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The Hero Myth


This is a story about heroes, about the people who worship them and the people who tear them down. And it begins, at least in part, one day in the summer of 1997 when Mike Wallace, the famously hard-hitting “60 Minutes” anchor, decided to do a segment on John McCain, the Arizona senator and decorated former Vietnam prisoner of war who is now running for president. Wallace’s investigative team, led by producer Tom Anderson, flew to Phoenix and did what it ordinarily would do--comb the city for details about its subject’s past. For several days, the team interviewed local officials, reporters, and friends, many of whom painted a far more complicated portrait than the glowing one familiar to the public.

Among those Anderson questioned was Grant Woods, McCain’s first administrative assistant in Congress and Arizona’s former attorney general. He also spoke with Amy Silverman, a young reporter with the Phoenix New Times who had probed McCain’s poor environmental record and fund-raising practices so doggedly that the senator had refused to speak to her for five years.

In October 1997, after more than a month of work, the piece finally aired. But, to the surprise of both Woods and Silverman, none of their criticisms-- and few from anyone else--appeared in the story. “It was pretty much a puff piece,” says Woods. Silverman was so stunned by the tenor of the story, she wrote a column on media bias, while another reporter described Wallace as one of McCain’s “bootlickers.” At CBS, it turns out, there were questions, too. According to several people familiar with the show, a fight broke out between Wallace and his assistants over the portrayal, between those who wanted to treat McCain like a politician and those who wanted to treat him like a saint. “Anderson wanted to nail McCain and do the real story,” says one person, but Wallace refused.

When I called Anderson to find out what, if anything, had happened, he said there had been a disagreement--but only over the angle of the story. There was a debate about whether to do a more traditional profile, “with warts and all,” he said, or to concentrate on McCain’s efforts to pass campaign finance reform. In the end, he said, they chose the latter, which was why so many of the warts wound up on the cutting-room floor. For his part, Wallace, who stoutly defends the piece, makes no bones about his feelings for McCain. “I’m thinking I may quit my job if he gets the nomination” and campaign for him, Wallace said recently.

However one interprets the “60 Minutes” episode, to hear such words from a paragon of the media establishment is remarkable. After all, McCain is staunchly pro-life and, on most issues, deeply conservative. And yet Wallace’s statement is only slightly more positive than similar ones issued by other journalists. Though having only recently announced his candidacy, and trailing badly in the polls, McCain has already won a powerful constituency within the press, which is encouraging, even clamoring for, his nomination. As early as 1997, The New York Times Magazine published a 7,000- word cover story heralding McCain’s quest “to restore honor” to politics. A few weeks later, National Journal weighed in with its own 5,000-word cover story headlined “the lone ranger.”

McCain’s crusader image, originating from his days as a POW in Vietnam, has been burnished in the past few years by his willingness to buck his own party on the two issues the media regard as moral litmus tests for politicians: reforming the campaign finance system--which McCain tried to do by sponsoring a bill to ban unconstrained “soft money” donations--and regulating tobacco-- which he’s attempted to do through legislation that taxes cigarettes. More recently, McCain has gained admirers for boldly calling for ground troops in Kosovo, while Clinton and other Republican presidential candidates cower behind their spokesmen.

As a result, even the most committed liberals are lauding him--perhaps none more so than David Nyhan of The Boston Globe. “For a lot of people,” Nyhan wrote in 1997, “the Senate is ninety-nine bozos and this guy.” A few months later, despite McCain’s annual zero rating from liberal interest

groups, Nyhan raved: “Still alive as a possible entry is Senator John McCain ... fighter pilot, war hero, gutsy POW, crusader for campaign finance reform, call-’em-as-he-sees-’em conservative.” By summer, as McCain was fighting for the tobacco bill, Nyhan could no longer contain himself: “You cannot break McCain’s will. You cannot make him quit. You cannot coerce him with threats.” The adulation appeared to reach its zenith when Esquire magazine emblazoned across its pages without a hint of irony: “john mccain walks on water.”

