Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him

Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him

by John McCain, Mark Salter


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NATIONAL BESTSELLER • Senator John McCain tells the story of his great American journey, from the U.S. Navy to his electrifying campaign for the presidency in 2000, interwoven with heartfelt portraits of the mavericks who have inspired him through the years.

After five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, naval aviator John McCain returned home a changed man. Regaining his health and flight-eligibility status, he resumed his military career, commanding carrier pilots and serving as the navy’s liaison to what is sometimes ironically called the world’s most exclusive club, the United States Senate. Accompanying Senators John Tower and Henry “Scoop” Jackson on international trips, McCain began his political education in the company of two masters, leaders whose standards he would strive to maintain upon his election to the U.S. Congress. There, he learned valuable lessons in cooperation from a good-humored congressman from the other party, Morris Udall. In 1986, McCain was elected to the U.S. Senate, inheriting the seat of another role model, Barry Goldwater.

During his time in public office, McCain has seen acts of principle and acts of craven self-interest. He describes both extremes in these pages, with his characteristic straight talk and humor. He writes honestly of the lowest point in his career, the Keating Five savings and loan debacle, as well as his triumphant moments—his return to Vietnam and his efforts to normalize relations between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments; his fight for campaign finance reform; and his galvanizing bid for the presidency in 2000.

Writes McCain: “A rebel without a cause is just a punk. Whatever you’re called—rebel, unorthodox, nonconformist, radical—it’s all self-indulgence without a good cause to give your life meaning.” This is the story of McCain’s causes, the people who made him do it, and the meaning he found. Worth the Fighting For reminds us of what’s best in America, and in ourselves.

Praise for Worth the Fighting For

“When [John] McCain writes of people and patriotism, his pages shine with a devotion, a loving awe, that makes Worth the Fighting For worth the shelling out for. . . . McCain the man remains one of the most inspiring public figures of his generation.”—Jonathan Raunch, The Washington Post

“[An] unpredictable, outspoken memoir . . . a testimonial to heroism from someone who has first-hand knowledge of what it takes.”The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812969740
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/09/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 428,134
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Senator John McCain entered the Naval Academy in June of 1954 and served in the United States Navy until 1981. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona in 1982 and to the Senate in 1986. The Republican Party’s nominee for president in the 2008 election, McCain was also the author of Faith of My Fathers, Worth the Fighting For, Why Courage Matters, Character Is Destiny, Hard Call, Thirteen Soldiers, and The Restless Wave. John McCain died in 2018.
Mark Salter is the author, with John McCain, of several books, including Faith of My Fathers and The Restless Wave. He served on Senator McCain’s staff for almost twenty years.

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 1
Last Salute

We buried my father on a morning in the early spring of 1981. He had died of heart failure five days before, over the Atlantic, with my mother, his wife of forty-eight years, by his side.

He had been in poor health for most of the nine years that had passed since he had reluctantly retired from the navy. In his last few years, you could see life draining out of him. He had lost weight and become quite frail. He walked slowly, with his shoulders stooped, and was easily tired. He spent most of every day in his study, where he would read and nap on and off for hours. In his last year of active duty, as commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, he had suffered a seizure, which was initially believed to be a small stroke. For the remainder of his life, the seizures would recur more and more frequently, each one worse than the last, enfeebling him and destroying the great spirit that had enabled such a small man to live courageously a big, accomplished, adventurous life.

His doctors could never determine the cause of his convulsions. In his last years, they were as dramatic as grand mal seizures suffered by epileptics. He would bite through objects placed in his mouth to prevent him from swallowing his tongue. It seemed his brain would just quit functioning for longer and longer intervals. We would take him to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where he would convalesce for a few weeks, while doctors searched futilely for a diagnosis.

I have always suspected that my father's long years of binge drinking had ruined his health. He had given up drinking years before, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and although he would occasionally fall off the wagon, for the most part he maintained an admirable discipline in his sober years. But I suspect the damage had been done long ago, and with the onset of old age, the effects of his vice had shortened his life.

