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."
rdFor 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."
"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 Indiana for Christmas leave. He returned after the holidays pinned to Laura Russell.
Linda was hurt, furious, and humiliated. John had never mentioned that he was seriously dating someone back home, let alone that he and Laura had talked about marriage, which they had. She fired off an angry letter calling him a snowman, a term that back then had nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with double-dealing. In the time-honored Navy tradition, Poindexter proudly tacked the letter to his door so his pals could decorate it with midshipman wit at its most crass and insensitive.
The distance between John and Laura, however, eventually took its toll. At college in Muncie, Laura had already met the man she would later marry. Shortly after June Week 1955 she broke up with Poindexter.
Linda was spending that summer with her family in Washington. One day she got a letter from Poindexter. He apologized for the shoddy treatment, said he would be passing through Washington on his return from summer cruise, and wondered if they could get together. Hmm, thought Linda, this guy wants a girl with a car for a couple of days.
She decided to ignore the letter. He called two days later and her resolve crumbled. She not only agreed to go out with him, she arranged a date for his roommate, Bill Hemingway, then chauffeured everyone around in her family's aqua and white '55 Pontiac convertible, nicknamed The Man Trap when Linda was behind the wheel. They went dancing on the roof of the old Roger Smith Hotel, then motored over to Hains Point on the Potomac, in those days one of the city's steamier makeout spots.
Linda transferred to the University of Maryland that fall, partly because it was less expensive than Vermont, mostly to be closer to John. He pinned her after the Notre Dame game and they were engaged at the Ring Dance the following June Week.
By senior year, Poindexter was dating Linda every weekend as well as on Wednesday afternoons, when first classmen had three hours of liberty. At one point he told her he was thinking of easing off on his studies -- taking a light strain, in Navy jargon -- so that he could relax and enjoy his final year. He might drop to second, third, maybe even fourth in the class, he said, but so what? Fine, said Linda, but don't forget Ike will be giving out the diplomas. You'd be first in line.
So much for the light strain.
In June 1957, John McCain sailed off on first class cruise aboard a destroyer. Late in the month, the ship docked in Rio for a nine-day port call. He and a few friends rented an apartment and set up an Annapolis-style snake ranch ashore. The next four days were a blur, involving liquor, women, and nightclubs, everything except sleep, as Rio embraced McCain and his pals in its many charms, X-rated and otherwise.
The four-day spree over, a bone-weary McCain was dragging himself back to the dock when he ran into Chuck Larson, whose cruise ship was berthed nearby. Larson told him that a Brazilian fashion designer had taken a liking to the midshipmen contingent in Rio. He was going to take everyone up to Sugarloaf that afternoon and throw a party for them in the evening. Models were mentioned. "That sounds great, but I'm just too tired," said McCain. "I'm just beat. I couldn't stay awake." McCain hung tough. In other words, it took Larson two or three more minutes to talk him into joining the group.
Before long, the fashion designer's four-car caravan pulled up to the pier. The midshipmen piled in, then headed off for a day of sightseeing in the mountains. Later, the designer took them to his luxury apartment, which was spacious enough for the small band he had hired for the occasion and a makeshift dance floor.
At about eight, the models began to arrive. Bedazzled but hardly becalmed, the midshipmen began pairing off. All but the bedraggled McCain, beyond exhaustion, totally wrung out from his four-day debauch. As his friends swayed to soft Latin rhythms, he chatted with the designer, an engaging but undemanding conversationalist.
At about nine-thirty, McCain stuck out his hand and said to his host, "Look, I'm going to go back to the ship. Thanks for the hospitality."
"No, no," the designer said, "there's a very beautiful girl I want you to meet."
McCain agreed to hang around a little longer. Around midnight, his deteriorating condition got the better of his curiosity.
"I have to go," he said.
"No, no," said the designer, "just a few more minutes."
McCain was insistent. "I've got to go."
The door opened and the most beautiful woman McCain had ever seen walked in. Recalling that moment through the mist of three decades, he remembered that the band and everything else seemed to stop as Elena (not her real name), slim and blond, made her entrance. The designer escorted her over.
"How are you?" she said, offering her hand.
"Fine," said McCain, coming alive.