John McCain has clearly become something more than just John McCain, long- shot presidential contender. Heroes have always served as a reflection of their times, a template of who we are and what we want to be. And, in the wake of Bill Clinton’s misconduct, McCain has become a reflection of our times, the focus of our desperate search for “character” in a president to the exclusion of almost everything else--even actual political beliefs.

America has always searched for heroes in politics, and the press has always played a part in finding them. As early as the Constitutional Convention, pamphleteers, along with the rest of the country, turned to George Washington, the Revolutionary War hero who seemed to embody the nation’s new spirit. During Washington’s first year in office, France’s charge d’affaires, Louis-Guillaume Otto, observed with wonderment: “In more than one hundred gazettes, often very licentious ... his name has constantly been respected.” No one was more respectful or worshipful than Parson Weems, a bookseller and writer who liked to say that great men made his bosom “heave with emotion unutterable.” In 1800, caught in such a swoon, he published History of the Life, Death, Virtues, and Exploits of General Washington, where he unabashedly mixed fact and fiction: “’George,’ said his father, ‘do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?’ This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all conquering truth, he bravely cried out, ‘I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.’”

Weems, of course, could tell a lie, and the story soon became part of the national myth. It was a tradition of exaltation into which the press would fit subsequent presidents, if not by embellishing them, then at least by protecting them. It hid, for example, the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair and that John F. Kennedy was not really the author of Profiles in Courage, or a faithful husband, or even as spectacular a hero of PT 109 as the one portrayed by Cliff Robertson in the Hollywood movie.

In recent years, however, the press has torn down more political icons than it has built up. In place of Weems, there are Woodward and Isikoff. Every generation, of course, complains that all the great men belonged to the previous generation, but that seems especially true of this one. In 1958, when he was only 40 years old, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., one of Kennedy’s hagiographers, complained that “we have no giants” left. Two decades later, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy, Newsweek lamented on its cover: “where have all the heroes gone?”

The increasing crush of the press and the invasion of technology seem to have left no space for the living hero to breathe and have made the hunt for him all the more ferocious. In 1990, before he retired, New York Times columnist Russell Baker wrote ruefully: “Heroes are pretty well all washed up in the United States these days.” And, after a year of impeachment, The Wall Street Journal seemed to quantify this despair when it ran a poll on the front page under the headline: “no heroes emerge.”

“In the early morning of October twenty-six, 1967, Lt. Commander McCain departed for his twenty-third bombing mission over North Vietnam... As McCain was completing his bombing mission, a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile struck his plane, shearing off the right wing.”

Inside the enormous dining room, as the lights dim, there is a hush. It is South Carolina’s 1999 annual Silver Elephant Banquet, and almost every Republican from the state is on hand. McCain is the guest of honor, his white hair forming a perfect halo around the crown of his bald head. The big screen above him brightens with his boyish face: he wears aviator glasses and a wry smile and looks, in the glint of the sun, a little like James Dean.

Most people in the room already know at least fragments of what happened next: McCain, until then known primarily for his carousing and his failing grades at Annapolis, ejected from his plane, still strapped to his chair, his legs outstretched and hands extended. The wind snapped both his arms, a knee shattered. Unconscious, he parachuted into a lake in the center of Hanoi, where a mob of Vietnamese dragged him from the water, stabbing him with bayonets. “McCain was loaded into a truck and delivered to the infamous--and hated--Hanoi Hilton.”

A few days later, as he slipped in and out of consciousness, his captors discovered that he was the son of a powerful U.S. admiral. Suddenly sensing his propaganda value, the North Vietnamese offered to release him. But McCain refused, not wanting to embarrass his father or to receive special treatment: according to the military code of conduct, prisoners were supposed to be released in the order in which they’d been seized. Infuriated, the Vietnamese Communists kicked and beat him; then, as Robert Timberg described in The Nightingale’s Song, they lashed McCain’s broken arms behind his back and pulled until he was barely conscious. This went on for days. “Before it was over, McCain spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war, two of them in solitary confinement.”

