The Nightingale's Song

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Overview

Robert Timberg weaves together the lives of Annapolis graduates John McCain, James Webb, Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, and John Poindexter to reveal how the Vietnam War continues to haunt America. Casting all five men as metaphors for a legion of well-meaning if ill-starred warriors, Timberg probes the fault line between those who fought the war and those who used money, wit, and connections to avoid battle. A riveting tale that illuminates the flip side of the fabled Vietnam ...

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Overview

Robert Timberg weaves together the lives of Annapolis graduates John McCain, James Webb, Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, and John Poindexter to reveal how the Vietnam War continues to haunt America. Casting all five men as metaphors for a legion of well-meaning if ill-starred warriors, Timberg probes the fault line between those who fought the war and those who used money, wit, and connections to avoid battle. A riveting tale that illuminates the flip side of the fabled Vietnam generation — those who went.

This astonishing tale of five of Annapolis's best and brightest--Oliver North, Bud McFarlane, John Poindexter, John McCain, and Jim Webb--recounts how the most divisive American war of the 20th century, the Vietnam conflict, came back to haunt the nation during the reign of Ronald Reagan. Photos.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Mark Shields The Washington Post If you want to read a terrific book about courage and cowardice, honor and betrayal, suffering and death, and the indomitability of the human spirit, get The Nightingale's Song.

Mike Barnicle The Boston Globe This is an amazing piece of work that could make you cry over descriptions of bravery so bold and so big...It is about the soul of a nation...This is a stunning book.

David Halberstam author of The Best and the Brightest The Nightingale's Song... has an almost hypnotic authority all its own and belongs on the same shelf as those classics of the Vietnam War, Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War, and Harold G. Moore and Joseph Galloway's We Were Soldiers Once...and Young.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Looking at the lives and careers of five Naval Academy graduatesamong them John Poindexter and Oliver Northfellow alumnus Timberg probes the connections between the legacy of the Vietnam war and the Iran-Contra scandal. (Oct.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684826738
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/1996
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 183,654
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Timberg is the author of The Nightingale's Song and John McCain, An American Odyssey. He served with the First Marine Division in South Vietnam from March 1966 to February 1967. He has worked at The Baltimore Sun for three decades as a reporter, editor and White House correspondent. Currently deputy chief of the Sun's Washington bureau, he lives in Bethesda, Md.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

HALOS AND HORNS

In June 1954 more than twelve hundred young men in varying states of anxiety assembled in Annapolis, took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and transformed themselves into the Naval Academy Class of 1958. Among the uneasy novitiates that day were John Marian Poindexter and John Sidney McCain III. Four years later, the Class of '58 had been whittled down by 25 percent. Of the 899 survivors, Poindexter, a small-town banker's son from landlocked Indiana, stood number one in the class. As a senior, he wore the six stripes of the brigade commander, the top leadership post at Annapolis. McCain, the scion of one of the most illustrious families in the annals of the Navy, stood 894, fifth from the bottom. He never smelled a stripe.

The two Johns had little in common beyond their first names, McCain rowdy, raunchy, a classic underachiever ambivalent about his presence at Annapolis; Poindexter cool, contained, a young man at the top of his game who knew from the start that he belonged at the Academy. In neighboring Bancroft Hall companies, they were neither friends nor enemies. They moved along paths that rarely intersected, Poindexter walking on water, McCain scraping the ocean floor, a bottom feeder, at least academically.

There was one important similarity. Both McCain and Poindexter were leaders in the class, the former in a manic, intuitive, highly idiosyncratic way, the latter in a cerebral, understated manner that was no less forceful for its subtlety. As the Academy was fully capable of accommodating both leadership styles, they might easily have found themselves competing for top positions within the Brigade. But little else was equal. "John Poindexter was the sort of guy with a halo around his head," said classmate Bill Hemingway. "McCain was the one with the horns." Hemingway was Poindexter's roommate, but not even McCain would contest the point.

John McCain always knew he was going to Annapolis, knew it with such unshakable finality that he never really thought twice about it, at least not seriously. It was part of the air he breathed, the ether through which he moved, the single immutable element in his life. He was the grandson of Admiral John Sidney "Slew" McCain, '06, a high-strung, irascible old sea dog who fought the Japanese with Bull Halsey from Guadalcanal to Tokyo Bay, watched them surrender on the deck of the battleship Missouri, then dropped dead four days later. The New York Times reported his death on its front page.

The Annapolis tradition continued with John's father, John Sidney McCain, Jr., '31, called Jack, at times Junior, a salty World War II submarine skipper climbing steadily toward flag rank himself. He was known for his trademark cigar, promotion of seapower, and devilish reply when asked how he could tell his wife, a college homecoming queen, and her twin sister apart. "That's their problem," he harrumphed.

