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Faith of our Fathers

One day in late summer 1970, I was playing tennis on the courts next to the Officer’s Club at Pearl Harbor. I was 16. My opponent, a long-haired boy whose name I now forget, was younger. He was a visitor from the mainland, the little brother of the wife of a junior officer on my Dad’s ship.

Suddenly, a gnarly bantam rooster of a man rushed onto our court through one of the gates, followed by an entourage of followers who could only be senior naval officers, despite the fact that all were in white shorts, conspicuously devoid of insignia.

Without pausing in his stride, the first man commanded, “You boys get out of here! I’ve got this court.”

Taken aback, we nevertheless immediately moved to obey. I knew active-duty officers had precedence over dependents on Navy courts, and although this man looked old for active duty — at 59, he seemed ancient — we could not doubt his authority. As we moved to collect our gear, he noticed my father — at that time the executive officer of the USS Kawishiwi — sitting on the bench where he had been watching us play. The man went immediately to Dad and spoke to him briefly, then came quickly over to us boys. I was unprepared for what came next — an apology.

Introducing himself, he explained that he was extremely busy, that he reserved the court for this time and that it was the only recreation he had, so he had been in a hurry to get to it, which explained but did not excuse his brusqueness, and he hoped we would understand.

No problem, admiral, I said. Don’t mind us. We’re moving. Enjoy your game.

The man was John S. McCain Jr. Had he been in uniform, he would have worn four stars — the same rank his father had attained in World War II. He was CINCPAC — the Commander In Chief Pacific Command — a title that to a Navy brat had the same ring as the words “the king” would have had to someone in Medieval Europe. Except that no king of old ever had authority over as much military power. He commanded all U.S. forces in and around the Pacific and Indian Oceans, from the U.S. west coast to the Persian Gulf. The American forces fighting the war in Vietnam were only a portion of his responsibility.

Among the hundreds of thousands of men under his command was a lieutenant commander being held as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. The naval aviator was nearing his third anniversary in captivity, most of that time in solitary confinement in a tiny, stifling cell, his monotony relieved only by brutal interrogations. His body, and at one point even his spirit, broken, he would be there for another two-and-a-half years.

I didn’t know any of that at the time. Only years after Sen. John McCain had risen to national prominence did I connect him to the admiral I’d met that day. But even among the many who knew about the connection, few ever heard CINCPAC speak of it. Only those closest to him knew about the ritual with which he would mark each Christmas: Every year, he would go to Vietnam and visit troops stationed closest to the DMZ. At some point he would go off by himself to the edge of the base and stare silently northward, in the direction of his son.

Last week, you read (I hope) a column headlined “Barack Like Me,” in which I explained my sense of identification with elements of Barack Obama’s personal journey of self-definition. If you missed it, I urge you to go to my blog (the address is at the end of this piece) and read it. This column is a companion to it. I wrote the earlier piece after reading Sen. Obama’s autobiography about his youth.

This past week, I read Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir, by John McCain and Mark Salter. It’s the very different story of a young man who was far less confused about who he was or where he came from. And as much as I felt I understood “Barry” Obama, my commonality with Navy brat McCain is much more direct, and certainly simpler.

A few months ago, I wrote another column headlined, “Give me that old-time conservatism,” in which I wrote of the values I had learned growing up in a Navy family, “the old-fashioned ones: Traditional moral values. Respect for others. Good stewardship. Plain speaking. And finally, the concept that no passing fancy, no merely political idea, is worth as much as Duty, Honor and Country.” It was written shortly after Sen. McCain won the S.C. primary, at a time when “conservatives” in his party were doing all they could to stop him.

His autobiography is a 349-page exploration of those values.

His grandfather was a hard-driving, smoking, drinking, gambling old salt who cried when he read casualty reports. He had less regard for his own welfare, once telling his wife he would not spend a penny on doctors, preferring to lavish all his money “on riotous living.” He commanded the fast carriers of Task Force 38 through one epic battle after another across the Pacific, stood in the front row at the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri, then flew home that day. He dropped dead during the party his wife threw to welcome him home.

His father was a cigar-chomping submarine commander in the same war, who over the next 25 years worked ceaselessly to live up to his father’s example. As CINPAC, he unsuccessfully pressed his civilian superiors to let him pursue victory in Vietnam. The B-52 attacks on Hanoi (wildly cheered by his son and fellow prisoners as the bombs fell around them) and mining of Haiphong harbor helped focus the North Vietnamese on an eventual peace agreement in Paris. But Admiral McCain didn’t even get to see the war to that unsatisfactory conclusion before being relieved as CINCPAC. He retired, and lived another nine years, but was never a well man after that. His son believes that he, “like his father before him, sacrificed his life” to the strains of wartime command.