The film lasts only a few more minutes. It mentions McCain’s crusade against special interests, his faith in God, and, in a veiled contrast to Clinton, his character. “While we yearn for heroes who can lead us,” the narrator concludes, “John McCain’s life is a genuine inspiration.”

As the lights flick back on, people blink, as if seeing something for the first time. McCain stands and moves behind the podium. The room is silent. Then, as if to break the spell, McCain leans against the podium and says with a big smile: “It doesn’t take a hero to intercept a surface-to-air missile.”

Heroes, marshall fishwick observed in The Hero, American Style, are “ always a barometer to the national ‘climate of opinion.’” And so, as with the rest of us, they change. Dwight D. Eisenhower gave way to John F. Kennedy, and Henry Ford to Ralph Nader. And thus Bill Clinton, the ideological hero of 1992, has given way to John McCain, the characterological hero of 2000.

It is hard to remember now, of course, that Clinton once embodied anything more than his own urges. Yet, whereas McCain now exemplifies a set of noble values, Clinton once represented what then seemed most important to the press- -a set of noble ideas. Joe Klein, who would later savage Clinton’s character in Primary Colors, wrote ebulliently before the 1993 inauguration: “The Clinton campaign ... was more than just a holy war... ‘ N ew ideas’ types all were hoping that their moment had finally come, that it was time to reclaim the idealism of the Kennedy years.” The adulation was so overwhelming, even blinding, that Howell Raines, then Washington bureau chief at The New York Times, called it “the most dramatic example of infatuation among some reporters since Kennedy.” A poll taken after the election showed that nearly 90 percent of the Washington press corps had voted for Clinton (a draft dodger) over George Bush (a veteran of World War II).

Whereas everyone insisted at the time that we must finally break with the past, only seven years later everyone is trying to reopen it. There are Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Peter Jennings’s The Century. There are Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation (“I am in awe of them”) and Harry Evans’s The American Century. And there is Nyhan of the Globe, who not only looks back on McCain’s past but mythologizes it as boldly as Weems once did Washington’s. “Mayday! Mayday!” Nyhan writes in one notable example--a made-up reconstruction of McCain’s fateful crash. “Tiger Two to Naval Command. I’m taking flak from my left and heavy ack-ack from my right. Fuel is low, and I’m out here alone. The bad guys just winged me. Looks like I’m going in. Mayday! Mayday!”

Though reporters are famous for unmasking their heroes, they tend to view politics--and by extension their own jobs--in mythical terms. And there is a sense among many of them that something went horribly wrong with Clinton-- that he has degraded not only his office but theirs as well, that instead of producing giants among them like Theodore White, or even Woodward and Bernstein, he has turned them all into Drudges. It is a sentiment not only of reporters and pundits but of politicians and pollsters, consultants and academics. And it is a sentiment that has gradually seeped into the public at large. In the latest Pew Research Center poll, 77 percent of Independents and 64 percent of Democrats said they were “tired of all the problems associated with the Clinton administration.” “I think people finally realize how important character is,” says Marshall Wittmann of the Heritage Foundation.

Indeed, if George Bush, the World War II hero with an aimless domestic agenda, created the perfect space for Clinton, then Clinton, the ideological hero with an aimless character, has created the perfect space for McCain. They are like a photograph and a negative of their generation: one self- indulgent, the other selfless; one coy, the other candid; one devious, the other decent. In Vietnam, McCain did precisely what Clinton did not: he fought, and did so voluntarily. What’s more, in a war in which, as Phil Caputo once wrote, Americans “had done nothing more than endure,” McCain, who had endured more than anyone, reinvented the myth of the war hero, which had largely been shattered by the nightly footage of napalm bombings and body counts.

Unlike Eisenhower or Ulysses S. Grant, the traditional war icons, McCain did not take a hill or liberate a city; he did not sneak behind enemy lines or sink a ship. He went to prison and was tortured. In some sense, he became an emblem of the nation’s suffering, a metaphor of all the people imprisoned by the war--”trapped in it, trapped by it, trapped against it,” as Todd Gitlin, the ‘60s activist and author, put it to me. In a war of victims, McCain had become the ultimate one. The tragic hero.