Though resigned to Annapolis, John was not happy about it and at times seemed intent on sabotaging his chances for admission. Rebellious by nature, he viewed rules and regulations through a highly personal prism, as challenges to his wit and ingenuity. At Episcopal High School, a private boarding school for boys in Alexandria, Virginia, those qualities emerged with a vengeance.

He was known as Punk, alternatively as Nasty, in another variation, McNasty. He cultivated the image. The Episcopal yearbook pictures him in a trench coat, collar up, cigarette dangling Bogart-style from his lips. That pose, if hardly the impression Episcopal hoped to project, at least had a world-weary panache to it. Generally, though, he mocked the school's dress code by wearing blue jeans with his coat and tie and otherwise affecting a screw-you raffishness. He would later describe himself in those days as a rebel without a cause, a James Dean type, though it's just as easy to imagine him as Holden Caulfield, red hunting hat askew, railing about phonies, sneaking cigarettes, driving old Ackley-kid crazy.

One of his few friends, Malcolm Matheson, remembered him fondly as "a hard-rock kind of guy, a tough, mean little fucker." One time he was hauled into juvenile court after he leaned from the window of a friend's car to berate two older girls with the words "Shove it up your ass" when they ridiculed his awkward pickup attempts.

He dealt with the inevitability of Annapolis like a man loath to take the painful actions necessary to break an unhappy engagement. Rather than telling his parents what he really thought — screw Annap-olis, the place sucks — he put himself in a variety of compromising situations, seemingly hoping that the word would filter back so they would take the initiative, leaving him guilt-ridden but free to attend the school of his choice, which meant just about anywhere else.

McCain never went so far in his peccadilloes, however, as to subvert his birthright. He was defiant and flouted the rules, but given his pedigree it would have taken the hand of God to transform his childish pranks and boyish transgressions into something serious enough to bar him from Annapolis. And God, it seems, was otherwise occupied or knew something about McCain that McCain didn't. And so, on an early summer's day in 1954, in a car driven by his father, John journeyed to Annapolis, raised his right hand, and marched joylessly into his future.

To his surprise, he enjoyed plebe summer, thriving on the physical activity and drill. To Ron Thunman, the newly commissioned ensign in charge of his summer company, McCain displayed a dynamic quality, a scrappiness, that revealed itself most clearly in the plebe summer boxing smokers. Unschooled as a boxer, McCain would charge to the center of the ring and throw punches until someone went down. That summer it was always the other guy. He won all his fights by knockouts or TKOs.

His fortunes took a downward turn when the upper three classes returned in September. The least docile of plebes, he refused to accept the notion that someone could demean and degrade him simply because he had been at Annapolis two or three years longer. As he saw it, a lot of guys who had never done anything in their lives suddenly had the power to make his life miserable. "It was bullshit, and I resented the hell out of it," he later said.

As at Episcopal, he reacted by challenging the system, quickly piling up demerits. Shoes unshined, late for formation, talking in ranks, room in disorder, gear improperly stowed. Academically, he spent time, not a lot, on the courses he liked — English, history, and government — ignoring the rest, about 75 percent of the curriculum.

He treated the system throughout his four years like a hostile organism, something to beat back, keep at bay, as if any compromise meant surrendering a part of himself that he might never retrieve. John McCain at Annapolis, however, was not the John McCain of Episcopal days. He shed the punk image and became one of the most popular midshipmen in his class, if one of the least conventional.

He proved to be a natural leader, his magnetic personality making him the unofficial trail boss for a lusty band of carousers and partygoers known as the Bad Bunch. "People kind of gravitated to him," said Chuck Larson. "They would respond to his lead. They pretty much cared about his approval and they cared about what he thought." Larson, an ex-officio member of the Bad Bunch, was McCain's closest friend at the Academy and for some years after. They were known as the Odd Couple, McCain short, scrappy, the consummate screwup, Larson the model midshipman, tall, handsome, smooth, bright. They shared a sense of the absurd and an eye for the ladies. Larson, though, was cautious. Of course, he had more to be cautious about. McCain didn't know what the word meant. As one classmate put it, being on liberty with John McCain was like being in a train wreck.

Even so, his classmates clustered around him, followed his lead, a modern-day Pied Piper decked out in Navy blue. "Whatever John would suggest that we do, whether it was at the Academy or on liberty, I tended to follow," said classmate Jack Dittrick. "And I don't think I was alone in that. I've talked with other classmates and we all marvel at how much control John had over what we did."

He lived on the edge, which only added to his popularity. Even if you held back a bit, followed him so far and no further like Chuck Larson, it was still a hell of a ride.

