Faith of his fathers

Despite whatever political disagreements I have had with Senator McCain over the years, I am deeply saddened by the news that he is contending with an aggressive form of brain cancer. I found the occasions on which I have spent time in his company to be a personal highlight. He is an American original. We extend prayers on behalf of him and his family.

In 2008 when Senator McCain was about to become the Republican nominee for president, I reread McCain’s Faith of My Fathers (written with Mark Salter). The book is subtitled “A family memoir,” but – read in light of Andrew Ferguson’s Weekly Standard article on books by the leading presidential candidates – we could see that it was a campaign book. Originally published in 1999, the book arrived just in time to promote McCain’s 2000 presidential candidacy. Although the book is indeed a family memoir, the heart of the book is devoted to McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war. I thought I might revisit my observations about the book this morning.

McCain generally avoided public discussion of his own prisoner-of-war experience before writing Faith of My Fathers. In chapter 7 of the 1995 book The Nightingale’s Song, for example, Robert Timberg explored McCain’s experience during the five-and-a-half years he spent as a prisoner of war. Timberg relegated comments about his research to the source notes in the small print at the end of the book:

Throughout discussions of his imprisonment, John McCain was a reluctant witness and a difficult interview, at least when discussing his own experiences. For the most part, he confirmed incidents described by prisonmates or discussed in published accounts. He did tell funny prison stories and often recalled the heroism of others, never his own.

At the end of Faith of My Fathers McCain indirectly revealed the reason for his newfound willingness to discuss his own prisoner-of-war experience: “Whenver I am introduced at an appearance, the speaker always refers to my war record first. Obviously, such recognition has benefited my political career, and I am grateful for that.” McCain also implicitly provides the explanation for his public reticence on the subject prior to the book: “I have never met a prisoner of war who felt he could explain the experience to anyone who had not shared it.”

So Faith of My Fathers was a campaign book, but it is also something more. I think it is a classic American memoir. It is a book of enormous literary skill, a credit both to McCain and to Salter, his literary alter ego. If not quite in the same league as masterpieces such as Grant’s Memoirs, Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, and Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams, it nevertheless belongs on the bookshelf with them.

The book is not only beautifully written, it lacks a dull page. And despite the book’s grace and tact, a curious reader can find the answers to most of the questions he naturally brings to the book.

McCain begins the book in the advertised form of a family memoir. He grew up the son and grandson of bona fide war heroes. For almost the first half of the book McCain eloquently recounts the story of their service. Somewhat surprisingly, at least to me, each had a rebellious streak and a skeleton or two in the closet.

McCain reveals that in the closing days of World War II his grandfather was relieved of his command. Although his father suffered no such professional disgrace, McCain reveals that he was an alcoholic (my word, not McCain’s). He writes, for example:

My father returned from the war with a great appetite for drink, which he overindulged until the very last years of his life….And, as with most people, drinking changed his personality in unattractive ways. When he was drunk, I did not recognize him.

His father’s drinking was probably not his greatest deficiency as a father. That was his detachment:

My father could often be a distant, inscrutable patriarch….I admired him, and wanted badly to be admired by him, yet indications of his regard for me were more often found in the things he didn’t say than in the things he did.

There was of course never any question that McCain would follow in the footsteps of his illustrious forebears. McCain powerfully conveys the suffocating sense of a preordained life. McCain acts out his resentment at the Naval Academy, barely escaping expulsion while graduating fifth from the bottom of his class. McCain describes his father’s reaction:

My behavior was not something that particularly worried my father. I believe he assumed that, like him, I would be absorbed into the traditions of the place whether I wished to or not, and that when the time arrived for me to face a real test of character, I would not disappoint him.

What begins as a family memoir becomes something more as McCain tells the story of his own service; it becomes a story of death and rebirth. Seeking the martial experience in which his family had distinguished itself, McCain volunteered for combat in Vietnam. “I didn’t know at the time that downed pilots imprisoned in the North referred to their shootdowns as the day they were ‘killed.’” Flying a particularly dangerous mission over Hanoi, McCain writes: “I was killed.”

The rest of the book recounts his experience, severely injured, frequently tortured, occasionally near death, as a prisoner of war held by the North Vietnamese for five-and-a-half years (two years in solitary confinement). McCain’s account is self-deprecating, harrowing, and profoundly moving. As a prisoner of war keeping faith with his family, his prisonmates, his country, John McCain is reborn, but he leaves the book’s most surprising revelation unstated. In a family of heroes who cast their long shadows over his life, John McCain surpassed his illustrious forebears.

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