While other combatants were spat on, he returned to cheering crowds and the pealing of church bells. He appeared at parades on his crutches in his neatly pressed white uniform and even met with the president of the United States.

But it was his oddly serene demeanor that transformed him into an icon around whom both sides of the culture wars could unite. Unlike Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Navy gunboat commander, he never threw his ribbons at the Capitol in protest. He told Timberg that he didn’t have any nightmares or flashbacks. He even forgave Jane Fonda. “If you look back in anger,” McCain would say, “it can be not only nonproductive, but self-destructive.”

Of all the former prisoners, he somehow seemed the most free.

“Ididn’t know what the fuck I was talking about,” says McCain, picking at his onion rings. “I didn’t have a clue.”

As he sits with three reporters at a Burger King in South Carolina, explaining his first plunge into politics in 1982 and his bid now to become president, he does something I’ve never seen before from a politician: speak like an ordinary person. When another senator’s name comes up, he blurts out, “He hates GOP Senator Mitch McConnell, and I can’t blame him.”

Later, as we get on a small plane to fly to Charleston, an aide hands him a speech. “Do I have to look at this now?” McCain asks. “Tell him I’ll look at it later. Tell ‘im it’s marvelous.” He pauses, then notices me taking notes, and adds, “It’s hard for me to focus on that shit right now.”

Such talk from a presidential candidate would once have been considered scandalous; today, it is refreshing. In the age of sound bites and spin doctors, most politicians offer the same speech over and over or, in the case of Clinton, the same shallow spin. Which explains why McCain has become not only a war hero but also something even rarer today: a political hero. After bumping into McCain in 1996 for the first time, tnr’s Michael Lewis exclaimed with delight: “A politician who lived dangerously! A politician who spoke his mind!”

In fact, even as McCain eschews the rules of the modern politician, he embraces the rules of the modern celebrity--namely, the need to reveal himself. Though the legendary Rough Rider (and one of McCain’s own role models) Teddy Roosevelt used to hold informal press conferences while he shaved, most others have retreated into political cocoons. John Glenn, who orbited the Earth alone, surrounded himself with handlers on the ground. Bill Bradley, the former basketball star also running for president, still makes reporters fax him their clips so that he can know them.

McCain, meanwhile, lets cameras in his office, his home, even his car. He answers press calls at three o’clock in the morning. He is blunt and open. “ He went through a messy divorce and made mistakes,” says Albert Eisele, editor of The Hill newspaper. “But he doesn’t try to do a Clinton on that... He doesn’t give you a lot of B.S.” McCain seems to understand that, in an age in which the press will find you no matter where you hide, candor can become the only form of guile. “Frankly,” says Eisele, “I think a lot of reporters have given him a bye because of it.”

Which brings us back to the story of Mike Wallace and “60 Minutes.” In Arizona, there have long been whispers about McCain--murmurs that he is not the saint he seems to be. When I call an aide who worked for him for many years, he says ominously, “Follow the trail back to Phoenix.” And so I do.

Like Anderson and his “60 Minutes” team, I spend days combing through McCain’s past. I track down rumors that he once told a local reporter to go “ fuck” himself (true) and punched a lobbyist in the face (false). I speak to friends and former aides, who recount how his temper would sometimes explode without warning, revealing, they speculate, someone far more troubled by his experience in Vietnam than he ever lets on.

During the Keating Five scandal, when Mark Flatten, a political reporter with The Tribune Newspapers, asked him about trips to the Bahamas he had taken with Charles Keating, the savings-and-loan magnate who was later indicted for fraud, McCain went ballistic. “He started screaming and shouting ... and pounding his fists,” Flatten recalls. “Finally I just said, ‘If you don’t want to answer my question you don’t have to, but I don’t have to listen to you rant and rave.’” After Amy Silverman published a series of critical articles on him, he purportedly cornered her father, the general manager of one of Arizona’s largest water utility companies, and showered him with curses, according to a former McCain aide and another person familiar with the incident. (Dick Silverman would not deny the incident but refused to discuss it, saying through a spokesman only that his conversations with politicians were private matters; McCain said the same.) In time, the senator became famous back home for his written apologies, which began to fill his friends’ and enemies’ drawers like souvenirs.