One night McCain led the Bad Bunch over the wall to a watermen's bar on a small creek outside Annapolis. The place was little more than a screened-in shack with sawdust on the floor and an electric shuffleboard machine in the corner. Its appeal lay in a feature close to the heart of real estate agents and thirsty midshipmen alike: location. The bar was situated about an eighth of a mile beyond the seven-mile limit, within which midshipmen could not be served alcohol. The catch was that midshipmen on liberty were not permitted to wander beyond the seven-mile limit.

Two dozen midshipmen were drinking alongside the bar's usual clientele of fishermen and crabbers when the Shore Patrol burst through the door. "Nobody move," shouted the officer in charge, triggering a mad dash for freedom. Midshipmen crashed through the mesh screens that passed for walls and scurried into the surrounding woods, tearing their clothes, losing their caps. Some reversed field, hid in boats tied to the dock across from the bar. Others huddled in ditches or behind fences. McCain and a couple of buddies were sprinting down a road when a car slowed alongside them. "Get in," said the driver, laughing like crazy. He turned out to be a recent Academy graduate showing his girlfriend one of his old haunts. After dropping McCain and his friends in Annapolis, he returned to the bar and picked up another carload of mids. Everyone made it back one way or the other, hitching rides, scooting over the wall, slipping into Bancroft through any open window they could find.

No one ever had to give John Poindexter a midnight ride back to Annapolis. Bucking the system was not his style. "John lived a complete life at the Academy," said classmate Whit Swain. "He had everything he wanted. He didn't have to go over the wall. He didn't need that challenge. He didn't need to escape from anything."

Poindexter was comfortable with the system from the start. He took his share of abuse as a fourth classman, but seldom became rattied, swiftly establishing his credentials as a big-timer. Less adroit plebes groused that upperclassmen seemed almost respectful when hazing him. On those rare occasions when they turned on him, the reaction of his classmates was curious. He must be something special if they're working him over like that, they marveled, as if unable to imagine him doing anything wrong.

In truth, he rarely did. Ellen Poindexter, with affection and a trace of awe, says of her son, "John was never a little boy. He was born an old man." Her comment recalled political adman Roger Ailes's description of the young Richard Nixon as the kid who carried a briefcase to school and never let anyone copy his homework. But that wasn't John Poindexter. Growing up, he was bright, orderly, and competent, friendly and fun-loving as well. He was also wellliked, a notable achievement for a kid lacking athletic prowess to temper the teenage curse of superior intelligence. His classmates nicknamed him Brain, but affirmed his popularity by electing him King of the Fall Festival, the annual harvest celebration at his tiny high school in Odon, a southwest Indiana town described by Knight-Ridder correspondent Ellen Warren as a no-stoplight rural cliché.

Marlan and Ellen Poindexter, with just a year of college between them, encouraged John and their three younger children to high academic achievement. They also provided a supportive environment in which the abilities of their offspring bloomed. But John, the oldest, was a self-starter, destined for a life of consummate excellence, if not dazzling brilliance, from the day he was born in 1936.

Another ingredient in his personality contributed to his success. From childhood on, at least until he reached the White House, he recognized his limits and resisted the temptation to reach beyond them. "I don't do things I don't do well," he once confided to an acquaintance.

John was an avid Boy Scout, winning induction into the select Order of the Arrow, a scouting fraternity that stresses character, fortitude, and self-reliance. He and his rogue cousin Dickie Ray Poindexter were in the same Scout troop, but viewed their responsibilities to the younger boys in sharply different ways. "My idea was when you brought Tenderfoots in we'd take their pants off and paint their dicks with Mercurochrome," said Dickie Ray. "John's attitude was to sit them down and teach them how to go through the Boy Scout manual and how a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

There were few surface similarities between Marian Poindexter, a hard-driving, at times abrasive small-town banker, and his oldest son, an engaging kid who made everything he did look easy and displayed no special interest in material wealth, then or later. Their differences, however, obscured significant likenesses. Both had well-defined career paths laid out for them — Marian in the family funeral home business, John in banking — but each chose to strike off in new, unfamiliar directions. They also shared a quiet self-assurance, as if sensing in themselves a special quality destined to bring success if they just trusted their instincts.

Marlan prospered as a banker because he never forgot the marketing skills he developed years earlier peddling Kirby and Regina vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Even so, business would never have mushroomed as it did in the 1950s if not for Marian's genius in recognizing opportunity in the opening of the sprawling naval weapons facility in nearby Crane.

Tightfisted with his homegrown customers, Marian cultivated the men and women stationed at Crane, setting up check-cashing booths on the base on payday, offering free checking services, most importantly providing servicemen, especially officers, with easy loan approval, often solely on their signatures. "Marian learned early on that when you do business with the Navy, the Navy makes you pay your bills, especially if you're a career officer," said his nephew, Dickie Ray.

