No news, but McCain bio engaging

Do we really need another biography of Sen. John McCain?

After all, nearly a dozen books were written by and about the Arizona Republican before he captured his party’s presidential nomination last year.

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These include no fewer than five books by McCain and his alter ego and co-author, Mark Salter, that were aimed at advancing McCain’s presidential ambitions, including the well-received Faith of My Fathers (1999), Worth the Fighting For (2002), Why Courage Matters (2004), Character is Destiny (2005) and the 2007 campaign tome, Hard Call: The Art of Great Decisions.

 And there were excellent biographies published after McCain’s Straight Talk Express ran out of gas while seeking the GOP nomination in 2000, including Elizabeth Drew’s Citizen McCain (2002), Paul Alexander’s Man of the People: The Life of John McCain (2003) and Robert Timberg’s John McCain: An American Odyssey (2007). And that doesn’t count my personal favorite, Timberg’s acclaimed The Nightingale’s Song (1995), in which he chronicled the lives and careers of five fellow graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy from the Vietnam era — McCain, Bud McFarland, Oliver North, John Poindexter and Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.).

 Any of the previous books, as well as Elaine Povich’s workmanlike biography, would have become best-sellers had McCain won the election, but since he didn’t, they will serve to chronicle for future generations one of the most remarkable life stories of any contemporary American public figure, who’s obviously not ready to ride off into the western sunset.

 Povich’s book, John McCain: A Biography, is one of a series of biographies commissioned by Connecticut-based Greenwood Press and designed for high school students “who need challenging yet accessible biographies” that are “fun to read.” Its 85 previous subjects range from Al Capone to Princess Diana to Yo-Yo Ma, and include President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — also by Povich.

 Povich, a veteran Washington correspondent who covered Congress for Newsday and the Chicago Tribune and is now a freelance journalist, is well-qualified to tell McCain’s life story. While there isn’t much she’s able to tell us about McCain that we didn’t already know, from his nearly six years in a North Vietnamese prison to his involvement in the Keating scandal to his emergence as a leading Senate maverick, she does it in an interesting and engaging way.

 Povich properly acknowledges her debt to the McCain-Salter books; to other McCain biographers like Timberg and Alexander; and to the vast body of journalistic coverage of McCain, such as The Arizona Republic’s exhaustively researched 14-part series in 2007. But she also does her homework, by interviewing McCain as well as his mother and brother; his Naval Academy classmates and former Navy comrades, including fellow Vietnam POW Orson Swindle, and former Senate colleagues and aides.

 For example, McCain’s 97-year-old mother Roberta, whose outspoken nature inspired her famous son’s penchant for telling it like it is, told Povich how McCain had to attend some 20 different schools while growing up as the son of an admiral posted to bases around the world. “He soon learned to cope in the best way he knew — with humor and with a certain tough side that dared schoolmates to cross him,” Povich writes.

 And as future political rivals and others who would tangle with McCain would discover, his mother cited an early example of his temper. “Johnny was a happy child,” she said, except when he flew into occasional rages, holding his breath and turning blue until he passed out, and making wisecracks that sometimes got him into trouble.

 Another important clue to understanding McCain was the influence of William Ravenel, a teacher at St. Stephen’s Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., where McCain’s parents enrolled him when his father was at the Pentagon. “He was one of the few people to whom I confided that I was bound for Annapolis and a Navy career,” McCain told Povich during the 2008 presidential campaign.

 It was Ravenel, McCain said, who instilled in him the Episcopal honor code that remains his most important trait: “I will not lie; I will not cheat; I will not steal: I will report the student who does.” McCain told Povich that he did not fully understand the things that Ravenel was talking about until he found himself in a Vietnamese prison many years later.

 “He was the one guy I wanted to see when I got out of prison,” McCain recalled. “There wasn’t anybody I felt I could talk to about it. I just wanted to see Ravenel. I wanted to tell him that I finally understood there in Hanoi what he had been trying to tell me all those years about life and what it means. I wanted to thank him and apologize for being so stupid.” But Ravenel died two years before McCain was released from prison.

 There’s obviously much more to John McCain’s life story, and Povich tells it as well as any of his previous biographers, often drawing on her own reporting, as she did in her story about his victory over George W. Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, when it appeared McCain was on his way to winning the GOP nomination.

 It took him eight more years to do that, as it turned out, and even though he didn’t achieve his ultimate goal, John McCain remains a force to be reckoned with in the Senate and American politics, which is enough to justify yet another biography of this remarkable politician.