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The Old Man


  • You know you're getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you're down there.
    • George Burns


In the two years leading up to the recent midterm election, McCain kept up a presidential-level schedule, with 346 appearances for Republican candidates and causes around the country. He traveled in small jets, sometimes alone, often with an aide or two; by early fall, his pac had already spent more than $1 million on air charters. On a rainy morning in mid-October, McCain, his longtime chief fund-raiser, Carla Eudy, and I are bound from Washington, D.C., to Milwaukee on a roomy Beechjet, all dark wood and soft leather, with snacks on demand. McCain, as is his habit, props his feet on the opposite seat and opens the newspapers.


"O.K., Carla, several drugs show promise for alzheimer's," he reads from The Wall Street Journal.


Eudy smiles. "I need that."


Turning the page, McCain mutters, "It's not you that needs it."


A few minutes later, reading over his schedule for a long day ahead in Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Iowa, McCain murmurs, "We're going from Joe Foss Field to Bud Day Field! I'm getting old. I knew both of them."


Foss, for whom the airport in Sioux Falls is named, was the World War II flying ace and governor of South Dakota. Day became the nation's most highly decorated military officer since Douglas MacArthur. He served in three wars, was one of McCain's P.O.W. cellmates, and, as a civilian lawyer, handled McCain's divorce from his first wife, Carol, in 1980; the airport in Day's hometown of Sioux City, Iowa, is named for him. (McCain did not know General Billy Mitchell, the World War I aviator for whom the Milwaukee airport, where we'd be landing shortly, is named, but his grandfather did, and McCain wrote about him in Worth the Fighting For.)


At 70, McCain is both matter-of-fact and ruminative about his age. He may have DNA on his side. His father and grandfather, accomplished navy admirals, died prematurely after lives of hard drinking, hard living, and careers cut short, but his mother, Roberta, the daughter of a wealthy oil wildcatter from Southern California, is hale and unstoppable at 94. She spent this past fall driving herself around Europe, and because she was too old to rent a car, she simply bought herself a new Mercedes and hit the road. McCain gets laughs when he acknowledges that he is "as old as dirt, with more scars than Frankenstein"—but he always makes sure to mention his redoubtable mother.


At the end of his failed 2000 campaign, when he had not yet turned 64, McCain clearly assumed that he would be too old ever to run again. "To me, some of this last six months was to see 'Does he still have the physical wherewithal to do this?,''' Mark Salter acknowledges. "Evidently so, because no one staffer can do all the travel with him. Because we burn out too quick."


Indeed, in two long stints on the road in September and October, McCain kept up a punishing pace. He is mentally sharp, verbally facile, and perpetually curious. (On one of our trips, he was rereading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.) But he is visibly older, thinner, balder—and, yes, frailer—than he was just six years ago. Like his friend Bob Dole, he tries to minimize his disabilities, but they are serious. He suffered severe injuries when his plane was shot down over North Vietnam 40 years ago; his right knee was broken when his seat was ejected from the cockpit, and both arms were broken in the crash. These injuries were compounded by the profound abuse he endured during five and a half years in captivity.


McCain seldom talks about the details of his torture by the North Vietnamese, but he has written about them in clinical depth. Despite the injuries he had already suffered, upon capture he was promptly bayoneted in the ankle and then beaten senseless. The North Vietnamese never set either of his broken arms. The only treatment of his broken knee involved cutting all the ligaments and cartilage, so that he never had more than 5 to 10 percent flexion during the entire time he was in prison. In 1968 he was offered early release, and when he refused, because others had been there longer, his captors went at him again; he suffered cracked ribs, teeth broken off at the gum line, and torture with ropes that lashed his arms behind his back and that were progressively tightened all through the night. Ultimately he taped a coerced confession.


McCain's right knee still has limited flexibility. Most of the time this is not too noticeable, but McCain mounts the steps onto planes with a herky-jerky gait. A climb up dozens of steps at the New Hampshire International Speedway, in Loudon, leaves him badly winded and sweating profusely. Because his broken arms were allowed to heal without ever being properly set, to this day McCain cannot raise his arms above his shoulders. He cannot attend to his own hair. An aide is often nearby with a comb and small can of hair spray.


McCain has difficulty putting on his suit jacket unassisted. Once, as we prepared to get out of a cramped airplane cabin in Burlington, Vermont, where McCain would be greeted by the governor, I turned my back for a moment, only to find him struggling. He could sense that his collar was all bunched up, and asked me matter-of-factly to help him straighten it out. I felt the pang that those around McCain feel whenever they realize the extent of his injuries. "You comb someone's hair once," his 2000 communications director, Dan Schnur, says, "and you never forget it."


