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Robert Timberg weaves together the lives of Annapolis graduates John McCain, James Webb, Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, and John Poindexter to reveal how the Vietnam War continues to haunt America. Casting all five men as metaphors for a legion of well-meaning if ill-starred warriors, Timberg probes the fault line between those who fought the war and those who used money, wit, and connections to avoid battle. A riveting tale that illuminates the flip side of the fabled Vietnam generation: those who went.
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Robert Timberg is the author of The Nightingale's Song and John McCain, An American Odyssey. He served with the First Marine Division in South Vietnam from March 1966 to February 1967. He has worked at The Baltimore Sun for three decades as a reporter, editor and White House correspondent. Currently deputy chief of the Sun's Washington bureau, he lives in Bethesda, Md.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 w...
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