Like Father, Like Candidate

How lessons learned around the family table are influencing the way would-be presidents are running.


"My father imbued me with 'duty, honor, country.' He literally devoted his life to service in the Navy." —John McCain

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It is that same charge that plagues the son now as he tries to explain his shift regarding abortion and gay rights, on both of which he has moved to the right. His critics say he did it out of opportunism, to curry favor with Republican conservatives. Like his father in dealing with Vietnam, Mitt Romney says it was a genuine change of heart.

There were other lessons. "I got a master's thesis by a fellow who worked in my dad's campaign," Romney told U.S. News last June. "His master's thesis was 'Why George Romney lost,' and it was the best analysis I had seen—20 reasons. By the way, one of them was not the Mormon Church or the Mormon faith."

As for Romney's own take on what his father did wrong in his campaign, he says there were "a number of things. You know, Dad had two offices, the headquarters in Michigan and the headquarters in Washington. A disaster, all right? You don't do that…. In some respects, [he was] a reluctant candidate. My dad wasn't sure he was in—back and forth, on, off. He got thrust in before he was ready. By winning his re-election as governor by a huge landslide, people expected him to be an expert on Vietnam, which he wasn't at that time."

George's experience taught young Mitt the importance of preparation and the need to study a course of action before pursuing it. He is today one of the most methodical and disciplined of candidates.


"My grandfather was a naval aviator, my father a submariner," John McCain wrote in his 1999 autobiography, Faith of My Fathers. Both were four-star admirals. "They were my first heroes, and earning their respect has been the most lasting ambition of my life. They have been dead many years now, yet I still aspire to live my life according to the terms of their approval. They were not men of spotless virtue, but they were honest, brave, and loyal all their lives."

As a boy, young John was unhappy that his father was away so much in the Navy. The boy had trouble containing his temper and toeing the line of order and discipline so prized in his family. One of his parents' techniques, administered mostly by his dad when he was home, was to dunk him, fully clothed, into a bathtub of cold water when he had a tantrum. It "cured" him, he reported later.

Their temperaments were different: His father was taciturn and self-contained, John boisterous and unruly. But as they grew older, John became more like his dad in his devotion to the Navy, his integrity, and his concept of honor. John came to admire these lines from "Requiem," a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson: "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." McCain later wrote: "I thought the poem the perfect motto for all who lived a life according to their own lights, and a moving tribute to the lives of strong-willed, valorous men like my grandfather and father. I read it as an exhortation to 'be your own man.' "

McCain added: "The sanctity of personal honor was the only lesson my father felt necessary to impart to me, and he faithfully saw to my instruction, frequently using my grandfather as his model. All my life, he had implored me not to lie, cheat, or steal; to be fair with friend and stranger alike; to respect my superiors and my subordinates; to know my duty and devote myself to its accomplishment without hesitation or complaint."

While his father rose to command U.S. forces in the Vietnam region, the future presidential candidate was serving as a lieutenant commander in the Navy. He was shot down over Hanoi in October 1967. When his captors learned from American news reports that he was the son of an admiral, he got improved medical attention for his wounds, which included two broken arms, a shattered knee, and a broken shoulder. But McCain rejected an offer to return home early, saying he would wait his turn behind other prisoners who had been in captivity longer. This angered his tormentors, and he was tortured viciously as a result. In all, he was a POW for 5½ years. He still feels waiting his turn was the right thing to do.