Leading for Patriotism or Lust?
John McCain scored the most memorable soundbite in the recent GOP debate, repeatedly telling rival Mitt Romney that "led for patriotism, not profit." The Arizona Senator was referring to his tour as executive officer (and later, commander) of a Navy Replacement Air Group in Jacksonville, Florida during the late 1970s, contrasting that experience with Mitt Romney's career in the business world.
There is a slight irony in McCain citing that assignment as proof of his leadership abilities. While he was, by most accounts, an effective commander, the Jacksonville assignment also marked a dark chapter in McCain's personal life, a period marked by serial philandering and the end of his first marriage.
Those events are described--delicately--in Robert Timberg's The Nightingale's Song, a best-selling chronicle of the U.S. Naval Academy, as viewed through the lives (and military service) of five graduates: McCain; Virginia Senator Jim Webb; former National Security Advisers Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter, and Iran-Contra figure-turned-media personality Oliver North.
Of the five, Timberg provides the most flattering potraits of Webb and McCain; Poindexter and McFarlane receive less laudatory treatment and the author can barely contain his contempt for Ollie North. While acknowledging the personal--and professional--problems of his subjects during their military careers, Timberg offers a (slightly) charitable explanation for the poor personal conduct that plagued McCain's assignment as group commander.
There was a dark side to the Jacksonville tour. The storybook marriage that had survived separation, pain and prison began to fray. Off-duty, usually on routine, cross-country flights to Yuma and El Centro, John began carousing and running around with women. To make matters worse, some of the women to whom he was linked by rumor were his subordinates. In some ways, the rumors were an extension of the John McCain stories that had swirled in his way since Academy days--some true, some with an element of truth, some patently absurd. Asked about them, he admitted to a series of dalliances during this period, but flatly denied any with females, officer or enlisted, under his command.
Though officially frowned upon, romantic relationships between officers of different grades are not uncommon and for the most part, free of a superior-subordinate element. Many have led to marriage. But fraternization between officers and enlisted members is considered over the line, not because of caste discrimination, but because the color of authority is too vivid, almost impossible to soften.
At the time, the rumors were so widespread that, true or not, they became part of the McCain persona, impossible not to take note of. What is true is that a number of POWs, in those first few years after their release, often acted erratically, their lives pockmarked by by drastic mood swings and uncharacteristic behavior before achieving a more mellow equilibrium.
More troubling, sad beyond words, was the failure of the marriage. If there was one couple that deserved to make it, it was John and Carol McCain. They endured nearly six years of unspeakable trauma with courage and grace. In the end, it was not enough. They won the war, but lost the peace.
To his credit, McCain has admitted his indiscretions during this period. And, Carol McCain has refused to publicly criticize her former husband, or discuss the end of their marriage in detail. She told Robert Timberg that "I attribute it more to John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again than I do anything else." So, chalk it up as another middle-aged man suffering a mid-life crisis.
But we'd say the Jacksonville tour raises questions about McCain's judgment and leadership, issues that have never been fully explained. True, John McCain wasn't the first fighter jock to lose a marriage due to extra-curricular activities. It's also true that he had a reputation as a wild man, dating back to his time at the Academy and early tours as an attack pilot.
Still, the John McCain who led a naval training group wasn't the same junior aviator of the early 1960s. As the unit commander, McCain was supposed to set the example, both on and off-duty. Military regulations on adultery, fraternization and improper relationships don't differentiate between those that begin in the workplace, or in the Officers' Club. And, as one of the Navy's best-known officers (thanks to his heroism as a POW), you could argue that McCain had a special responsiblity to uphold standards.
If Timberg's description is correct--and McCain has never disputed it--then the Senator was potentially guilty of multiple violations of military law as a senior officer. Yet, there is no account of Captain McCain being investigated on accusations of adultery and fraternization, despite those "widespread rumors" that became a part of the McCain persona. Did he get a pass because of his POW status or family ties, as the son and grandson of Navy admirals? That's another question that has never been answered.
Obviously, no one is demanding that McCain be court-martialed for events that happened 30 years ago. But his misconduct in Jacksonville is relevant to McCain's subsequent political campaign. Those extra-marital "dalliances" reflect faulty judgment and poor choices, traits that have been evident in the Senator's subsequent legislative record. Anyone remember the Keating 5? McCain-Feingold? McCain-Leiberman? McCain-Kennedy? Voting against the Bush tax cuts on more than one occasion? Blocking conservative judicial nominees as part of the "Gang of Fourteen?"
That's why the Senator's repeated references to his Jacksonville tour struck us as a bit puzzling. If command of that group represented John McCain at his best (as a leader), then it highlighted some of his worst personal qualities as well. That's the "rest" of the Jacksonville story, which should provide some campaign grist for the Democratic attack mill.
We also wonder if McCain's reputation in Jacksonville is one reason that the area rejected him overwhelmingly in last week's Florida primary. Of the state's four major military regions, Jacksonville (the third-largest Navy town in the United States) was the only one that McCain lost, and by double-digit margins.
ADDENDUM: We disagree with Timberg's explanation that McCain's conduct was "typical" of erratic behavior among former POWs in the late 1970s. During the early stages of our military service, we had the opportunity to meet--and know--several men who had been held in the Hanoi Hilton. While most suffered re-adjustment problems (to varying degrees), all the POWs we knew remained faithful to their wives.