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Inventing John McCain

John McCain, maverick icon of American duty and patriotism, is as much a literary creation as a political one. Meet the author.

April 13, 2008

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MERIDIAN, Miss. - John McCain came all the way to a Victorian opera house at this old Southern railroad junction to ponder his ancestors.

Not far from an airfield named for his grandfather, on a stage bedecked with black-and-white family photos, McCain reflected on the notions of honor and courage and duty passed down through generations as he confessed to having "been an imperfect servant of my country for many years."

With this look backwards in search of meaning, McCain was reveling in his greatest political asset. Perhaps more than any other national candidate in recent memory, McCain has relied on the promise of a transcendent character guaranteed by personal experience, the reason he has been able to convince voters - especially those who disagree with him on key issues - of his ability to rise above partisanship and privilege, artifice and ambition.

This is a political project, but also a literary one, initiated by Mark Salter, the Arizona senator's closest aide and one frequently described as his alter ego, who for nearly two decades has made telling McCain's stories his own life's work. As coauthor of a pair of memoirs and nearly every considered word out of McCain's mouth, Salter has transformed his boss into a character worthy of literature, enlivening his inner conflicts and drawing out his motivations. Salter has given the blunt McCain a new voice as a reflective narrator of his own actions - made evident in the "imperfect servant" line, in which our protagonist earns our trust by acknowledging his flaw.

McCain was first elected to Congress as a war hero beneath the slogan "a name Arizonans are talking about"; his background as a decorated former prisoner of war made him a celebrity candidate with an instant resume for higher office. But it was Salter who found in McCain's life journey something greater: the organizing principle for a distinctive public identity.

That has become central to McCain's message as he girds to face Barack Obama, another candidate who uses an unusual biographical journey to vouch for an exceptional character capable of defying the conventional bounds of politics. Salter is preparing for a general-election battle that could be as much a clash of personal mythologies as one of ideologies.

"He has run entirely on his persona being different," Salter said after Obama's Super Tuesday victories in February. "It's important that we puncture that myth."

. . .

In 1973, shortly after his release from a Vietnamese prison, McCain wrote a long memoir of his nearly six years there for US News and World Report. It was a spare and direct account, more notable for McCain's recall of detail and chronology than any great insights gleaned from the episode. "I had a lot of time to think over there, and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life - along with a man's family - is to make some contribution to his country," McCain wrote.

For more than two decades, McCain offered little public reflection on the personal meaning he found in his military experience, even as he voted on issues of war and peace and became involved in policy related to Vietnam.

"People knew the POW story and that side of his life," said Torie Clarke, McCain's press secretary following his election to Congress in 1982. "We were trying to get a foundation on other issues."

But as McCain moved toward a presidential run, there was new interest in his biography. In 1997, New York-based agent Flip Brophy approached McCain with the idea of writing a multigenerational family memoir that linked McCain's story to that of his father and grandfather, both Navy admirals. McCain enlisted Salter, his chief of staff and primary speechwriter, to work with him on a proposal.

Salter, 53, who spent four years maintaining railroad tracks in his native Iowa before attending college and working for UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, had been hired by McCain in 1988 as a legislative aide. The senator, who had never previously relied on a speechwriter, bonded quickly with Salter over their common literary interests, especially Irish fiction, passing between them the short stories of William Trevor and novels of Roddy Doyle.

"I always believed that Mark is for John McCain the ideal collaborator because Mark can channel John McCain's voice," said Robert Timberg, who first met Salter while writing about McCain for "The Nightingale's Song," his 1995 book about Naval Academy graduates. "I sometimes joke that John McCain is really Mark Salter."

Salter was naturally drawn to a reexamination of McCain's "martial heritage," as the senator put it in Meridian. The son of a World War II and Korea veteran, Salter grew up playing with toy soldiers and reading Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos comic books. On his honeymoon, Salter visited French-Indian war sites.

As he wrote the proposal and then a manuscript based on interviews with McCain, Salter quickly identified an arc through the scattered plot points of McCain's life: the idea of patriotism as an inheritance that the protagonist would struggle to claim.

"It's not like it's a hidden story," Salter said in an interview. "It seemed to me a classic tale - about learning to think much larger about your place in the universe and not becoming that self-interested."

