not bring cameras or a retinue. Instead, he brought his youngest son, James McCain, 19, then a private first class in the Marine Corps about to leave for Iraq. Father and son sat down to hear more about Ms. Flanagan’s brother Michael Cleary, a 24-year-old Army first lieutenant killed by an ambush and roadside bomb.
No one mentioned the obvious: in just days, Jimmy McCain could face similar perils. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them as they were coming to meet with a family that ...” Ms. Flanagan recalled, choking up. “We lost a dear one,” she finished.
Mr. McCain, now the presumptive Republican nominee, has staked his candidacy on the promise that American troops can bring stability to Iraq. What he almost never says is that one of them is his own son, who spent seven months patrolling Anbar Province and learned of his father’s New Hampshire victory in January while he was digging a stuck military vehicle out of the mud.
In his 71 years, Mr. McCain has confronted war as a pilot, a prisoner and a United States senator, but never before as a father. His son’s departure for Iraq brought him the same worry that every military parent feels, friends say, while the young marine’s experiences there have given him a sustained grunt’s-eye view of the action and private confirmation for his argument that United States strategy in Iraq is working.
While Jimmy McCain’s service is a story all his own — he enlisted at age 17 — it illuminates the beliefs about duty, honor and sacrifice with which family friends say he was raised. Military ideals have defined Mr. McCain as a person and a politician, and he is placing them at the core of his presidential candidacy. Last week, he campaigned at his former stations of duty, explaining how the lessons he learned there would guide his decisions as commander in chief.
“If I had ignored some of the less important conventions of the Academy,” as a demerit-prone midshipman, Mr. McCain said Wednesday at the United States Naval Academy, “I was careful not to defame its more compelling traditions: the veneration of courage and resilience; the honor code that simply assumed your fidelity to its principles; the homage paid to Americans who had sacrificed greatly for our country; the expectation that you, too, would prove worthy of your country’s trust.”
With both potential Democratic nominees in favor of withdrawal from Iraq, debate about the war — whether it is winnable, what would happen if the United States withdrew, how much loss the country can endure — is likely to be a dominant issue in the general election. Mr. McCain’s potential opponents are already implying that he is too willing to risk American lives, too committed to stretching an already unpopular war far into the future.
Out of the Public Eye
Mr. McCain has largely maintained a code of silence about his son, now a lance corporal, making only fleeting references to him in public both to protect him from becoming a prize target and avoid exploiting his service for political gain, according to friends. At the few campaign events where Lance Corporal McCain appeared last year, he was not introduced.
The McCains declined to be interviewed for this article, which the campaign requested not be published. “The McCain campaign objects strongly to this intrusion into the privacy of Senator McCain’s son,” Steve Schmidt, a campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “The children of presidential candidates in this election cycle should be afforded the same respect for their privacy that the children of President Bush and President and Senator Clinton have been afforded.” (To protect Lance Corporal McCain in case he is again deployed to a war zone, The New York Times is not publishing recent photographs of him and has withheld some details of his service).
Born in 1988, the third of John and Cindy McCain’s children, Jimmy inherited his father’s features and slight build, outrageous humor and family tradition of military service that stretches back to the Revolutionary War. His grandfather and great-grandfather were the first parent and son to achieve four-star admiral status in Naval history.
Then there was his father’s ever-growing legend. A hell-raising Navy pilot, John McCain relied on a defiant streak to survive nearly six brutal years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. As Jimmy grew up, his father, first a congressman and then a senator, was always dashing off to speak at military events — a dedication here, a graduation there. Mr. McCain’s reputation was burnished with his memoir, “Faith of My Fathers,” and its adaptation into a television movie.
Two of Jimmy’s three older brothers went into the military. Doug McCain, 48, was a Navy pilot. Jack McCain, 21, is to graduate from the Naval Academy next year, raising the chances that his father, if elected, could become the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower with a son at war.
The McCain children were not force-fed tales of their father’s bravery, said Orson Swindle, who was imprisoned in Vietnam with Mr. McCain. But “if you’re a man in the public eye, it’s hard for them not to know about it,” Mr. Swindle said in an interview.
By the time Jimmy was in high school, he was scouting war memorabilia on eBay and playing video games like “Battlefield 1942,” classmates said. He chose sports that simulated combat, like fencing and paintball, and his prized possession was a World War II Army hat.