In politics, there was another side to him as well. Though he went against his own party on campaign finance reform and tobacco, people soon discovered that he could be just as opportunistic and ruthless behind the scenes as any other politician. In his first bid for Congress, he scanned the country looking for a district where he could win, then moved there even though he had never lived in the state. As he built up his local power base, he courted corporate donors in the liquor industry and schemed against his rivals. In 1994, when Barbara Barrett decided to challenge one of McCain’s allies, Governor Fife Symington, for the GOP nomination, McCain threatened to end her political career. Barrett confirmed the story only after I’d obtained the details from several other sources. “He asked my price to get me out of the race,” Barrett recalls. “Then, when I wouldn’t succumb, he indicated that he would use every ounce of his power to destroy me.” His very virtues in Hanoi-- his hard-headedness and unwavering loyalty--now seemed more like liabilities. When McCain’s old friend Attorney General Grant Woods eventually convicted Symington on seven counts of bank and wire fraud, McCain became enraged with him, too. “I had to deal with the law,” says Woods. “John could never understand that... I think it went back to his background in the military. He could not understand that the attorney general is not supposed to be a good soldier.”

Finally, there is the story of his first wife. A tall, slender model from Philadelphia, Carol McCain waited for her husband to return from Vietnam for five and a half years--a kind of modern-day Penelope to McCain’s Odysseus. Then, on Christmas Eve in 1969, she suffered more tragedy: she skidded off the road into a telephone pole, her body thrown through the windshield onto the snow, both legs and one arm broken, her spleen ruptured. After nearly losing her left leg and enduring more than a dozen operations, she emerged four inches shorter than before the accident. Not wanting her husband to feel any more pain than he already did in prison, she never told him of the accident--and he learned about it only on his way home. Despite such devotion, McCain soon began to chase other women when he returned from Vietnam, just as he had at the Naval Academy, where he ran around with strippers and stewardesses, his collar turned up, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. His marriage to Carol soon ended in divorce. “I think she has reason to be bitter, “ he told Timberg afterward. Ever loyal, Carol would only say: “The breakup of our marriage was not caused by my accident or Vietnam or any of those things. I don’t know that it might not have happened if John had never been gone. I attribute it more to John turning forty and wanting to be twenty-five again than I do to anything else.”

And so, after days of digging, I discover what I already knew--that McCain is only human. But I also discover that, in a life spanning more than 60 years and filled with tragedy, he has been more decent and honorable than most men. And I discover, more importantly, that, in an age of junk people, he is the real thing. A genuine war hero.

The trouble is that, in the wake of Clinton, character has become the only measure of a man. It has become a substitute for ideology, even though ideology and the programs that evolve from it may have farther-reaching implications and are certainly far easier to gauge. It is as if we decided to hire someone to deliver the mail based on the fact that he once saved a woman dying in the street, rather than on whether he ever delivered the mail on time. And it is after no digging at all that I discover what almost no one ever mentions about McCain: his voting record.

Though hailed in the press invariably as a “maverick” (part of the title of the “60 Minutes” segment) or “liberal” Republican because of his stances on campaign finance reform and tobacco, McCain is in fact more conservative than the man whom he succeeded in the Senate and whom the press once vilified for his extreme beliefs: Barry Goldwater. Rather than a libertarian, McCain is a quiet social conservative who received a zero rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and voted with his party 93 percent of the time in 1996. He voted to convict Bill Clinton on all impeachment counts. He endorsed every item in the Contract with America, including term limits. He voted for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and another one to prohibit flag burning. In the past, he has opposed federal funding for abortions and supported a constitutional amendment to ban them. He fought against legislation barring job discrimination against homosexuals, and he was the keynote speaker at a fund-raiser for the Oregon Citizens Alliance, an anti-homosexual lobby. “He’s a thousand percent anti-gay,” says Barney Frank, the Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, who is himself gay. “He’s not even on the moderate side on abortion. The only difference between him and other conservatives is that he bashes with his votes rather than his rhetoric. “

