JACKSONVILLE, FLA.—Some slightly disconcerting things you might have learned about Sen. John McCain had you paid attention to his biography tour this week:
As a young Navy pilot in Spain, he flew a plane so low "for no good reason" that he knocked out power lines, cutting electricity to a "great many" homes. At Episcopal High School in Virginia, he was peeved that first-year students were called "rats," and reacted by misbehaving so much that by year's end he'd earned the moniker "worst rat."
The outlines of McCain's life are well known: third-generation Navy hero, prisoner of war, maverick Republican lawmaker, a second marriage to a fetching beer heiress. But this week, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee sought to fill in some of the blanks. Revisiting six scattered cities he has called home, he hoped for free media coverage at a time when the Democrats' fighting and other news events seem to be drowning him out.
In the lead-up to McCain's "Service to America" tour, many expected fawning events where McCain could cast himself as a war-tested veteran, ready on Day One for the duties of commander in chief.
Instead, McCain embarked on a meandering journey that began Monday and ends Saturday. It took him from his ancestral home in Mississippi through his schoolboy and plebe years on the East Coast to the Florida towns where he lived as a daredevil naval aviator and to Arizona, where he began his political life and was deeply influenced by Barry Goldwater. Along the way, McCain's bent toward self-deprecation was on full display.
Each speech was a catalog of sin, then secular salvation, mostly given in made-for-TV settings where he spoke of his dawning awareness of a purpose larger than himself -- serving his country. The narrative that he told was a classic tale of redemption through selflessness, as old as Shakespeare (Prince Hal, anyone?).
Whether McCain's "Service to America" tour had its desired effect -- or whether he risked seeming out of touch by focusing on his service-heavy biography at a time when the nation is preoccupied with a crumbling economy and a never-ending fight among Democrats -- is not clear.
National newspapers gave cursory coverage to the tour, but he did score some television play on evening news shows and softer programs like "Good Morning America." Though one of his advisors said the tour was not designed to move polls, McCain has edged up recently in national surveys. In theoretical matchups, he is competitive with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who are locked in an extended battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"He's actually gotten more public and media attention out of this than I expected," said Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist and McCain's communications director when the Arizonan sought the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. "Under normal circumstances, this tour wouldn't make sense. But when the other party is busy self-destructing, he has a gold-plated opportunity."
But Democratic strategist Mark Mellman thinks McCain is struggling to be relevant. "He's got two problems to which this is a solution," Mellman said. "He needs to get attention, and he has nothing to say that's relevant. The way to solve that is to talk about his biography at this point."
At times, McCain's speeches sounded like preemptive damage control. He presented himself as a privileged youth with a chip on his shoulder -- someone who idolized his father and grandfather but acted out the resentment he felt about the role he was expected to fulfill.
"As a boy," he said Monday in Meridian, Miss., "my family legacy, as fascinating as it was to me, often felt like an imposition. I knew from a very early age that I was destined for Annapolis and a career in the Navy. In reaction, I often rebelled in small and petty ways to what I perceived as an encroachment on my free will."
On Wednesday in Pensacola, Fla., he admitted that his ambition as a brash young pilot was to be irresistible to women. His references to his skirt-chasing days as a young aviator led reporters to joke the trip was turning into McCain's "sowing my wild oats" tour.
Fran Meyer, a 70-year-old supporter who attended McCain's speech Thursday in Jacksonville, said McCain's speech was "goose-bumpy" for her. "What one of us is perfect?" she asked. "Why not bring it out? It makes him human. It makes him real."
Though the 71-year-old McCain can banter easily with young people about topics such as Britney Spears or the television drama "Lost," he assumed a more formal, almost flowery rhetorical style this week as he spoke from prepared remarks.
In Pensacola, where he trained as a pilot after graduating from the Naval Academy, he said, "You know, there are compensations to growing older, my friends, but the late discovery that you were probably not quite the charming, irresistible young man you once believed you were, but rather callow, conceited and often stupid, is not among them."
Aboard his campaign plane, McCain was asked whether dwelling on his past might negatively highlight the generational gap between himself and Obama, who is 47, or Clinton, who is 60.
"If it were not for the lessons of the past that I've learned, I don't think I would have nearly the insight that I have as to how [the country's] future should be shaped," McCain said. His experience, he said, shows "this ability to see around the corner of history -- and that's what I'm trying to achieve."