At Culver Academy, a military-style boarding school in Indiana, he and his friend Nick Moore would fire up “Apocalypse Now” or “Platoon” on a laptop — critiques of war, but never mind — turn the sound down and talk about serving. “The testosterone was flying,” Mr. Moore said in an interview. “He’d say, ‘I’m just going to go in there guns blazing!’ ”
Jimmy wanted to attend the Naval Academy, he told Mr. Moore, and then learn to fly. But how he would get there was uncertain. In interviews, classmates and teachers described him as the kind of kid who contributed impressive thoughts to classroom discussions but did not always turn in assignments, who was always collecting demerits for minor offenses like smoking — descriptions that echo those of his father at the same age. He left Culver after his sophomore year, making it the second school he passed through in two years.
Sometime in the next year, Jimmy enlisted in the Marine Corps. He only called his parents to tell them afterward, according to Lance Cpl. Casey Gardiner, a friend from boot camp. Iraq was tilting toward civil war, with blasts of improvised explosive devices at their highest levels yet. Jimmy McCain was 17, so young that Cindy McCain had to sign consent forms for his medical tests before he could report for duty, according to Gunnery Sgt. Edward Carter, a recruiter in Phoenix who handed her the papers.
By enlisting in the Marines, Jimmy seemed to be giving up his birthright. The Navy is, by reputation, the most aristocratic of the armed forces, the McCains among its most storied families. Now he would hold the lowest rank in a branch known for its grittiness. “The first time I heard he was going to be in the company, I couldn’t believe it,” said First Lt. Sam Bowlby, one of Lance Corporal McCain’s officers in Iraq.
“He didn’t want to be in the shadow of his father,” Lance Corporal Gardiner said.
But the new marine was fulfilling his father’s legacy in at least one way. John McCain had become a hero not for the missions he had flown or the men he had led, but for the privileges he had refused and the hardships he had endured. The North Vietnamese wanted to free Mr. McCain ahead of other captives because he was the son of a Navy admiral and Pacific commander. Mr. McCain refused. Now his son was carving a humble new path that the father, academy-bound since birth, never had.
Jimmy began boot camp on Sept. 11, 2006. He took extra abuse for his last name, said Lance Cpl. Gregory Aalto, a member of his training platoon. Recruits are not even allowed their own eyeglasses, so Jimmy had to wear the standard-issue Marine ones, so unappealing they are known as “birth-control goggles.”
As he completed his training and prepared for deployment, other marines caught only occasional glimpses of his family’s celebrity and wealth, such as when he handed out extra tickets for a Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Oscar De La Hoya boxing match he was attending with his father in Las Vegas. If anyone asked about his family, he had a sarcastic joke at the ready. When a cluster of marines asked how they could help his father’s campaign, Lance Corporal McCain pretended to call him and then passed on a message: they could carry out the contracts the senator had taken out on his rivals’ lives.
“Jimmy was just completely joking,” said Lance Cpl. Johnathan Pebley. “You can kind of tell he doesn’t want to talk about it.”
In July, days from deployment, Lance Corporal McCain, newly engaged to be married, joined his father’s struggling campaign in New Hampshire. He visited the Flanagans and sat unrecognized at campaign events.
At the last stop, a veteran asked for a round of applause for the candidate’s brave Marine son. He did not seem to know that Jimmy McCain was sitting just a few seats away. Almost no one did.
As Father of a Marine
Mr. McCain did not speak publicly about whatever anxiety he may have felt about his son’s deployment, but Mr. Swindle described the experience as difficult. “Anybody who tells you it’s not tough is not being straightforward with you,” he said.
Senator Christopher S. Bond, Republican of Missouri, whose son served two tours in Iraq, said he and Mr. McCain privately traded their concerns. “We talked about how it affects the young men over there,” Mr. Bond said. “He’s basically a father, very anxious about what his son’s going to be doing.”
Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, a former presidential contender whose son was serving in Afghanistan, said he and Mr. McCain would update each other at debates. “He knows what his father and grandfather went through as his sons went off to war,” Mr. Hunter said. “So he’s got a model to follow.”
Indeed, John McCain’s own parents were dressing for a dinner party in London when they learned he had been shot down. They went anyway, never telling other guests. Later, Admiral McCain ordered air strikes on Hanoi, where he knew his son was imprisoned.
Just before Jimmy’s departure, Mrs. McCain decided she had to see him one final time, according to Lieutenant Bowlby. With a few well-placed phone calls, she won permission to visit the Air Force base from which his unit would depart. When Lance Corporal McCain found out, he protested. No special favors, he said. Mrs. McCain stayed away.
