Get to Know John McCain

Charles Gibson's private look at presidential hopefuls.

February 19, 2009, 12:49 AM

Nov. 8, 2007 — -- John McCain originally made a name for himself on the battlefield and developed a love of country while languishing in the Hanoi Hilton as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Now the four-term senator from Arizona is fighting his way toward the White House.

ABC News' Charles Gibson spoke with McCain as part of the "Who Is" series, which features one interview every week with a presidential candidate from now until December, with the focus fixed on their private lives.

Growing up in a military family, John Sidney McCain III had a future that was predetermined. Both his father and grandfather climbed the ranks of the American armed forces — his father was commander to all U.S. forces in the Pacific during the Vietnam War and his grandfather oversaw the Air Force in the South Pacific during World War II.

Everyone who knew the youngest McCain just assumed he would follow the same path.

"Yeah, he's going to be the class of so-and-so at the Naval Academy, and I felt that I didn't have a choice," McCain said. "I resented it, but I wanted it. It was almost schizophrenic. I wanted to be the fighter pilot, I wanted to follow in the footsteps, at the same time I resisted."

For many years growing up, McCain missed his father.

"I revered him, but I revered him to some degree at a distance because he was gone so much. He was gone literally all of World War II from 1941 to 1945. He was gone during the Korean War for I think a couple of years. He was on sea duty a lot. And I certainly revered my father and respected him," McCain said.

When the time came for him to enroll in the Naval Academy, his resistance showed in his grades.

"I thought I would like it. My ambition was to be one of these scarf-in-the-wind fighter pilots. I couldn't think of anything more romantic and exciting than to do that," McCain said. "At the same time I rebelled against the discipline and kind of rigidity that I saw there at the Naval Academy."

His demerits piled on, and his grades slipped.

Both his father and grandfather had also been less-than-stellar students at the Naval Academy. His grandfather was in the bottom quarter of his class, and McCain's father was just 18th from the bottom. Still, McCain outdid them both — he graduated from USNA fifth from the bottom of the class.

But also like his father and grandfather, his grades at the academy did not foretell the decorated career that stood before him.

McCain completed pilot training, and in 1967 he was sent to Vietnam. On his 23rd mission, he was shot down over Hanoi. He broke both of his arms and one leg after ejecting, and was then taken prisoner by the Vietcong, which subjected him to daily interrogations and torture.

When his captors discovered that his father was a high-ranking officer in the American military, they offered him an early release. McCain declined, citing protocol that all prisoners of war must be released in the order in which they were taken captive. He remained a prisoner for 5½ years.

"It was a tough time, it was a challenging time, it was painful. The pain I experienced, you know, still I don't know how in some ways that I was able to survive the injuries," McCain said about his time as a prisoner.

While deprived of his freedom, McCain said he grew to love America. He missed the "essence of America, which is individual freedom and choice and opportunity and friends, neighbors, all those things."

After being released, McCain returned to flight status for a few years, before no longer being able to fly. He served as a Navy liaison officer to the Senate, and developed a new respect for lawmakers.

"I saw what a hardworking, smart, well-informed senator can accomplish," McCain said. "I saw these senators who were able, through hard work and knowledge, to have such an impact on the future of the country, and that really is what attracted me to it."

Inspired, he ran for Congress in Arizona and won, and then was elected in 1986 to succeed Barry Goldwater in the Senate.

McCain said that his time as a POW put a strain on his marriage to his first wife, Carol, with whom he had a daughter.

"Carol is a wonderful and loving person and a wonderful parent. We just grew apart. But the responsibility is mine — I didn't work hard enough." McCain said. "Carol was a great mother under a long period of difficult times, and I probably was not as appreciative of that as I should've been."

His first marriage ended in divorce in 1980, and he soon remarried to Cindy Hensley.

"I think I pursued her. I don't think there's any doubt about that," McCain said. "I certainly must say that it was, literally, love at first sight as far as I was concerned."

Together they have four children, including one adopted daughter from Bangladesh.

"I don't know if I've been a good father or not, but I do think we've tried very hard, mainly because of Cindy, to spend a lot of time with our children. And so far they've turned out pretty well, and I'm proud of them," McCain said.

The next generation of McCains are carrying on the family's tradition of military service — he has two sons on active duty.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events