Rear Adm. Joe Vasey, now 91, spent much of his career at the
side of the ever-frustrated Jack McCain. In an interview with
NEWSWEEK's Suzanne Smalley from his home in Hawaii, Vasey, who was
McCain's chief of strategy when he was at CINCPAC, recalled the
constraints placed on Admiral McCain as he tried to command U.S. forces
in the Pacific during Vietnam. "There were a lot of restrictions on
what we could bomb in North Vietnam and what we couldn't," Vasey said.
How did Admiral McCain react? "He was just frustrated and let go an
oath," says Vasey. "I wrote a lot of the messages that went into
Washington under his direction. He was not a bashful man. I would say,
'Well, the State Department won't like that, sir.' He would puff on his
cigar and say, 'To hell with the State Department'… He was not a
pussycat, I'll tell you. Straight talker."
Col. Bud Day, who was in the Hanoi Hilton with McCain when America began the Christmas bombings of '72, said the future senator's reaction to the Christmas raid was joyful despite the dangers. "I was the squadron commander at the time," Day recalled. "The bombardments started the night of Dec. 19th. They were falling very close to the camp. Shrapnel was coming into the windows … A lot of stuff was falling off the ceiling. We were wildly ecstatic because that was the airline ticket home. John was like all of us—deliriously happy … Everyone was hysterical and jubilant that finally the right thing was happening because this was the only way we'd get out. We knew that and the Vietnamese knew that. We were slapping each other on the back … They went berserk. They told everyone to sit down as soon as we started laughing and everything. They immediately stuck guns through the window and started yelling at us in Vietnamese … They were always worried we'd riot … I told everyone, 'Sit down against the wall. I don't want anyone to get killed. We're going home in a few days. I don't want anyone getting hurt'."
Admiral McCain's refusal to talk publicly about his son was rooted in a sense of service, but even in private McCain's father had difficulty with emotion. "My dad occasionally would have to punish us," says Joe McCain. "It was almost always because we had had some kind of argument with my mother." He would strike them with a belt on the behind. "Five or six hours later the door would open and he'd be rubbing his hands and say, 'I just wanted to let you know your old dad loves you' … He was never able to quite say 'I love you' … [Showing emotion] was debilitating. For guys of that era to be strong and especially to be of even temperament was crucial."
Joe McCain does not believe the admiral's frustrations with the war fueled his drinking, for the problem long predated Vietnam. "Dad drank, I think, for two reasons. One is, I think he had a natural biochemical need for alcohol … He was a real alcoholic … I remember that Dad was a guy who was not comfortable with small talk. I'm not sure why, but he wasn't. He was shy … I think my dad drank initially to try and ease some of that a little bit. And also the Navy, especially then, was just like fraternity culture. [It was] a drinking culture, and the rhythms were really profound. You would go out to sea or you would go into battle, no booze, and once all the stress is over, you'd come back and you'd just get really drunk."
Joe McCain thinks that their father's drinking troubled John more than it did him because John became aware of it at a younger age. "He was [upset] because he's six years older. I didn't know that my dad was an alcoholic until I was 16. My mother used to keep it [very quiet]. The reason that was possible is because Dad wouldn't drink like a lot of alcoholics who drink every night. He'd go months and months and months without drinking, and when something would trigger it, he would stay smashed for five or six days, and my mother would call in that he was sick or whatever. And it never affected his military career because then he would feel terrible, he would sober up, and he wouldn't have a drink for a long time … My father's pattern was, he would never drink when there was stress. He would never drink when there was something important to do. It was when it was all over."
At a military dinner in the late 1970s, Admiral McCain was dangerously close to drunkenness, and Joe took him home. "It [the event] is a very big deal. The secretary of Defense is always there and these big military officers and they're all having a good time, and my father would walk up to the bar and he'd have the bartender pour him something; it was either vodka or gin, I couldn't tell. And he just tossed it off … and I remember asking him, 'Dad, why do you drink like that?' and he said, 'Why not?' and then he had a couple more and he went off to some special table and I was at another table, and about 45 minutes later some general came over and said, 'Your father wants to go home.' He wasn't falling down, he wasn't drunk, but he was a little bit buzzed, and he knew enough to ask a guy to come get me so I could get him home, and that was only the second time I'd seen him drunk. The first time I was 16 years old … I came back late from a date and my father was lying in full dress uniform on these padded stairways that we had. He'd gone out to some function and gotten really smashed." Such episodes were few and far between, but they left their mark on the admiral's sons. "When he was drunk, I didn't recognize him," John McCain has told friends on the rare occasions that the subject has come up.
The nominee's own partying days, from the Navy through his first years back in the United States after his captivity, appear to have had more to do with women and with song than with wine. "I went out and had a good time," he says, "but I was never much of a drinker." He likes Belvedere vodka, and has one or two through the course of an evening, especially when he is in Sedona, grilling and telling stories at the McCains' compound there. "He never wants to appear out of control, or be out of control," says Mark Salter, his closest aide, speechwriter and longtime coauthor. "Come to think of it, the raucous John McCain is the sober John McCain." McCain is not censorious about the drinking of others; he never begrudges anyone or chastises them if they overindulge.