“God forbid someone gave him something the rest of the marines weren’t entitled to,” Lieutenant Bowlby said.
Lance Corporal McCain and his fellow riflemen had trained for the worst in the spring of 2007, using paintball guns rigged as M-16s to apprehend costume-clad “insurgents” in fake Iraqi villages.
In the real Iraq, they saw little combat. “We were expecting to get shot at all the time,” said Lance Cpl. Justin Murdock, 20. “But 95 percent of the time, nothing was going on.”
The marines were stationed in Anbar Province, where some of the war’s bloodiest battles had been fought. But the fighting had moved on to other areas, and Lance Corporal McCain’s company mostly did security work, which meant keeping an unceasing eye on the locals, poor Sunnis who grew rice and other crops on small plots.
Lance Corporal McCain’s unit performed “soft knocks” — visits to Iraqi homes intended as reassurance as well as surveillance, said Lance Cpl. Jason Case. His platoon hunted for weapons caches and I.E.D.’s, but also distributed school supplies and candy. Relying on interpreters and the bits of Arabic they all seemed to pick up, the 19- and 20-year-old grunts taught Iraqi police officers how to hold and clean weapons, search vehicles and conduct patrols.
The hardest part, said several marines, was enduring tedium while remaining braced for mayhem. There were physical deprivations, too — searing heat, heavy gear, long hours and minimal sleep.
Fifteen marines with whom Lance Corporal McCain trained or served were interviewed for this article, and all praised his performance. He “was just always a hardworking kid,” Lieutenant Bowlby said. “He never bitched about anything,” he said, and always seemed to be laughing. “The humility of him, that’s what blew me away,” he continued.
For much of his tour, Jimmy McCain was cut off from political news. The rented Iraqi home where his platoon bunked did not have Internet service, and the 30-odd men shared one satellite phone with a shaky signal. Some news arrived via word-of-mouth, like the senator’s New Hampshire victory (Mr. McCain recounted the story at a recent Manhattan fund-raiser). Lance Corporal McCain did see his father once. On Thanksgiving, Mr. McCain visited Camp Habbaniya with Senate colleagues, and the two shared the holiday meal in the chow hall, according to several people present. Mr. McCain asked other marines if they saw security improving and seemed heartened when they told him they did.
Lance Corporal McCain and his unit returned home in February. For his father, who believed that United States strategy in Iraq was working, his son’s tour corresponded well. The company had not lost any men, though three from the battalion had died. It had arrived in a stable area and things had only improved from there. “In my seven months there, you would see drastic changes in Iraq,” Lance Cpl. Greg Jumes said.
Lieutenant Bowlby echoed his comments, as did every marine interviewed. “There were some hairy moments, but compared to the past couple of years, it’s 180 degrees,” he said, comparing his first tour in Iraq with his second.
Two days after Lance Corporal McCain arrived back in the United States, his father shared his account of the war with Republican congressmen. In a private meeting on Capitol Hill, Mr. McCain mentioned the decline in I.E.D.’s that his son witnessed, the soccer balls he gave to Iraqi children. Mr. McCain’s audience responded with a standing ovation, according to a report published by CNN and confirmed by several aides who were present.
In recent weeks, the news from Iraq has been less encouraging. The cease-fire between the leading Shiite militia and American and Iraqi security forces, which overlapped with Lance Corporal McCain’s tour, has frayed. Bombings and sectarian killings have increased. Days after the fifth anniversary of the war’s start, the death toll of American troops crossed the 4,000 mark.
As Mr. McCain enters the general election, some say that his son’s service will underscore the sincerity of his stance on the war. “He has, to use a gambler’s term, skin in the game,” said Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator and longtime friend of Mr. McCain. “It’s among the most important things that people want to know about John McCain in trying to decide whether or not to trust him.”
Last month, Mrs. McCain made a similar argument at a campaign event in Houston. “I want him to represent my son at 3 o’clock in the morning,” she said of her husband, referring to an advertisement for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York that boasts of her national security credentials. She wore a blue-star pin, the mark of an American with a family member at war.
Her son is back at Camp Pendleton, where he is using the Jeep he just bought to ferry other marines to the beach. Lately he has been teased about a McCain presidency, according to Lance Cpl. Matt Drake, another company member. “Will we have to go patrolling with Secret Service?” they ask.
“Shut up,” Lance Corporal McCain tells them good-naturedly.