On the fringes of this presidential campaign, one reads silly e-mails and blogs accusing Barack Obama of being less than American because of the African, Muslim part of his ancestry. Some Democrats weakly respond that John McCain isn’t an American, either, having been born in the Canal Zone in Panama. I have to smile at that, because in my life’s experience, the Zone looms as the very essence of America. During the two-and-a-half years I lived in South America in the 1960s, Panama was the place we occasionally visited to get our booster shot of home, the Land of the Big PX, a place to revel in the miracles of television and drinking water straight from the tap without fear.

Ironically, Panama means far less to John McCain, since his family left there when he was three months old. It was the start of a routine that I know very well:

As soon as I had begun to settle into a school, my father would be reassigned, and I would find myself again a stranger in new surroundings forced to establish myself quickly in another social order.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. It fostered in McCain and me and thousands like us an independence that’s hard to explain to those who never experienced it. I suspect it contributed greatly to the characteristics that his campaign inadequately, and monotonously, tries to describe with the word “maverick.”

But there was a constant in our lives. Growing up, I most often heard the United States Navy referred to as “the Service.” It both described what my father did and why he did it. It was the same for the McCains.

Barack Obama struggled for identity in his formative years largely because of the absence of his father. John McCain and I both experienced the absence of fathers: “We see much less of our fathers than do other children. Our fathers are often at sea, in peace and war.” But unlike Mr. Obama, we understood exactly who our fathers were and why they were gone:

You are taught to consider their absence not as a deprivation, but as an honor. By your father’s calling, you are born into an exclusive, noble tradition. Its standards require your father to dutifully serve a cause greater than his self-interest, and everyone around you... drafts you to the cause as well. Your father’s life is marked by brave and uncomplaining sacrifice. You are asked only to bear the inconveniences caused by his absence with a little of the same stoic acceptance.

But as much as our childhoods were alike, John McCain the man is very different. It’s one thing to know “the Service” as a dependent. It’s far different to serve. As I type that, it sounds terribly trite. Yes, we all know John McCain is a war hero, yadda-yadda, right? But I don’t care how much of a cliche it’s become, it’s true. And it sets him apart.

I can’t write a “McCain Like Me” column because from an early age, he was different. He always knew he would follow his father and grandfather to the Naval Academy. I knew nothing of the kind, and not just because my father graduated from Presbyterian College. There was a brief time in my late 20s when I considered giving up journalism for the Navy; I even took a written test for prospective officer candidates, and did well on it. But my father pointed out to me what I had always known: My chronic asthma would keep me out. So I dropped the idea.

John McCain, by contrast, rebelled against inevitability, raising hell and breaking rules all the way through his four years at Annapolis, repeatedly stepping to the brink of expulsion, and graduating fifth from the bottom of his class. Even reading about the hazing he experienced as a plebe, when upperclassmen did everything they could think of to break him and cause him to “bilge out” — nothing, compared to what he would suffer as a POW — I thought, Did I ever experience such treatment? Was I ever tested to that extent? And the answer was “no.” Nor, despite all his doubts about himself, his own period of rebellion or his sense of alienation, did Barack Obama have such a formative experience. If so, he doesn’t tell about it.

The gulf between John McCain and me would exist if he had never been captured. His heroism during those five unimaginable years — a time when he finally learned the full importance of being part of something larger than himself — only turns the gulf into an ocean.

I say that not to criticize Sen. Obama, or myself. But it’s a fact. We never knew anything like it. Men like John McCain and my friend Jack Van Loan — his fellow prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton — will forever be imbued with an aura that not even The One can claim. Some dismiss the McCain slogan “Country First” as worn-out rhetoric. But I know that for him, perhaps more than for any candidate I’ve ever known, it simply describes who he is and how he’s lived his life.

That almost certainly is not enough to help him win the election. As I watch him on the verge of failure, that saddens me. He’s had three decades to come to terms with the fact that the war in which he gave so much caused so many of his fellow Americans to lose their faith in their country, and he’s dealt with it admirably.

Now this. As I watch him drift further from his goal, I can say “Barack Like Me,” but McCain — he’s on a different plane, and always has been. And increasingly, he seems to be there alone.

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