More damaging than drink, however, was the sadness he struggled to keep at bay since the day President Richard Nixon had presided over his change of command as a navy CINC, effectively ending more than forty years of active duty in the United States Navy. I've never known anyone who loved his profession more than my father had loved the navy. It was his whole life, from birth to death. He loved my mother, my sister, and my brother. But had you asked him to describe his family relationships, he would have answered, "I'm the son of an admiral and the father of a captain." He was so proud to be a sailor, considered himself so blessed to have remained always in the company of sailors, to have fought at sea, to have risen to the rank his father held, that any other life seemed dismal and insignificant to him.

Annually, all the CINCs are required to testify before the Armed Services Committees of the House and Senate. In his last testimony, aware that his career was near an end, he had complained that he didn't want to retire. But having reached the pinnacle of his career, having held the highest operational command in the navy, he knew his age and declining health had left him bereft of any hope that he would die in the uniform of his country. I am certain he would have preferred to leave this earth, as his father had, triumphantly, as his last war and command ended.

Even if his health had been better, even if his retirement had been occupied with important work and adventures, I doubt it would have alleviated his despair over leaving the navy. He kept the company of old sailors, which he cherished, but their society couldn't compensate him for the work he had lost, for his sense of purpose, for the ships that sailed at another's command, for the bluejackets who loved him, for the sea. He wasn't an invalid, but the seizures were debilitating, his spirits were poor, the quality of his life degraded. On good days, he would go downtown to the Army-Navy Club and swap stories with his old cronies. Most days, however, he remained in his study.

He did manage to travel fairly often. My parents loved to travel, especially my mother, and there were few countries they had not visited in the course of his long career. They tried to maintain their peripatetic lives to the extent my father's health would permit it. And it was on a return flight from Europe that he suffered the seizure that stopped his heart.

I received a call from my former wife, Carol, on a Sunday evening, March 22, 1981. Navy officials had contacted her after they had failed to locate me. They left it to her to inform me that my father had died, which she did with great kindness and tact. A crew member of the air force C-5 cargo plane had radioed a message that my father had suffered a heart attack on board and was presumed dead. The plane had landed at Bangor, Maine, to refuel, where a doctor confirmed my father's death and from there left for Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., where I would meet it. It was about a twenty-minute drive from my home to Andrews. I remember nothing of it. I cannot recall what I was thinking, or anything I said to my wife, Cindy, during the drive, or what she said to me.

The C-5 is a massive airplane, the largest plane ever built. It had three levels. On the top level, behind the cockpit and the seats for the rest of the crew, was a small passenger compartment with about twelve seats. You had to climb two ladders to reach it, and as I did so, I wondered how my father had managed the climb. My mother greeted us as we entered the compartment. She was very composed, very matter-of-fact, as she informed me, "John, your father is dead." My mother had dedicated her entire life to my father and his career. She loved him greatly. But she is a strong woman, indomitable. No loss, no matter how grievous, could undo her. Her face blank, she stared into my eyes for a long moment, as much, I suppose, to convey her own formidable resolve to maintain her dignity as to see if I could maintain mine. I looked past her toward a space behind the passenger seats, where he was lying, covered with a blue blanket, his brown shoes still on his feet, sticking out from under the blanket.

I remember little of the five days between that moment and the morning we buried him at Arlington National Cemetery, among the rows of white headstones that mark the many thousands of carefully tended graves on its sloping green acres, not far from where his father lay. My brother, Joe, had worked with the navy to make most of the funeral and burial arrangements. I was preparing to move across the country, and my mother was occupied with hundreds of sympathy calls and visits.

The funeral service was held in the Ft. Myers Chapel next to the cemetery. Mourners filled all its pews and stood along its walls and in the back. Nancy Reagan, just a few days after her husband, the president, had narrowly survived an assassination attempt, attended, as did Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

The navy, past and present, was represented by many of its most senior and honored officers, along with many eminent officers from the other services. The chief of naval operations, Admiral Tom Hayward, was there, as were his predecessors, Admirals Tom Moorer and George Anderson. Also among the mourners was Admiral Ike Kidd, a dear friend of my parents and the son of the famous Admiral Kidd (who had been killed at Pearl Harbor and received the Medal of Honor posthumously). He was overcome with grief, and one of my most poignant memories of the funeral is of Admiral Kidd sobbing loudly and struggling to regain his composure. The pallbearers included Admiral Arleigh Burke, whom my father had served under and revered; Admiral "Red" Ramage, a classmate, fellow submariner, and Medal of Honor recipient; General Eugene Tighe of the U.S. Air Force; Ellsworth Bunker, who had served as ambassador to South Vietnam when my father held the Pacific Command; Chief Roque Acuavera and Chief Ricardo San Victories, each of whom had served my father as chief steward for many years and who had loved him and been loved by him.

