Saturday, July 29, 2006

Jimmy McCain: Here's A Positive Role Model!

This story isn't really education-related, but in this, the fifth year of the "war" on terror, it is unusual, maybe even unique: The 18-year-old son of a United States Senator has actually enlisted in the Marine Corps.
This September, Senator John McCain's youngest son, Jimmy, 18, will report to a U.S. Marine Corps depot near Camp Pendleton in San Diego. After three months of boot camp and a month of specialized training, he will be ready to deploy. Depending on the unit he joins, he could be in Iraq as early as this time next year, and his chances of seeing combat at some point are high. Of the 178,000 active-duty Marines in the world, some 80,000 have seen a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, and there are 25,000 bearing the brunt of some of the worst fighting in Iraq now. About 6,000 Marines have been wounded there, and about 650 have been killed. "I'm obviously very proud of my son," says the elder McCain, "but also understandably a little nervous."

At 70 years old, McCain might have thought his days of living in the shadow of family military men were behind him. His grandfather, Admiral John S. McCain Sr., served in the Pacific in World War II and was present at the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. His father, Admiral John S. McCain Jr., commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific during Vietnam, when the young McCain was a prisoner of war in Hanoi. But if the old men cast long shadows, McCain is about to learn that the young ones can too.

Jimmy McCain's deployment will affect more than his family. His father is a leading contender for the White House in 2008. If Jimmy deploys to combat, it appears McCain will join F.D.R. to become one of the very few American presidential candidates ever to have had a son at war. And even the prospect of Jimmy's service will shade the race. Iraq is the most important strategic and political issue facing the U.S. Many Democrats are calling for troop withdrawal to begin immediately, and the Bush Administration is struggling to reduce troop strength by the end of the year. McCain, for his part, is the leading voice calling for increasing the number of U.S. troops there.

In the way that happens more frequently in fiction than in life, a McCain family drama is replaying itself here. As a prisoner of war, Senator McCain voluntarily declined an offer of early release by his Vietnamese captors, extending his stay at the Hanoi Hilton by almost four years and nine months. During that time, his father continued to approve air strikes against Hanoi, knowing his son was there. Now comes Jimmy McCain, putting himself in the line of fire even as his father calls for more troops to be sent to war.

Named after McCain's father-in-law, James Hensley, Jimmy is the lively, happy-go-lucky member of the clan, friends say. During the 2000 campaign, a Boston Globe reporter spotted Jimmy, then 11, chasing his older brother Jack around the house calling him a "pork-barrel spender" — a deep cut in the McCain home. During the same year, when McCain was on the road in New Hampshire, the candidate proudly read aloud from a school report on General George S. Patton by Jimmy that he had faxed to him: "The Tanks Will Roll On."

McCain's personal influences on Jimmy appear to have outweighed the privileges that came with being his son. McCain is rock-star famous, and his wife Cindy came to the marriage with money as the daughter of a Budweiser distributor. While others have signed up for duty — the sons of both Senator Kit Bond of Missouri and Tim Johnson of South Dakota have served combat missions in Iraq — it is nonetheless unusual for children of that background to enlist. By comparison, a recent study by Public Citizen's Congress Watch found at least 32 examples of congressional family members who were lobbyists.

Jimmy knows the risks of war from his father's descriptions of battle, imprisonment and torture in Vietnam. The Senator's book, Faith of My Fathers, dryly relates the experience of "small pieces of hot shrapnel" tearing "into my legs and chest," and of how, in solitary confinement, "the first few weeks are the hardest," as "the onset of despair is immediate" and "formidable." Not exactly a prime recruiting tool for your kids. Still, McCain the elder is phlegmatic. "I don't think there's anything unusual about Jimmy," he says. "There are, thank God, lots of young men and women like him."

In some ways, though, Jimmy is breaking with tradition, rather than following it. His brother Jack, now 20, has just finished his plebe year at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather went before him. And McCain, the Naval aviator and keen interservice competitor, has been known to crack more than a few jokes at the Marines' expense. McCain says he doesn't read much into Jimmy's decision. "I know that he's aware of his family's service background," he says, "but I think the main motivator was, he had friends who were in the Marine Corps, and he'd known Marines, and he'd read about them, and he just wanted to join up."

McCain says his son's service won't change his position on the war; he claims it won't even affect how he feels about it. "Like every parent who has a son or daughter serving that way, you will have great concern, but you'll also have great pride," McCain says. But it will be hard to ignore. If Republicans retain control of the Senate after November's midterm elections, McCain is due to ascend to the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee in January, a position he has long aimed for. There he will have day-to-day responsibility for the oversight of the war.

And then there's 2008. McCain already has strong national-security credentials. His son's service only strengthens his position. It will neutralize the assertions of the left that Republicans are "chicken hawks," pursuing the war for ideological reasons without any connection to the pain of it. And it will likely have a broader affect on McCain's credibility. Critics have accused McCain of pandering to the right in order to solidify his front-runner status, but the power of that argument is diminished if McCain is seen steadfastly supporting a war even as it endangers his youngest son.

More than anything else, though, the country may find itself viewing Iraq through McCain's eyes as it follows his son's progress. And nothing is more powerful for a candidate than sympathy. Nothing, too, is more irritating to McCain: he seems annoyed by the interest in his son's enlistment. In mid-June, he requested that TIME not run this story and only relented when it appeared other organizations might break the news. In response to most of the heavier questions about Jimmy's motivation and the influence he may have felt from his family, McCain doesn't want to play. "He's an 18-year-old kid," McCain says, and he no doubt remembers what that means. The Senator was such a hell-raiser as a plebe and a pilot that he was nearly forced out of the academy.

Whatever Jimmy's enrollment says about him, his father or the country, candidate McCain is letting it speak for itself, for the most part. Often the clan gathers for a popular July 4 barbeque at McCain's cabin in Arizona. But this year, instead, McCain canceled the picnic, and the Senator, his wife Cindy and Jimmy went to the Quinault Indian reservation in Washington State. "We went fishing and hiking and enjoyed the rain forest there as well as the salmon fishing, although we didn't catch any salmon," he says. "Cindy and I were able to spend a weekend with him. And it was fine."
At a time when the sons and daughters of America's privileged elite (of both political parties) have nearly completely exempted themselves from any participation in the "war" on terror, Jimmy McCain's willingness to put his own college plans on hold while he serves in in the ranks as an enlisted private soldier (as opposed to attending a service academy and becoming an "officer and gentleman," which is usually the case for those who are the offspring of the powerful and well-connected) is an example to the nation that harkens back to the days of World Wars I and II, during which millions of young people from all socio-economic backgrounds actively volunteered to serve their country in its time of need.

We wish young Mr. McCain well and fervantly hope that the comes safely home upon the completion of his service.
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