By the early 1960s, ads for his bank having followed John to Annapolis, the elder Poindexter was on a first-name basis with naval officers all over the world, for whom the phrase "banking with Marlan" had come to mean unstinting personal service. They'd call the little bank at the corner of Spring and Main, tell Marian they needed a loan, and he'd okay it over the phone. If they ran short of funds some months, Marian told them not to worry, he'd transfer money into their accounts, comfortable in the knowledge that their allotment checks would arrive in a few days. "Thanks," he'd write on their deposit slips. "Glad to see you're in Naples." Military families driving through Indiana sometimes made a sidetrip to Odon just to meet Marlan face-to-face.

John began talking about the Naval Academy during his junior year in high school. He had never seen the ocean, but tales of the seafaring life spun by such writers as C. S. Forester and Jack London had fired his imagination. Coming of age in a world of winter wheat and small-town ambitions, he was a closet romantic, a latter-day Horatio Hornblower craving adventure, as susceptible to the tug of the sea as a politician to the charm of a big-bucks campaign contributor.

At Annapolis, he started winning honors early. As a plebe, his company took first place in the yearlong brigade competition. He was picked to hold the bouquet of flowers for the color girl as she transferred the American, Navy, and Academy flags to the winning unit in the Color Parade ceremony during June Week.

At the Academy and for years after, he maintained a friendly rivalry with McCain's pal Chuck Larson. Larson was smart, earning an enviable academic standing even if he was not quite in Poindexter's league as a scholar. A slim six foot two, Larson was a charismatic leader, his Scandinavian good looks, outgoing personality, effortless charm, and mild taste for mischief appealing to midshipmen and Academy officers alike. "You looked at Chuck and you saw him as lettering in lacrosse and football and baseball and being number one academically, even though he wasn't any of those things," said Whit Swain. "He had this absolutely magnificent facade, whereas John didn't have any facade."

No one was surprised when Larson was named brigade commander at the beginning of senior year, leading the fall set of stripers in a series of glamorous events, the Wednesday afternoon parades on Worden Field and march-ons at football games at a time when Navy teams were national powers. Poindexter's selection to succeed Larson during the winter was less predictable. His high academic standing, clean conduct record, and squared-away demeanor merited a respectable number of stripes, probably four on the regimental or brigade staff. But brigade commander? The six-striper? "To me, John had zero command presence, as opposed to Larson, who really did," said Harry McConnell, an 18th Company classmate. Said another, Bill Bauer, "I wouldn't have put John on top as a leader."

Those closer to Poindexter had no trouble understanding the choice. If he did not have Larson's golden good looks, he was tall, slightly over six feet, trim, with fine military bearing. His pleasant, youthful features had a vaguely Oriental cast to them. For a time, he was called Babyface, but as he matured and became a presence within Bancroft Hall the nickname was rendered ludicrous. Roommate Bill Hemingway, later a Marine infantry officer who served three tours in Vietnam, remembered Poindexter as having "a real quiet, subtle kind of charisma," the kind not obvious at a distance.

"He was everybody's friend," said Hemingway. "If you had a problem with a class, he was there to help you. He did a lot of that. People admired and respected that because he was so selfless. That's what was so unique, he was so selfless." Bob Caldwell, another roommate, said he wouldn't have graduated if it hadn't been for Poindexter. "I'd read his notes before a quiz," he said. "If John put a blue square around a formula, I'd memorize that sucker."

For all his intellectual prowess, he was not a grind. "He was smart and diligent, but he was not ridiculous," said Hemingway. "He didn't read books with a flashlight after lights out. He didn't have to. He'd read something once and he understood it." Caldwell agreed, adding, "He was just smarter than we were."

It helped that Poindexter had a special skill, one that he regularly employed at the Academy and throughout his life: an exceptional ability to concentrate, to focus completely on what he was doing, shifting effortlessly back and forth between tasks, as if his mind were wired to a toggle switch.

He tended to follow the rules, but occasionally ignored them. In those days, plebes were not allowed to have radios. Poindexter took a toilet-paper roll, wound some copper wire around it, and fashioned a makeshift crystal set for the room. As a senior, he qualified as a yawl captain. On weekends he was not above swinging his sailboat into some small Chesapeake Bay cove and, contrary to regulations, taking on a case of beer for himself, his crew, and their dates.

From time to time he was the butt of his roommates' pranks. They once ground up the rubber soles of some old shoes and stuffed it in the bowl of his pipe. He complained about the odor of the tobacco, but smoked it anyway. At an exam, he opened the case of his Rude starfinder, a circular navigational aid used for celestial navigation, only to find that it had been replaced by a 45 rpm record of Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally."

To Whit Swain, Poindexter's leadership ability was entwined with a taste for power barely noticed by others. "John is a power junkie," said Swain. "Maybe junkie is too strong a word. But I think John likes power, and he knows how to use it and he knows how to get it."