Joe and I were the only eulogists. Joe spoke first and gave a fine tribute, eloquently sketching his career and character. I spoke briefly and remember only joking that my father had probably greeted St. Peter with his lecture on "The Four Ocean Navy and the Soviet Threat." I closed my remarks with the Robert Louis Stevenson poem "Requiem," the beautiful homage to one man's free will that we had both loved.

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

After the funeral service had ended, the mourners preceded my father's body to his burial site. It was a cool, overcast day; the trees were still bare and seemed so black against the gray sky and deep green field. We watched as a riderless horse slowly led the caisson and procession from chapel to grave. As they arrived, the Navy Band played a solemn march by Handel, the music that had accompanied Lord Nelson's funeral procession as it moved through the streets of London to his resting place at St. Paul's Cathedral. I kept my head erect and my eyes fixed straight ahead during the brief graveside service and as his casket was lowered into the earth.

After the service, my mother hosted a reception in her large Connecticut Avenue apartment. I was not distraught at the service or at the reception, but I was weary and had to force myself to be affable. At times I found it trying just to thank people for coming and for their expressions of sympathy. But my mother, my amazing mother, more than compensated for my reserve as she whirled around the apartment, seeming to take part in every conversation, as always, the center of attention.

My father's death and funeral occurred at a moment of great change for me and for the tradition that had brought honor to three generations of John McCains. I had arrived at my mother's apartment still wearing my dress blue uniform. I would never wear it again.

I left the reception after an hour or so and drove to an office in a nondescript building in Crystal City, Virginia, with the typically bureaucratic title Navy Personnel Support Activity Center. There I signed my discharge papers, applied for my retirement pay and health coverage, and turned in my identification card, ending nearly twenty-three years on active duty. For the first time in the twentieth century, and possibly forever, the name John McCain was missing from navy rosters. From there, I drove to the airport and boarded a plane with Cindy and her parents for Phoenix, Arizona, and a new life altogether.

Table of Contents


Talking with John McCain

Barnes & Noble.com: Worth the Fighting For is your autobiographical follow-up to Faith of My Fathers, in which you recounted the heroism of your father and grandfather. Which heroes will we read about in the new book?

John McCain: I write about a few of the heroes of my youth: Robert Jordan, the protagonist from Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls; baseball legend Ted Williams; General Billy Mitchell, an early proponent of air power; Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, as portrayed by Marlon Brando in the movie Viva Zapata! Of course, as a boy I was drawn mostly to the unyielding individualism so prominent in their personalities, and the fatalistic acceptance of the personal consequences of their defiant "be my own man" code. My life's experiences have, fortunately, taught me that no matter how much I admired their style, and the guts and integrity it takes to live by that code, no one's life has lasting importance if it has no greater purpose than flattering one's vanity.

As I grew older, I learned that what made many of my early heroes great was that they fought for causes that encompassed them but were not defined by their existence alone. They fought on their own terms, to be sure, but not for themselves alone. That example, and the example of people in public life who I admired and also wrote about in the book -- Teddy Roosevelt, Mo Udall, Barry Goldwater, and many others -- helped me understand that my independence, although I cherish it as much today as I did in my youth, hasn't invested my life with much meaning when its object has been limited to self-regard.

B&N.com: You're remarkably forthright about what you perceive as your shortcomings, such as your temper. Has your temper been an asset in helping you achieve what you've accomplished, or more of a hindrance?