In "Faith of My Fathers," published in 1999 during his first presidential campaign, McCain's emergence from prison was elevated to a moment of revelation: only then did the aviator grasp the legacy of national service bequeathed to him by his military forebears.

"I had remembered a dying man's legacy to his son," McCain wrote, "and when I needed it most, I had found my freedom abiding in it."

That theme - of discovering individual purpose through a "cause greater than self-interest" - became central to McCain's self-description and echoed an ideological shift underway for McCain, who began identifying himself with a burgeoning "national greatness conservatism" movement.

In an agenda they unveiled in late 1997, William Kristol and David Brooks argued for a new patriotism grounded in admiration for an ambitious, idealistic federal government - holding up Theodore Roosevelt, the war hero turned domestic reformer, as a model. "At the time, McCain was swallowing whole Teddy Roosevelt biographies," said Salter.

"A lot of McCain's identity - the national greatness thing and the description of his life as a redemption tale, as an individual who realized there's an endpoint to individualism - all of that crystallized right around 1998," said Matt Welch, author of "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick," a critical biography. "He figured out a new way of thinking and a new set of policies and there's no question Salter was in the middle of that process."

. . .

As McCain claimed his party's nomination in February, Salter began sketching contrasts with Obama in a series of primary-night speeches written on borrowed laptops in the smoke-friendly hotel rooms where he regularly struggles to bestow the proper narrator's voice on McCain.

"I want a sense of great dignity and humility, which I think fits his self-image," said Salter, a senior campaign adviser who worked for much of the last year without pay, relying on royalties from his five books with McCain for income.

Salter, who serves also as McCain's spleen, had little patience for the frivolity he saw in the rallies and music videos that have marked Obama's candidacy, which he said demonstrated a "messianic complex" that stands in contrast with McCain's "much more humble conception" of identity's role in public life.

That became the basis of a new McCain critique of Obama that, in typical Salter fashion, was coded and oblique - and unfriendly to audience applause lines and broadcast sound bites - but nonetheless brutal in its caricature of Obama as jejune and vainglorious.

"When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and that all glory was self-glory," McCain read from a Teleprompter in Alexandria, Va., after winning that state's primary in February. "I discovered that nothing is more liberating in life than to fight for a cause that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone."

Salter's prose, ornate with muscular abstractions and heavy use of irony - "a classical voice," said Jonathan Karp, the book editor responsible for all the Salter-McCain collaborations - is the opposite of McCain's vaunted "straight talk" of clipped sentences, often artless and austere.

"It is a softer, more inclusive and sophisticated voice," Philip Meyer, a professor at Vermont Law School who specializes in legal writing. "These sentences are longer. And this voice - this language - does not seem to be available to him when he not delivering prepared text."

At the end of March, McCain launched a weeklong "Service to America" tour, a Salter-curated circuit of stops through the stations of McCain's life, including his Virginia high school, the US Naval Academy, and several military bases where he served. At each, McCain dipped into the Salter autobiographical canon for tales, often at once self-deprecating and ennobling, about his search for meaning through patriotic devotion.

With the tour, Salter said, "we wanted people to understand why he is who he is," invoking the cautionary tale of Senator John F. Kerry, a decorated veteran whose biographical narrative was muddied by a long legislative career when he ran for president in 2004.

"Kerry couldn't make it work. People had trouble matching up the Swift Boat skipper with the contemporary politician - they didn't see the arc. They didn't see that he was the same guy as 30 or 40 years ago," said Salter. "With McCain, they can see it."

With Obama offering a competing autobiographical narrative to McCain's - a man who found his own purpose and inheritance through service to others as a community organizer - Salter has been forced to cast his longtime protagonist in relief against a new literary foil.

"I do not seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need," McCain said in the Alexandria speech.

Speaking for himself, Salter is less circumspect in his critique of Obama. "There's this campaign thematic of his: 'We're the ones we've been waiting for,' " Salter said. "It's the sense that 'You can prove yourself, America, and vote for me' - and that is antithetical to the McCain message."

Sasha Issenberg is a reporter in the Globe's Washington bureau. His book, "The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy," will be released this week in paperback.