WASHINGTON—Navy liaison to the Senate:Second of two parts
-- John McCain's ascension to Republican presidential nominee began 30 years ago in a cluttered office on Capitol Hill. There, Washington's most privileged senators would drop by to hear the Navy pilot hold forth in a space so cramped his chair was jammed against the wall.
He was a glorified valet, really, assigned to arrange travel junkets and escort lawmakers overseas. But in a remarkable midlife reinvention, McCain went from senators' factotum to senator himself. He turned his final military assignment into an apprenticeship and launched an unlikely political rise that could put him in the White House.
He did more than arrange their security and make sure they got to the proper hotel. He attached himself to men of power and studied how they worked. He enthralled them with tales of his captivity in Hanoi. He delighted them with his rough humor and supplied them with bottles of airline liquor smuggled into Middle East countries where drinking was outlawed.
FOR THE RECORD:
John McCain: An article April 15 in Section A about Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's start in politics misspelled a brand of whiskey. It is Johnnie Walker, not Johnny Walker. —
Soon the old bulls were maneuvering to sit next to the young captain on long flights: Republicans John G. Tower of Texas and John W. Warner of Virginia; Democrats Morris K. Udall of Arizona and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson of Washington. The younger up-and-comers became his friends: Republican William S. Cohen of Maine stood as best man at McCain's wedding; Democrat Gary Hart of Colorado was an usher.
And when McCain decided to make his audacious bid for Congress -- with no political experience and not so much as a home state from which to run -- his mentors handed him the ingredients for a campaign that succeeded on the first try.
That five-year chapter of the future Arizona senator's life was an early example of the determination and dash that helped him survive 5 1/2 years in a prison camp, then win the nomination of a party that never much liked him. While his fiery temper and famous maverick streak made plenty of enemies, they were offset by a rakish charm that made as many friends, some who would play influential roles in his career.
"If we were going to be in a night session and had to kill some time, we would drop down there to his office, put our feet up and talk," Hart recalled. "Sometimes McCain would regale us with stories. Sometimes we would tell him about what it was like to be in the Senate."
The late '70s were a time of turmoil for McCain.
He came home from Vietnam to a strained marriage.
His wife, Carol, a former model, had been severely injured in an automobile accident.
His own injuries had grounded him -- his arms didn't work right and one knee wouldn't bend. It was doubtful that he could continue the legacy of his father and grandfather, both respected admirals. "I came home determined to excel in my family's profession. . . . I think it's fair to say, however, that the Navy had reservations," McCain wrote in his memoir, "Worth the Fighting For."
Through extensive therapy, McCain regained use of his knee and renewed his flight status. He went on to serve for 13 months as commander of the Navy's largest aviation squadron before taking the job as Senate liaison.
He needed a new career. If the liaison job was short on prestige, it was long on access, and by his own account, McCain was "not overawed" by the powerful company he began to keep. Some of the Senate's most prominent members were old friends of his distinguished father and had attended parties at the admiral's Capitol Hill home. The POW bracelet worn by Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) was inscribed with McCain's name. The Reagans invited him for New Year's celebrations after his release.
Indeed, the senators may have been more awed by McCain than McCain was by them. He was soon the most popular escort on congressional fact-finding trips, which went on for days and afforded face time no ordinary Navy captain could have imagined. He danced on the table of a Greek taverna with Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s wife, Jill, a red bandanna in his teeth, recounted McCain biographer Robert Timberg.
He took as many as 20 trips all over the world with Tower, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who treated him like a godson.