One of McCain's aides tells me that two years ago, campaigning with McCain, George W. Bush asked him if the senator would like to work out with him. Told that McCain did not, could not, really "work out," Bush replied, "What do you mean?"


Just after the Republican convention of 2000, a malignant melanoma was removed from the left side of McCain's face, leaving a track of deep and angry red scars that are only now receding. Salter notes that if McCain's campaign had not died six years ago McCain himself might have, because he wouldn't have taken time out from the trail for the examination that produced the diagnosis. There has been no recurrence of the cancer, and McCain undergoes checkups every three months. At the slightest sign of direct sunlight he breaks out the baseball cap that is always kept at the ready, and slathers his face with so much sunblock that he looks like Marcel Marceau until his skin absorbs it.


And still McCain pushes himself, as if to combat any hint of diminished capacity. Last summer, he hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim with his son, Jack, 20, now in his second year at Annapolis. He says the descent was torture on his knees, until a park ranger offered him some pills partway down.


"It was—am I saying this right?—I.V. Propen. The stuff's a fucking miracle drug!" It doesn't seem fair to tell him the drug is nothing more miraculous than Advil. McCain will repeat the ibuprofen story a time or two over the course of 48 hours, and he brings it up again when I see him about a month later.


McCain tells me that he counts on Cindy, to whom he has now been married for 25 years, and a close circle of longtime aides to tell him if they ever think he is losing a step. "They watch me very carefully," he says. "They do. They keep an eye on it. And so I try to wear 'em down!" The sheer range in age of McCain's seven children both calls attention to his own span of years and testifies to an unusual willingness to stay young. Besides Jack, they include his first wife's sons by her first husband—Doug, 47, a pilot for American Airlines, and Andy, 44, who works for Cindy's family company in Phoenix; McCain adopted both of them when they were children. Then there is Sidney, 40, his daughter with Carol, who is head of publicity at V2 Records; Meghan, 22, his eldest child with Cindy, now a senior at Columbia; Jimmy, 18, who has recently joined the Marine Corps; and Bridget, 15, a ninth-grader in Phoenix, the Bangladeshi girl the McCains adopted.


Most politicians repeat themselves, in part because they have their rap down, and in part because they see too many people to remember whom they've just seen, and McCain sees far, far more people than most. Older men often repeat their favorite stories, their best tales from the trenches, and McCain certainly repeats his. He is the Milton Berle of political humor, an unrepentant thief of bad gags from friends like Bob Dole and Alan Simpson, which he delivers deadpan and repeats at every stop.


Short-term exposure to McCain is bracing. Long-term exposure can be draining—makes you want to reach for the I.V. Propen. In our travels I spent a great deal of time with John McCain, on occasion just the two of us alone on a plane. Sometimes he would talk, and sometimes he'd stay silent. Often he'd punctuate the silence by saying something like "Do you know who Barry Goldwater's best friend in the Senate was?" and I would answer something like "You told me yesterday that it was George McGovern." McCain may sometimes slip into autopilot, but far more often he is focused intently, speaking to crowds large and small without a single note, addressing his questioners by name after one brief meeting, sizing up the situation in a room he has just entered and saying all the right things.


On what turned out to be a late-night flight from Joe Foss Field to Bud Day Field, McCain was waxing nostalgic about Ronald Reagan, whom he'd begun to admire when, in a North Vietnamese prison, he heard scraps of news about him, and whom he then got to know upon his release. Reagan helped inspire him to leave the navy and go into politics. McCain repeats former attorney general Ed Meese's assertion that Reagan was never the same after he was severely wounded in the assassination attempt early in his first term, when he had just turned 70—McCain's age as we speak. In hindsight, McCain says, Reagan surely exhibited some early signs of Alzheimer's disease while still in the White House.


"I really shouldn't tell you this," McCain says. "I wouldn't want to hurt anybody." He goes on to describe being invited to dinner at the White House as a freshman congressman in 1983 and being seated at Reagan's table, with a woman between them. Reagan told stories, grand stories, priceless stories of Old Hollywood, California politics. He was charming. Terrific. And four years later McCain found himself as a freshman senator back at a White House dinner in just the same arrangement. And Reagan told the same stories all over again. Suddenly, McCain stops and it's as if he can read my mind.


"Now," he says with a knowing air, "I tell the same stories all the time because I like them!"

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