JM: I suppose it has been an asset occasionally, although certainly not as often as it has been a hindrance. My outrage over certain failings in our political system, which I have expressed intemperately at times, has probably been considered by some observers as a strong passion for my causes, and evidence of my sincerity. I suspect that there have also been times in my political career when the forceful communication of my opinions has provoked a more honest response from those subjected to the experience. And, of course, there have been occasions when my anger, even when I have vehemently expressed it, was appropriate and its targets more than deserving. In those instances, I have no regrets whatsoever about my display of temper.

But more often, my temper has gotten in the way of making my case, become a distraction, caused hard feelings to endure long after battles have ended, and has been used by my detractors and enemies to fight not only my personal ambitions but my public causes as well. I profoundly regret that, and have learned by experience to be a little more judicious about using my temper.

B&N.com: Is there anything in the 2000 campaign battle against George W. Bush you wish you'd done differently?

JM: Yes, many things. But only one thing occasioned deep regret, and I wrote about that in the book: the intentional mischaracterization of my personal opinion about the propriety of flying the battle flag of the Confederacy above South Carolina's state capitol.

B&N.com: Your "maverick" mind-set hasn't exactly endeared you to the Republican Party. Any thought of switching to the Democratic side of the aisle, or becoming an independent, à la Jim Jeffords?

JM: The thought of declaring my independence from both the Democratic and Republican parties has occurred to me when I've been especially frustrated with some of the party's leaders, and the misdirection in which they have tried to take the country. But Republicans have a heritage that extends much further back than 1994. We are the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan. They were Republicans who had a grand and moral sense of our national destiny, at odds with the cramped and often selfish vision of the country held by some leading Republicans today.

It's not wishful thinking to believe that prevailing political sentiments in my party will someday return to the larger, more hopeful vision held by our illustrious Republican forbears. I don't think many Americans believe that "just being left alone" is a real strong basis for patriotism or always a strong basis for sound public policy. Even in Republican strongholds in the West and South, where demographic changes are challenging the political conventions of the last 30 years, our days as a governing party are numbered if we can't muster up a more inspiring appreciation of freedom than "every man for himself."

B&N.com: You are, of course, a Vietnam vet and a former POW. As we conduct this interview [August 2002], the Bush administration appears to be determined to invade Iraq, an engagement that could become a similarly prolonged conflict. Where do you stand on the Iraq issue?

JM: I share the president's sense of urgency to address the clear and present danger Saddam Hussein represents. Saddam is an international aggressor, a mass murderer who has violated the terms of the Gulf War cease-fire and suffered the resulting sanctions because his most important priority is to acquire nuclear weapons. On more than one occasion, he has proved himself capable of making terrible misjudgments. Will possession of nuclear weapons make him more or less prone to some impulsive or irrational act? I don't think we can risk waiting to find out. His continued presence in the region a destabilizing force in the region and an obstacle to winning the war against terrorism. Nor do I accept the premise that a conflict with Iraq will necessarily be a prolonged one. I think there are legitimate doubts about whether much of the Iraqi army will fight for Saddam if they are convinced his regime is going to fall. And I doubt very much that the Iraqi people will do anything but dance with joy when the man who has subjected them to the most inhumane oppression finally meets his end.

B&N.com: Your involvement in the "Keating Five" controversy gave you intimate knowledge of the pitfalls of the campaign finance system. You and Russell Feingold got your campaign finance reform bill passed, finally, but is the battle truly won?

JM: I think the supporters of the campaign finance reform enacted into law this year can take pride in knowing that their efforts will, beginning this November, succeed in taking huge, unregulated, six-figure donations, and the influence they buy the donor, out of the political process. No doubt, party lawyers will find new ways to create and exploit loopholes that will challenge future reformers. But for now, the system has been improved, and that was certainly worth the hard work it took to achieve.

B&N.com: What do you make of the current wave of corporate scandals? Is President Bush the right man to fight corporate malfeasance, given his own controversial Harken Energy background? Is there enough government regulation of business practices?

JM: Suggested government responses to corporate governance scandals have been criticized by some as more unnecessary regulation. I think they are really just attempts to close loopholes in current regulations that have been exploited by some ethically challenged corporate leaders and neglected by government officials.