Swain was a friend of Poindexter, but he wasn't as close to him as Larson, Hemingway, Caldwell, and a few others. From the middle distance, though, Swain may have picked up the elusive elements that defined Poindexter as a leader.

At its heart was Poindexter's intellect, which he took pains not to flash, but which could still be intimidating. "John was so sure of his intellectual capability that he knew that the decision he arrived at was correct," said Swain. "So when he approached you with 'Let's do it this way,' he was so sure of himself without being overbearing that you just automatically did it. You just bought it."

It was not charisma as the word is usually understood, but something akin to it. Up close, Poindexter could be an enveloping presence, a cherubic gray eminence, the kind of guy who had thought through a problem and crafted a solution before anyone else realized that a problem existed. Swain remembers a familiar pattern to their exchanges.

"Now, Whit, this is the way we're going to do it."

"Well, John..."

"Now, Whit..."

"Okay, all right."

Swain said no one else could talk to him like that. It did not seem patronizing coming from Poindexter, more like a dose of common sense gently administered by a favorite uncle who had only your best interests at heart.

Even so, Poindexter seemed to be everywhere, and that sometimes grated. Anybody who tried to stake out some turf, an area of interest in which he could be number one, invariably found that Poindexter had already been there or was coming up fast on the rail. As Swain put it, "He moved ahead of other people in any arena that they contested with him." How? "He was always right," said Swain. "It drives you mad when somebody's always right. It infuriates you. You just don't stand a chance against people like that."

Years later, in a discussion of Eastern religions, Swain was introduced to the concept of mana. He decided that it explained much of Poindexter's understated forcefulness. Mana, as Swain understood it, was an attribute of chiefs and gods that accounted for their power and good fortune. A man possessing mana rarely even moved. He simply lifted his finger and underlings raced to do his bidding. "John didn't move much," said Swain. "John would sit in his room and things would happen around him."

Swain's understanding of mana was admittedly incomplete. Carl F. Walters, Jr., a professor of religion at St. Andrew's Presbyterian College in North Carolina, put it all together. "Think of it as The Force," he said. To Whit Swain, John Poindexter was Obi-Wan Kenobi as a young man.

For all his notoriety as the instigator of madcap escapades, John McCain had less flashy qualities that became part of his Annapolis persona. He could not be intimidated, he said what he thought, and he stood his ground. Frank Gamboa, who roomed with him for three years, can tell dozens of stories about McCain, most of them hilarious, but he usually starts with this one:

Early in their sophomore year, McCain and Gamboa were dining in the Mess Hall one Saturday, a day when midshipmen 'did not have to sit at assigned tables. Barely more than plebes, they were feeling their way, treading lightly, hoping to get through the meal unnoticed. There were also some plebes and juniors at the table, which was presided over by a senior nobody knew. The first classman's mood was dark, his manner unpleasant. During the meal he became angry with the Filipino steward serving the table. The plebes and juniors, sensing trouble, ate quickly and left. In a serious breach of protocol, the firstie began dressing down the steward, as if he were a plebe. The steward, anxious to please, grew flustered under the sustained abuse.

Glancing nervously at McCain, Gamboa saw him grinding his teeth.

"Hey, mister, why don't you pick on someone your own size?" McCain finally blurted out.

"What did you say?" the firstie snapped.

"I don't think it's fair for you to pick on that steward," McCain shot back. "He's doing the best he can. You're picking on him. That's what I said."

"What's your name, mister?" snarled the firstie, the usual preamble for placing a subordinate on report.

"Midshipman McCain, third class," said McCain, eyes blazing. "What's yours?"

Furious, but seemingly aware that he was on shaky ground, the firstie grabbed his cap and retreated from the Mess Hall, never to be heard from again.

Looking back, Gamboa said the incident epitomized McCain's intolerance for anyone lording rank or social position over others. McCain, he said, was probably the only guy in the company who would have reacted as he did, then and there, when it counted. "Give me a couple of weeks to think about it, and I might have been that brave," said Gamboa.

McCain had an advantage shared by few of his classmates. He knew the Academy was not the real Navy. Senators, congressmen, admirals, and generals were frequent visitors to his parents' home in Washington, where his father held several senior Pentagon posts, so the ire of an upperclassman did not buckle his knees. Some felt his family background accorded him special status, that so long as he kept his hijinks within reasonable bounds he could get away with just about anything.

Had McCain relied on that, which he and others said he never did, he might have quickly reverted to civilian life. His grandfather had been dead for nearly ten years when he entered the Academy. His father, though a rising star in the Navy, was still a captain at the time. Navy captains command aircraft carriers and battleships, but they do not swing enough weight to finesse their kids through Annapolis. McCain's younger brother, Joe, in fact, bilged out as a plebe in 1961, three years after John graduated. By then, Jack McCain was a rear admiral. John McCain, moreover, made every effort to downplay his father's rank. Ron Thunman said he never learned of McCain's lineage till long after plebe summer even though as his company officer he had daily contact with him for two solid months.

