John McCain, promoting his life story with a "service to America" campaign tour, stopped yesterday at the place that service began more than half a century ago, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee's weeklong swing is designed to publicize aspects of McCain's biography that, his strategists hope, will work to his advantage in the general election against the less experienced Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
Deliberately or otherwise, the heavily scripted events, centered on his military career and 5 1/2 years in a North Vietnamese prison, have also drawn attention to McCain's temper and age.
At a Northern Virginia boarding school, Episcopal High, where he spent three years in the early 1950s, McCain acknowledged Tuesday that he had not entirely outgrown his "rambunctious" behavior and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude as a teen.
"In all candor, as an adult I've been known to forget occasionally the discretion expected of a person of my years and station when I believe I've been accorded a lack of respect I did not deserve," said McCain, whose temperament has been an issue in his presidential campaigns. "But I believe if my detractors had known me at Episcopal, they might marvel at the self-restraint and mellowness I developed as an adult. Or perhaps they wouldn't quite see it that way."
During a campaign speech at Navy's football stadium yesterday, he joked about his rebellious years at the academy, where he graduated near the bottom of his class and accumulated "an impressive catalog of demerits."
"By my reckoning, at the end of my second class year, I had marched enough extra duty to take me to Baltimore and back 17 times - which, if not a record, certainly ranks somewhere very near the top," said McCain, who often makes self-deprecatory references to his academy experience.
"Some of my critics allege that age hasn't entirely cost me my earlier conceits," he added. "All I can say to them is, they should have known me then."
One who did, Frank Gamboa, his roommate for three years, said McCain's infractions, while numerous, were minor, and he tried to put the character traits he saw then into a positive light.
McCain is "a very independent individual who doesn't easily succumb to regimentation," Gamboa said. "He'll listen to all the advice and then make his own decision."
McCain has acknowledged that he gets angry but has played down questions about his temper. In a recent TV interview, he called it "a very minor thing, as compared to my record of accomplishment."
With the Republican National Convention still four months away, McCain is trying to prevent the competing Democratic candidates, Obama and Clinton, from drawing most of the public's attention. The only suspense left on the Republican side is his choice of a running mate, which, McCain said yesterday, he's begun considering.
"We just started this process of getting together a list of names and having them looked at, and I don't know how long it takes," he told radio host Don Imus. "But if I had a personal preference, I'd like to do it before the convention to avoid some of the mistakes that I've seen made in the past, as you get into a time crunch and maybe sometimes don't make the announcement right."
McCain, 71, said he was aware of the "enhanced importance of this issue, given my age."
To help allay doubts about his age, his vigorous, 96-year-old mother, Roberta, joined him at stops this week in Mississippi and Virginia, and McCain has continued to campaign as hard as his Democratic rivals.
His day began yesterday with the Imus interview, at 6:32 a.m., followed by breakfast in the academy's King Hall.
McCain chatted with midshipmen at one of the tables, an academy spokesman said. Department of Defense policy prohibits military installations from being used for political campaigning.
McCain, whose son, Jack, is a member of the Class of 2009, had asked the Naval Academy's permission to make the appearance, an academy spokesman said. The 7 a.m. breakfast was not open to the public.
"We encourage our nation's leaders to visit federal grounds, and this is a great opportunity for the midshipmen to interact with him," said Ensign Laura Stegherr, a Navy spokeswoman.
McCain also stopped at Chick and Ruth's Delly, a political hangout not far from the Statehouse, and joined patrons in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, a longtime tradition. Among those on hand were former Govs. Marvin Mandel, a Democrat, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.
In brief remarks to an invited audience at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, he credited lessons learned at the academy with sustaining him as a prisoner of war in Vietnam after his plane was shot down in 1967.
"If I had ignored some of the less important conventions of the 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," he said, a cold wind whipping the American flags behind him on a stage overlooking the stadium.
His 15-minute speech, plagued by a balky prompting device that caused him to omit one page of his prepared remarks, challenged Americans to serve their community and country.
The stadium, which sits about a mile from the academy's grounds, is owned by the nonprofit Naval Academy Athletic Association and, thus, is not subject to the Defense Department policy, Navy officials said.
From there, McCain greeted Operation Welcome Home volunteers and visited the USO lounge at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport before heading for stops in north Florida, where he trained as a pilot and came back, years later, as a just-released POW.