The Nightingale's Song

Front Cover
Simon and Schuster, Sep 11, 1996 - History - 544 pages
2 Reviews
Robert Timberg weaves together the lives of Annapolis graduates John McCain, James Webb, Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, and John Poindexter to reveal how the Vietnam War continues to haunt America. Casting all five men as metaphors for a legion of well-meaning if ill-starred warriors, Timberg probes the fault line between those who fought the war and those who used money, wit, and connections to avoid battle. A riveting tale that illuminates the flip side of the fabled Vietnam generation -- those who went.

What people are saying - Write a review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - librisissimo - LibraryThing

Substance: A look at some of the men who had positions of authority in the armed forces and administration, who were influenced by the same cultural factors that produced President Ronald Reagan, "the ... Read full review


User Review  - Kirkus

A sprawling, passionate account of the Vietnam and postwar journeys of Annapolis graduates John Poindexter, Robert McFarlane, Oliver North, John McCain, and James Webb. Timberg, deputy Washington ... Read full review


Fire at Sea
Do You Want to Go Home?
Trusting the System
Tis the Season to Be lolly
Stranger in a Strange Land
The Reasonable and Honest War Criminal
Pug Henry
Women Cant Fight
Guerrilla Warfare
Garlic in a Crowded Elevator
The Nightingales Song Introduction
Ollie Bud and ohn
The Candidate from Hanoi
Scorpions in a Jar

Long Tall Sally
The Water Walker
Adult Education
A Tutorial with the Greats
A Change of Heart
Noble Cause Redux
The Doubters
A Note on Research Methods

Other editions - View all

Common terms and phrases

Popular passages

Page 506 - There are no marching armies or solemn declarations. Some citizens of South Vietnam at times with understandable grievances have joined in the attack on their own government. But we must not let this mask the central fact that this is really war.

References to this book

All Book Search results »

About the author (1996)

Chapter 1


In June 1954 more than twelve hundred young men in varying states of anxiety assembled in Annapolis, took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and transformed themselves into the Naval Academy Class of 1958. Among the uneasy novitiates that day were John Marian Poindexter and John Sidney McCain III. Four years later, the Class of ''58 had been whittled down by 25 percent. Of the 899 survivors, Poindexter, a small-town banker''s son from landlocked Indiana, stood number one in the class. As a senior, he wore the six stripes of the brigade commander, the top leadership post at Annapolis. McCain, the scion of one of the most illustrious families in the annals of the Navy, stood 894, fifth from the bottom. He never smelled a stripe.

The two Johns had little in common beyond their first names, McCain rowdy, raunchy, a classic underachiever ambivalent about his presence at Annapolis; Poindexter cool, contained, a young man at the top of his game who knew from the start that he belonged at the Academy. In neighboring Bancroft Hall companies, they were neither friends nor enemies. They moved along paths that rarely intersected, Poindexter walking on water, McCain scraping the ocean floor, a bottom feeder, at least academically.

There was one important similarity. Both McCain and Poindexter were leaders in the class, the former in a manic, intuitive, highly idiosyncratic way, the latter in a cerebral, understated manner that was no less forceful for its subtlety. As the Academy was fully capable of accommodating both leadership styles, they might easily have found themselves competing for top positions within the Brigade. But little else was equal. "John Poindexter was the sort of guy with a halo around his head," said classmate Bill Hemingway. "McCain was the one with the horns." Hemingway was Poindexter''s roommate, but not even McCain would contest the point.

John McCain always knew he was going to Annapolis, knew it with such unshakable finality that he never really thought twice about it, at least not seriously. It was part of the air he breathed, the ether through which he moved, the single immutable element in his life. He was the grandson of Admiral John Sidney "Slew" McCain, ''06, a high-strung, irascible old sea dog who fought the Japanese with Bull Halsey from Guadalcanal to Tokyo Bay, watched them surrender on the deck of the battleship Missouri, then dropped dead four days later. The New York Times reported his death on its front page.

The Annapolis tradition continued with John''s father, John Sidney McCain, Jr., ''31, called Jack, at times Junior, a salty World War II submarine skipper climbing steadily toward flag rank himself. He was known for his trademark cigar, promotion of seapower, and devilish reply when asked how he could tell his wife, a college homecoming queen, and her twin sister apart. "That''s their problem," he harrumphed.

Though resigned to Annapolis, John was not happy about it and at times seemed intent on sabotaging his chances for admission. Rebellious by nature, he viewed rules and regulations through a highly personal prism, as challenges to his wit and ingenuity. At Episcopal High School, a private boarding school for boys in Alexandria, Virginia, those qualities emerged with a vengeance.

He was known as Punk, alternatively as Nasty, in another variation, McNasty. He cultivated the image. The Episcopal yearbook pictures him in a trench coat, collar up, cigarette dangling Bogart-style from his lips. That pose, if hardly the impression Episcopal hoped to project, at least had a world-weary panache to it. Generally, though, he mocked the school''s dress code by wearing blue jeans with his coat and tie and otherwise affecting a screw-you raffishness. He would later describe himself in those days as a rebel without a cause, a James Dean type, though it''s just as easy to imagine him as Holden Caulfield, red hunting hat askew, railing about phonies, sneaking cigarettes, driving old Ackley-kid crazy.