Like many Annapolis men, McCain felt ambivalent about the Academy. "I hated the place, but I didn't mind going there," he once said. On the plus side, the uniform helped him get dates, not that he needed much assistance. Most weekends he could be seen escorting beautiful women, each more dazzling than the one who preceded her. Roommate Jack Dittrick used to tag along, hoping for a discard. "Women were just drawn to him," said Dittrick, even today amazed by the response McCain evoked in females. "What is it about him?" he once asked a woman friend. "Jack," she said, "the guy just plain has sex appeal. Don't ask me to explain it." Back then midshipmen had a more ribald way to describe the impact McCain and men like him had on women: when they walked into a room, so it was said, you could hear the skivvies drop.

Despite his woeful class standing, McCain was smart, quick, and thoughtful, if not intellectual. So how did he wind up scraping bottom at the Academy? For one thing, class standing was not solely a function of academic performance. A grease grade, relating to conduct and leadership, was also cranked in, and those factors dealt McCain's standing a severe body blow. He piled up an astonishing number of demerits, though always just below the threshold that meant dismissal. The leadership issue was more complicated. Whatever your talents, you cannot routinely thumb your nose at the Academy and expect the system to reward you. Personal appearance, for example, was an important element in the leadership grade. Outsiders may think that all midshipmen look shipshape in their uniforms, but within Bancroft Hall there are sharp divisions. Do shoes gleam from spitshining? Has a toothbrush been run around the soles to scrape off the mud? Do brass belt buckles have a mirror finish? Does the collar stay known as a spiffy sit out of sight under the collar? Is the dimple in the tie dead center? Do any extraneous creases show up below the knot? Are shirts tucked correctly in back, with equal widths of overlap on each side? Are uniforms free of all lint and Irish pennants? There is more, much, much more, and in that game McCain was a real loser. "I don't want to say seedy, but he was just not your squared-away midshipman," said Frank Gamboa. "He just didn't put any effort into it. I just don't think he gave a shit." Said Jack Dittrick, "Nobody was as sloppy as John."

Academically, he survived because he had a gift for cramming and friends willing to tutor him. He wasn't confused by the course material, he simply didn't want to spend time on subjects that bored him. Many evenings he would drop in on classmate Ron Fisher seeking enlightenment on such matters as Ohm's Law, inductive impedance, covalent compounds, entropy, Bernoulli's principle, and differential equations. His needs were simple, said Fisher: "He only wanted to know enough to get by." Fisher, who stood twenty-ninth in the class, was amazed that McCain picked up the key points of a lesson in a matter of minutes. Fisher never resented the intrusions, in fact, enjoyed them. After a while, though, he began to think of himself as a drug dealer and McCain as an addict coming around for his daily fix.

In his senior year, McCain and a classmate, Ted Smedberg, were waiting outside the Officers Club for their fathers to emerge. Smedberg, the son of Rear Admiral William R. Smedberg III, the Academy superintendent, was in his fifth year at Annapolis, repeating a year because of academic problems. Departing the club, Admiral Smedberg said to Captain McCain, "There stand my two biggest disappointments as superintendent of the Naval Academy."

In the fall of his sophomore year, as a member of the varsity debating team, John Poindexter went to the University of Vermont for a weekend tournament. He would later joke that the timekeeper, a perky Vermont freshman named Linda Goodwin, gave him extra time that weekend. She did, though she swears not on the debating clock. They spent most of the off-hours together, in the company of Poindexter's Annapolis teammates. Going to lunch, she found herself with a military escort, John on one side of her, another midshipman on the other side, and two more in step behind her.

Linda was the daughter of an army colonel. Like Poindexter, she was a product of Indiana, in her case the big city of Indianapolis. Years later, she would be ordained an Episcopal priest, but she was the same at fifty as she was when Poindexter met her in Burlington — smart, saucy, opinionated, and occasionally raunchy — the ideal sidekick for the reserved Poindexter.

For Linda, it was love at first sight. It may have been for John, too, but his life was complicated. When she asked about the picture he carried in his cap of high school sweetheart Laura Russell, he replied, "Oh, just an old friend," a line worthy of John McCain. "He may have been smarter than most midshipmen," Linda would later say, "but he was still a midshipman."