B&N.com: The budget surplus of the Clinton years is gone -- replaced, it seems, by years of projected deficits. How much of that shift do you attribute to the Bush tax cuts implemented last year? Do you agree with those who feel we should not be cutting taxes (especially for the upper tax bracket) when we are in a recession, not to mention "at war"?

JM: Most of the new tax cuts occur in later years and have not contributed to the current budget deficit. I do think that there is a legitimate argument in bad economic times for cutting taxes to stimulate growth. However, I place the priorities of our national security needs, and addressing the approaching crisis in entitlement programs, above the priority to reduce tax burdens for the very fortunate on the scale they were cut last year.

B&N.com: You recently led an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to improve fuel efficiency standards for automobiles and SUVs, another "maverick" position that earned you the ire of your Republican brethren. Were you surprised at the ferocity of the opposition, given that the majority of our imported oil comes from such a turbulent area of the world?

JM: I'm never surprised by the strength of opposition when it includes both labor and management. Nevertheless, the breadth of the opposition doesn't mean that the national security and environmental imperatives for increasing fuel standards aren't real. They are, and they will, sooner than the opposition believes, force government to take action no matter how ferocious the objections.

B&N.com: You intimate in your book that you're not inclined to run for the Oval Office again. What would have to happen for you to change your mind and possibly run as an independent in 2004?

JM: I don't know. At my age, I try not to let my imagination run wild.

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Worth the Fighting For 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
JBD1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm a McCain fan, so I was almost sure to enjoy this book anyway; nonetheless, I found it inspiring and well worth reading. Not quite on par with "Faith of My Fathers," but close.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Interesting overall. I enjoyed Faith of my fathers better. He is an interesting person for sure.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Well written autobiography of a great and courageous American.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'worth the fighting for' by john mccain is a very special look at some of the special hereos that have influenced john mccains life and the principles that have guided him from being a fighter pilot in vietnam through the us senate to his fist run for the us presidency. I found this book very remarkable cause not only does sen mccain talk about the lifes of these great americans and how there courage influenced his daily life but in this publication he shares alot of his own managment principles that he lives by and why he believes this is still the greatest country in the world. this book would make a wonderful gift for a friend, family member or soldier serving over seas.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had to choose a book for my government class to read and write an essay on, and I'm glad this is the book I chose. I have always admired Senator McCain, and this book just gave me more reasons to admire him. His language is sophisticated while not going over my head, and I actually was compelled to continue reading after every chapter. Finally, an assigned book that I wanted to read! It gives an interesting look at American politics, and good background on the senator's political career. It was also inspiring to read about McCain's heroes and the people and characters who have influenced him. Very genuine.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was a captive of John McCain's world while reading his first book, but this book is more of an introspective of his struggles with the concept of honor, and somewhat of a recap of the folks that contributed to his concept of honor. I'm glad that I read the book because I admire the Senator, but it was a little slow in places.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is a great look at the military and the sacrifices that have come with a life in the service of ones country. The books perspective is that of a privileged officer, but reflects an appropriate respect for those at every level of the service. The descriptions of captivity dominate the second half of the book and are troubling and inspiring. The book clearly describes the darker side of human cruelty and the fight to survive within those conditions. Although the book is written with the acknowledgement that his experience was somehow more muted then others with whom he shared captivity, it is hard to fathom ones own survival even at the level he describes. The first half of the book is an interesting history lesson from his view of his grandfather and father along with a view into the world of the Naval Academy. They are an interesting look into the higher echelons of the military power structure and provide some interesting descriptions of World War II combat. Outsiders and those who have found themselves in the middle of the harsher treatment of military hazing may find themselves informed to some degree on why the military has tolerated the practice for so long. The lessons of what at first appear to be harsh treatment at the Naval Academy (and within the military as a whole) suddenly vaporize into insignificance when compared to what must be the unbearably severe conditions of war. This book is a must read for anyone who plans to serve in the armed forces. It discusses in clear terms the varied sacrifices that are often asked of the military along with the infrequent but overwhelming sacrifices some have had to make. It stands as a tribute to those who have served and sets the minimum standard that those who will serve should measure themselves and their experience against.