One of his few friends, Malcolm Matheson, remembered him fondly as "a hard-rock kind of guy, a tough, mean little fucker." One time he was hauled into juvenile court after he leaned from the window of a friend''s car to berate two older girls with the words "Shove it up your ass" when they ridiculed his awkward pickup attempts.

He dealt with the inevitability of Annapolis like a man loath to take the painful actions necessary to break an unhappy engagement. Rather than telling his parents what he really thought -- screw Annap-olis, the place sucks -- he put himself in a variety of compromising situations, seemingly hoping that the word would filter back so they would take the initiative, leaving him guilt-ridden but free to attend the school of his choice, which meant just about anywhere else.

McCain never went so far in his peccadilloes, however, as to subvert his birthright. He was defiant and flouted the rules, but given his pedigree it would have taken the hand of God to transform his childish pranks and boyish transgressions into something serious enough to bar him from Annapolis. And God, it seems, was otherwise occupied or knew something about McCain that McCain didn''t. And so, on an early summer''s day in 1954, in a car driven by his father, John journeyed to Annapolis, raised his right hand, and marched joylessly into his future.

To his surprise, he enjoyed plebe summer, thriving on the physical activity and drill. To Ron Thunman, the newly commissioned ensign in charge of his summer company, McCain displayed a dynamic quality, a scrappiness, that revealed itself most clearly in the plebe summer boxing smokers. Unschooled as a boxer, McCain would charge to the center of the ring and throw punches until someone went down. That summer it was always the other guy. He won all his fights by knockouts or TKOs.

His fortunes took a downward turn when the upper three classes returned in September. The least docile of plebes, he refused to accept the notion that someone could demean and degrade him simply because he had been at Annapolis two or three years longer. As he saw it, a lot of guys who had never done anything in their lives suddenly had the power to make his life miserable. "It was bullshit, and I resented the hell out of it," he later said.

As at Episcopal, he reacted by challenging the system, quickly piling up demerits. Shoes unshined, late for formation, talking in ranks, room in disorder, gear improperly stowed. Academically, he spent time, not a lot, on the courses he liked -- English, history, and government -- ignoring the rest, about 75 percent of the curriculum.

He treated the system throughout his four years like a hostile organism, something to beat back, keep at bay, as if any compromise meant surrendering a part of himself that he might never retrieve. John McCain at Annapolis, however, was not the John McCain of Episcopal days. He shed the punk image and became one of the most popular midshipmen in his class, if one of the least conventional.

He proved to be a natural leader, his magnetic personality making him the unofficial trail boss for a lusty band of carousers and partygoers known as the Bad Bunch. "People kind of gravitated to him," said Chuck Larson. "They would respond to his lead. They pretty much cared about his approval and they cared about what he thought." Larson, an ex-officio member of the Bad Bunch, was McCain''s closest friend at the Academy and for some years after. They were known as the Odd Couple, McCain short, scrappy, the consummate screwup, Larson the model midshipman, tall, handsome, smooth, bright. They shared a sense of the absurd and an eye for the ladies. Larson, though, was cautious. Of course, he had more to be cautious about. McCain didn''t know what the word meant. As one classmate put it, being on liberty with John McCain was like being in a train wreck.

Even so, his classmates clustered around him, followed his lead, a modern-day Pied Piper decked out in Navy blue. "Whatever John would suggest that we do, whether it was at the Academy or on liberty, I tended to follow," said classmate Jack Dittrick. "And I don''t think I was alone in that. I''ve talked with other classmates and we all marvel at how much control John had over what we did."

He lived on the edge, which only added to his popularity. Even if you held back a bit, followed him so far and no further like Chuck Larson, it was still a hell of a ride.

One night McCain led the Bad Bunch over the wall to a watermen''s bar on a small creek outside Annapolis. The place was little more than a screened-in shack with sawdust on the floor and an electric shuffleboard machine in the corner. Its appeal lay in a feature close to the heart of real estate agents and thirsty midshipmen alike: location. The bar was situated about an eighth of a mile beyond the seven-mile limit, within which midshipmen could not be served alcohol. The catch was that midshipmen on liberty were not permitted to wander beyond the seven-mile limit.

Two dozen midshipmen were drinking alongside the bar''s usual clientele of fishermen and crabbers when the Shore Patrol burst through the door. "Nobody move," shouted the officer in charge, triggering a mad dash for freedom. Midshipmen crashed through the mesh screens that passed for walls and scurried into the surrounding woods, tearing their clothes, losing their caps. Some reversed field, hid in boats tied to the dock across from the bar. Others huddled in ditches or behind fences. McCain and a couple of buddies were sprinting down a road when a car slowed alongside them. "Get in," said the driver, laughing like crazy. He t

Bibliographic information