At Thanksgiving, Linda went down to Washington where her father was stationed. On impulse, she called John. He invited her to Annapolis and they picked up where they had left off in Burlington. He took her to the Christmas Hop. A few days later, she drove him to the airport and kissed him good-bye as he boarded his plane back to Ind

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS

Prologue

Book I. IHTFP

Introduction

I. Halos and Horns

2. Imagination Is Funny

3. Showdown

Book II. Fields of Fire

Introduction

4. Fire at Sea

5. Music Bingo, Dummy Math, and Gamma Rays

6. Welcome to the Gallant Marines

7. The Crown Prince

8. The Bloody Filter

9. Do You Want to Go Home?

10. The Cherry Boy

11. The Natural

12. Trusting the System

13. 'Tis the Season to Be Jolly

14. Stranger in a Strange Land

15. The Reasonable and Honest War Criminal

16. Long Tall Sally

17. The Water Walker

18. Adult Education

19. A Tutorial with the Greats

20. Reentry

21. A Change of Heart

22. Pug Henry

23. Women Can't Fight

24. Guerrilla Warfare

25. Garlic in a Crowded Elevator

Book III. The Nightingale's Song

Introduction

26. Ollie, Bud, and John

27. The Candidate from Hanoi

28. Scorpions in a Jar

29. Noble Cause Redux

30. The Doubters

31. The Presbyterian Climax

32. Put 'Em Up, Put 'Em Up

33. Remember Yamamoto

34. An Alien Presence

35. I Don't Have Any Life

36. The White Tornado

37. The Biggest Hawk and the Biggest Dove

38. Where Was Al Krekich When We Needed Him?

39. Chinatown

Epilogue

A Note on Research Methods

Notes

Bibliography

Interviews

Acknowledgments

Index

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

HALOS AND HORNS

In June 1954 more than twelve hundred young men in varying states of anxiety assembled in Annapolis, took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and transformed themselves into the Naval Academy Class of 1958. Among the uneasy novitiates that day were John Marian Poindexter and John Sidney McCain III. Four years later, the Class of '58 had been whittled down by 25 percent. Of the 899 survivors, Poindexter, a small-town banker's son from landlocked Indiana, stood number one in the class. As a senior, he wore the six stripes of the brigade commander, the top leadership post at Annapolis. McCain, the scion of one of the most illustrious families in the annals of the Navy, stood 894, fifth from the bottom. He never smelled a stripe.

The two Johns had little in common beyond their first names, McCain rowdy, raunchy, a classic underachiever ambivalent about his presence at Annapolis; Poindexter cool, contained, a young man at the top of his game who knew from the start that he belonged at the Academy. In neighboring Bancroft Hall companies, they were neither friends nor enemies. They moved along paths that rarely intersected, Poindexter walking on water, McCain scraping the ocean floor, a bottom feeder, at least academically.

There was one important similarity. Both McCain and Poindexter were leaders in the class, the former in a manic, intuitive, highly idiosyncratic way, the latter in a cerebral, understated manner that was no less forceful for its subtlety. As the Academy was fully capable of accommodating both leadership styles, they might easily have found themselves competing fortop positions within the Brigade. But little else was equal. "John Poindexter was the sort of guy with a halo around his head," said classmate Bill Hemingway. "McCain was the one with the horns." Hemingway was Poindexter's roommate, but not even McCain would contest the point.

John McCain always knew he was going to Annapolis, knew it with such unshakable finality that he never really thought twice about it, at least not seriously. It was part of the air he breathed, the ether through which he moved, the single immutable element in his life. He was the grandson of Admiral John Sidney "Slew" McCain, '06, a high-strung, irascible old sea dog who fought the Japanese with Bull Halsey from Guadalcanal to Tokyo Bay, watched them surrender on the deck of the battleship Missouri, then dropped dead four days later. The New York Times reported his death on its front page.

The Annapolis tradition continued with John's father, John Sidney McCain, Jr., '31, called Jack, at times Junior, a salty World War II submarine skipper climbing steadily toward flag rank himself. He was known for his trademark cigar, promotion of seapower, and devilish reply when asked how he could tell his wife, a college homecoming queen, and her twin sister apart. "That's their problem," he harrumphed.

Though resigned to Annapolis, John was not happy about it and at times seemed intent on sabotaging his chances for admission. Rebellious by nature, he viewed rules and regulations through a highly personal prism, as challenges to his wit and ingenuity. At Episcopal High School, a private boarding school for boys in Alexandria, Virginia, those qualities emerged with a vengeance.

He was known as Punk, alternatively as Nasty, in another variation, McNasty. He cultivated the image. The Episcopal yearbook pictures him in a trench coat, collar up, cigarette dangling Bogart-style from his lips. That pose, if hardly the impression Episcopal hoped to project, at least had a world-weary panache to it. Generally, though, he mocked the school's dress code by wearing blue jeans with his coat and tie and otherwise affecting a screw-you raffishness. He would later describe himself in those days as a rebel without a cause, a James Dean type, though it's just as easy to imagine him as Holden Caulfield, red hunting hat askew, railing about phonies, sneaking cigarettes, driving old Ackley-kid crazy.