The next five days were a merry-go-round of parties, receptions, and dinners, each more lavish than the last, interspersed with long walks on the beach. Elena, he learned, was one of Brazil's most famous and successful fashion models. She lived with her aunt and a coterie of servants in a penthouse apartment atop one of Rio's tallest buildings. In one direction, they could see Sugarloaf, from another Corcovado, from a third the sparkling waters of the bay stretched out below them. What they could not see, because of the aunt and the servants, was each other alone.
On the final day in port, five minutes before the ship was to depart, Elena's Mercedes sports car roared up to the pier, butterfly doors popped open, and McCain leaped out to the cheers and catcalls of the midshipmen lining the rail of the destroyer. As the ship got under way, Elena stood on the pier, waving her handkerchief, dabbing her eyes.
McCain dashed home to Washington after cruise, repacked his bags, and caught a military flight back to Rio where he and Elena resumed the gay social whirl. There were more parties and dances, more romantic walks on the beach. Every time McCain looked at a newspaper or magazine, he saw Elena's picture. For all the excitement, though, they were never really by themselves.
Throughout the fall, McCain and Elena corresponded furiously. Sometimes she would send telegrams, at other times a wide-eyed plebe would summon McCain to the phone to take a long-distance call from Brazil. Elena's picture appeared in the Christmas issue of The Log, the Academy's humor magazine, the knockout among knockouts adorning a page bearing the caption "So Nice to Come Home to..."
McCain flew down to Rio during Christmas leave. Because of military aircraft schedules, he had only four days. At first, he and Elena picked up where they had left off the previous summer. But on the third day, they sat on the beach for hours trying to come to grips with their differing obligations and desires. She was not prepared to move to the States and become an ensign's wife. He was not willing, or even able by law, to abandon his career and move to Brazil.
The following night, McCain's last in Rio, the designer who brought them together had scheduled a farewell party for McCain. He and Elena planned to go to dinner first. He arrived at her apartment about eight, knocked on the door, and readied himself to be greeted by the aunt or one of the servants. No one answered his knock. He tried the door, found it unlocked, and let himself in.
"I'll be right out," Elena called from the bedroom.
McCain wandered onto the terrace. The moon was glinting off the bay. A bottle of champagne was chilling in a bucket of ice. When Elena joined him a few minutes later, she was not, McCain would later say, dressed for dinner.
The next morning, McCain raced to the airport to catch his plane. Elena did not go with him. He never saw her again.
Even though he lived it, or something like it, McCain recounts his romance with Elena these days as if it were a dream. In some ways it was. But it wasn't just his dream. With minor variations, it was a dream of all but the most inert midshipmen. Duty, honor, country, sure, those things were important, indeed, for most, compelling. For all that, the chance of someday being swept away and ravished by a beautiful woman in some exotic locale has always been an unspoken part of the deal. Annapolis men, at least in the days when they were aspiring to the Academy and during their years there, before they started fretting about career paths, before the Vietnam War bloodied their futures, before they resigned themselves to being cast as warmongers, dullards, or dreary pillars of society, were good at a lot of things, but probably nothing so much as stumbling blissfully, all boyish innocence, as if the devil made them do it, into what Catholics charmingly call the occasion of sin. McCain's fling with Elena, though rare, was not all that rare. Things like that happened often enough to keep that goofy dream alive.
On Sunday, January 12, 1958, John Poindexter's picture appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. He would show up there many times years later, but on this occasion there was no hint of the dark days to come. He and Chuck Larson were smiling and shaking hands before an American flag. The caption read, "Naval Academy Leadership Changes." The text explained that Larson was passing on command of the Brigade of Midshipmen to Poindexter, the new six-striper.
To Poindexter, his selection as brigade commander meant more than standing first in the class. As a plebe, it seemed as if the six-striper outranked everyone, even the admirals, and it was hard for him to imagine reaching that pinnacle himself. Over the years, though, he knew he was in the running and that this was his game, as important to him as football, baseball, or basketball to someone else. "His goal was to be the best," said roommate Bill Hemingway. He pursued that goal without false modesty, but also without arrogance. Said another roommate, Bob Caldwell, "John was a nice guy who finished first." Whit Swain saw more complexity to his ascension. "He gravitated toward poles of power because it interested him, it was food and drink to him, it was what he wanted to do."
Poindexter's tenure as brigade commander coincided with the Dark Ages, that dispiriting period between the end of the Christmas holidays and spring leave. Chuck Larson had football games and parades; Poindexter had administrative duties. There were some compensations. After Sunday church services Poindexter would meet Linda outside the chapel and escort her over to the Superintendent's Residence where they would join Rear Admiral Smedberg in greeting a variety of distinguished visitors.
