From Navy man to congressman
For McCain, the transition from military to political life was more deliberate. In 1977, his flying days over, McCain was assigned to be the Navy's liaison to the Senate, a position his father once held. According to Timberg, McCain got "the classic Potomac fever." The senators, likewise, took to the irreverent military officer with the extraordinary back story.
"Suddenly, he's with people generally his age – the Bill Cohens, Gary Harts [then senators] – and he finds out that he really likes this stuff," says Timberg. "He not only likes it, but he says, 'Hey, I can do this, and I bet I can do it well.' At that point, I think everything starts to move in one direction."
By the time McCain arrived in Washington, his personal life was in transition. His marriage was already falling apart – McCain accepts the blame – when he met and fell for the young, beautiful daughter of a wealthy businessman from Phoenix. In early 1981, McCain retired from the Navy, and he and his new wife, Cindy, settled in Arizona. As if by design, the congressman from the district near Phoenix suddenly retired, and McCain won the seat. Four years later, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater – the godfather of Republican conservatism, whom McCain had gotten to know during his Navy liaison days – retired and McCain easily succeeded him.
In McCain's House and early Senate years, conservatives considered him "an upcoming conservative hero and a conservative stalwart in Congress," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU). Then in the late 1990s, McCain began to "move left," Mr. Keene says.