A politician’s secrets, it turns out, are not all buried in his past but exposed right there in his policies. McCain voted in the House against making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday and has recently opposed raising the minimum wage. He has lobbied vigorously for the death penalty and against myriad environmental regulations. In his first year in Congress, he received a zero rating from the national League of Conservation Voters and in the last Congress received nearly the same rating as the poster child of the anti- environmental movement, House Republican leader Tom DeLay. In addition, he voted against even modest gun controls, including the 1994 assault-weapons ban and the 1993 Brady Bill. “He’s somebody we’ve always had a good relationship with,” says Bill Powers, director of public affairs at the National Rifle Association.

For a conservative, of course, there is nothing particularly striking about any of these stands, and McCain does little to hide them. What is striking is how few reporters and liberals who support him even know or care. “I can’t believe he’s anti-gay,” says one Washington political reporter. “ He’s so nice.” Even many on the right are unaware of his positions. “I had no idea that he was pro-life,” says David Boaz, the executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute.

Ironically, most conservatives have assumed that because the media support McCain he must not be one of them--that he is, as lobbyist Grover Norquist puts it to me dismissively, the candidate of The New York Times and The Washington Post. But in fact the liberal media have increasingly adopted the approach that conservatives have always advocated and now ignore themselves: that character is everything. “There is something about McCain the man,” says Mike Wallace. “When did you last see a hero as president of the United States?”

In the era of McCainism, ideology no longer matters. “I’m beginning to understand the war that must occur inside a fourteen-year-old boy who discovers he is more sexually attracted to boys than to girls,” Michael Lewis, who voted for Ralph Nader during the last election, wrote in tnr. “The longer I hang around McCain the harder it is to fight the feeling that just maybe I’m ... Republican.”

T he old passion for morally just policies--for the Great Society or the New Deal or health care reform--has been replaced with a passion for merely morally just processes, and no issue crystallizes this shift more than the very issue over which McCain has been beatified: campaign finance reform. After all, campaign finance reform is not really about advancing either a liberal or a conservative agenda; it’s about ensuring that the electoral system through which such agendas are passed remains pure. And it is really, at its core, about character.

McCain’s lone crusade shows that, unlike ordinary politicians, he is incorruptible. As in Vietnam, he is still able to stand up to anyone, even his latest captors--Republicans and lobbyists and special interest groups. It is proof that, as the New York Daily News exclaimed, “not all heroes are dead. “

The problem is that, unlike baseball or even war, politics is rarely heroic in the traditional sense. There are usually no home runs or military routs but backroom deals and drawn-out compromises and tedious regulations. Here stubbornness and unwavering loyalty may be counterproductive. Here manipulativeness may sometimes be more effective than saintliness. (McCain’s tobacco and campaign finance reform bills both died.) And here ideas matter, just as integrity does.

McCain seems to understand this better than his own worshipers. In 1996, he initially endorsed Phil Gramm, an archconservative who evaded Vietnam, over Bob Dole, a more moderate Republican who nearly lost his life in World War II. What you do in the present, McCain often says, is as important as what you did in the past.

It is natural, of course, to wish that more of our leaders were great men. As Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, “All mythology opens with demigods.” They define and elevate us. But there is also something unnatural about our desperate desire for heroes in politics. The political hero is not like the sports champion or matinee idol or daring inventor; like the war hero, he is born only of tragedy. “In order to be a hero in the classic sense , which I steadfastly object to being called,” says McCain during our last interview, “ there has to be ... service and sacrifice not only from the one who is designated the hero but also from others. Otherwise, there would not be the conditions for the hero to emerge.”

In the play Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, which McCain recalls, one of the characters says, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes.”

“No,” Galileo replies, “unhappy the land that needs heroes.”

This article appeared in the May 24, 1999 issue of the magazine.