There was also the promise of better things to come. In the spring, the fall and winter stripers would be combined. The spring stripers would lead the brigade in a new round of parades and through June Week and graduation. As the Dark Ages drew to a close, midshipmen debated the merits of the only two conceivable choices for spring set brigade commander, Poindexter and Larson.
It was up to Admiral Smedberg, who conferred on the selection with his number two, Captain Al Shinn, the commandant of midshipmen. Shinn favored Poindexter. I've got a problem with Larson, the commandant said, I think he goes over the wall. Did you ever catch him? Smedberg asked Shinn. No, the commandant replied. Grinned Smedberg, I think maybe he's our kind of guy.
Larson reclaimed his six stripes. Poindexter was named deputy brigade commander, a five-striper. He was disappointed, Linda more so, but they took the decision gracefully. He and Larson roomed together for the remainder of their senior year and became good friends. One spring day they escorted a visiting Spanish midshipman around the Academy grounds, a young man named Juan Carlos, now the king of Spain. By then their classmates were engaged in a new debate. Who would make admiral first, Chuck or John?
Near the end of the final semester, Poindexter's English class was asked to write an autobiographical essay along the lines of the novel it had just read, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Poindexter, in his paper, ascribed his success at Annapolis to being "at the right place at the right time with the right answer." Some excerpts:
...Being a good plebe was easy for me I kept out of trouble and usually did exactly as I was told for the next three years the same pattern was followed with amazing results. I stand very near the head of my class academically and was the senior midshipman officer during a portion of my last year. What brought about these results?
First, order and organization are my guiding principles I can not stand confusion. This is probably the primary reason the naval service has appealed to me. Second, I learned some time ago how to apply myself. When studying had to be done, it was done, but never have I studied extremely hard. When the weekends came, the books were forgotten, and entertainment reigned supreme. Third, I have a fairly good memory and can remember facts without too much effort; although I would rather learn the theory behind the fact and then work for the fact from there. Fourth, I have always taken the part of the leader. Even as a plebe without a recognized position, I was always asked for help and advice by my classmates I try to tactfully take the initiative and organize the group to get the work accomplished. These four facts have simply been the winning combination
...There is a certain satisfaction in leading men. I suppose it gives one a sense of power. This leadership plays a large part in the naval officer's career. A good officer must be a good leader. I believe I am a good leader.
...My ambition is to climb to the very top. My goals are high, but, with God willing, I feel that by applying myself to the tasks before me almost anything can be accomplished. This is a rather optimistic point of view. I could be wrong, but I doubt it.
The Class of 1958 was the first to graduate from the new field house and the last to receive genuine sheepskin diplomas. President Eisenhower presented them personally to the one hundred or so midshipmen graduating with distinction. John Poindexter, the number-one man in the class, received his diploma first. "Congratulations, I hope it won't be too much of a burden for you," said Ike as he shook Poindexter's hand. John McCain, lost in the sea of white that was the rest of the class, looked on impassively, clapped politely.
At a ceremony two days earlier, Poindexter had received six awards, two for finishing at the top of his class, the rest spread across the fields of electrical engineering, electronics, and navigation. No one else came close to matching his total.
The Indianapolis Times, noting that the Hoosier State had always been well represented at the highest echelons of the Navy, applauded Poindexter's achievements in an editorial headlined, "Another Cornfield Admiral?" Graduating at the top of his class did not guarantee Poindexter flag rank, the paper said, "but it is a lustrous honor.., and something in which his home state can take pride."
John in dress whites and Linda in a gown of Chantilly lace were married under crossed swords at the chapel two days after graduation. McCain hung around Annapolis long enough to usher at several weddings, then dashed off to Europe to meet his newest flame, a tobacco heiress. A few days earlier, he had received a short telegram: "Congratulations on your graduation. I'll always love you. Elena."
Three decades later, in 1989, as John Poindexter was preparing for his trial on Iran-Contra charges, John McCain got a letter from Senator Sam Nunn, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. The Georgia Democrat informed McCain that he was naming him to the Naval Academy's Board of Visitors, which oversees the operation of the school. Jack Dittrick couldn't contain himself when he heard the news and immediately called his old roommate in Washington.
"Jack," laughed McCain, "it just goes to show that if you live long enough anything is possible."
Copyright © 1995 by Robert Timber