One of his few friends, Malcolm Matheson, remembered him fondly as "a hard-rock kind of guy, a tough, mean little fucker." One time he was hauled into juvenile court after he leaned from the window of a friend's car to berate two older girls with the words "Shove it up your ass" when they ridiculed his awkward pickup attempts.

He dealt with the inevitability of Annapolis like a man loath to take the painful actions necessary to break an unhappy engagement. Rather than telling his parents what he really thought -- screw Annap-olis, the place sucks -- he put himself in a variety of compromising situations, seemingly hoping that the word would filter back so they would take the initiative, leaving him guilt-ridden but free to attend the school of his choice, which meant just about anywhere else.

McCain never went so far in his peccadilloes, however, as to subvert his birthright. He was defiant and flouted the rules, but given his pedigree it would have taken the hand of God to transform his childish pranks and boyish transgressions into something serious enough to bar him from Annapolis. And God, it seems, was otherwise occupied or knew something about McCain that McCain didn't. And so, on an early summer's day in 1954, in a car driven by his father, John journeyed to Annapolis, raised his right hand, and marched joylessly into his future.

To his surprise, he enjoyed plebe summer, thriving on the physical activity and drill. To Ron Thunman, the newly commissioned ensign in charge of his summer company, McCain displayed a dynamic quality, a scrappiness, that revealed itself most clearly in the plebe summer boxing smokers. Unschooled as a boxer, McCain would charge to the center of the ring and throw punches until someone went down. That summer it was always the other guy. He won all his fights by knockouts or TKOs.

His fortunes took a downward turn when the upper three classes returned in September. The least docile of plebes, he refused to accept the notion that someone could demean and degrade him simply because he had been at Annapolis two or three years longer. As he saw it, a lot of guys who had never done anything in their lives suddenly had the power to make his life miserable. "It was bullshit, and I resented the hell out of it," he later said.

As at Episcopal, he reacted by challenging the system, quickly piling up demerits. Shoes unshined, late for formation, talking in ranks, room in disorder, gear improperly stowed. Academically, he spent time, not a lot, on the courses he liked -- English, history, and government -- ignoring the rest, about 75 percent of the curriculum.

He treated the system throughout his four years like a hostile organism, something to beat back, keep at bay, as if any compromise meant surrendering a part of himself that he might never retrieve. John McCain at Annapolis, however, was not the John McCain of Episcopal days. He shed the punk image and became one of the most popular midshipmen in his class, if one of the least conventional.

He proved to be a natural leader, his magnetic personality making him the unofficial trail boss for a lusty band of carousers and partygoers known as the Bad Bunch. "People kind of gravitated to him," said Chuck Larson. "They would respond to his lead. They pretty much cared about his approval and they cared about what he thought." Larson, an ex-officio member of the Bad Bunch, was McCain's closest friend at the Academy and for some years after. They were known as the Odd Couple, McCain short, scrappy, the consummate screwup, Larson the model midshipman, tall, handsome, smooth, bright. They shared a sense of the absurd and an eye for the ladies. Larson, though, was cautious. Of course, he had more to be cautious about. McCain didn't know what the word meant. As one classmate put it, being on liberty with

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2004

    A great read

    This book was a great read. I thought all the men where described fairly because even good men like President Reagan and Ollie North make mistakes. It's easy for me to support people who violate the law if those violations occur to accomplish goals I agree with. But I would not feel the same way if someone broke the law to do something I didn't agree with. I'd want to see that person punished for breaking the law. What kind of nation would America be if every violation of the laws boiled down to whether or not people (important powerful people) desided that violatations of the law are justified in some situations and not in others. So in fairness to Ollie North, that's the real question to be answered; not whether or not I agreed with his actions. The issue is did Ollie NOrth's actions against the law. Ours is a nation governed by laws not men.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2000

    Were they heroes or villans?

    This book explains the Iran-Contra 'scandal' which almost wrecked the Reagan administration. It was an effort to save and free American hostages, to save 'freedom fighters' from the consequences of Congressional abandonment during their war, and to open a dialog with an important--but hostile--government in Iran. The motives were high and these Annapolis men acted with courage and devotion. Unfortunately they ran afoul of a particularly stupid, cowardly, leftist and legalistic Congress which had passed the Boland Amendment (a temporary, repeat temporary, suspension of aid to the Contras). The only fault I find with this book is in the author's scorn for Reagan and North; neither deserve it. Reagan's record is better described in the DeSouza biographical portrait. Ollie North was a war hero in Vietnam and who later did everything he possibly could to save the Contra Freedom Fighters. I only wish we had more Ollie North types and fewer lawyers in government.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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