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Military culture, pragmatism shape McCain

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McCain himself, in a Monitor interview last fall, touted the apolitical traditions of the military. "I don't think my father ever voted," he said. "Generally speaking, most military officers try to keep a very big separation between their military duties and the political side."

Indeed, the last career military man to serve as president, five-star general and war hero Dwight Eisenhower, had no political affiliation during his long service. He was recruited by both major parties to run for president in 1948, but declined. In 1952, a Republican "Draft Eisenhower" movement succeeded.

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."

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