OCTOBER 8, 2007
'McCain said that he urged Kerry some time ago not to talk about Vietnam during his campaign. 'I did advise John. I said, "Look, you shouldn't talk about Vietnam because everybody else will. Let everybody else do it." His advisers figured that was probably not enough, that he had to emphasize that in his campaign. In my campaign, as you know, I didn't talk about it because I didn't need to.'" -- The Washington Post, August 27, 2004
The New Republic has learned that Republican Senator and presidential candidate John McCain served in the military during the Vietnam war and was captured and tortured as a prisoner of war. McCain, who is notoriously reticent about his Vietnam-era history, has not yet confirmed or denied this discovery, though, in fairness to him, tnr has not yet gotten around to calling his office for comment, what with all the interesting things to read on the Internet.
This discovery could shake the Arizona senator's already foundering campaign. McCain has expressed a principled opposition to candidates running on their military service. As he said about John Kerry in 2004, "Let's worry about the war that's going on in Iraq. Probably some American is dying today in Iraq. I'd like us to focus our attention on the war at hand and how we can win it, rather than revisiting the one that was over thirty years ago." No doubt McCain would be mortified if his own Vietnam record were injected into the present campaign.
The first clue toward unearthing McCain's history of service was his recent campaigning in New Hampshire, where he has surrounded himself with Vietnam veterans, worn a navy hat, and frequently campaigned in VFW halls. Why, I wondered, would McCain, of all people, focus his efforts among veterans, especially those of Vietnam vintage?
Looking for answers, I opened McCain's new book, Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them. In the introduction, McCain recounts the story of Bud Day, an Air Force major who nearly escaped captivity by the Vietcong. Within a few pages I found cryptic hints, such as, "But for Bud Day and his misfortune, I do not think I would have ever left that prison." Prison? Why would McCain have been in a North Vietnamese prison?
In the beginning of the next chapter, McCain describes his "last combat mission in Vietnam," where he was shot down and had "five and a half very long years to regret [his] decision." Then, however, the book turns to general ruminations about decision-making and tough decisions made by other great men of history, and the question of what happened after he was shot down is left unanswered.
At this point, the trail seemed to grow cold. But then I found his previous book, Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember. And the book before that, Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life. And the book before that, Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him. And his first book, Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir. I didn't actually read any of these books, but I did detect a common theme of courage and heroism--almost as if those qualities could be imputed to McCain himself, for some reason.
The smoking gun came when, in the course of surfing the Internet, I found a twelve-minute video about McCain. Purportedly, it lays out the case for McCain's candidacy, but, in fact, the vast majority of it consists of video and photographs of McCain as, yes, a prisoner of war. Somehow, the history of McCain's service he had so assiduously tried to keep from the public had leaked its way into the public domain at last. And I discovered it, of all places, on the official McCain campaign website.
OK, so maybe they're not trying to hide McCain's service. Quite the contrary. Over the last few weeks, McCain has been less subtle about touting his military record than he was eight years ago, surrounding himself with POW colleagues testifying to his courage. Which, again, reopens the question: Why does that record matter?
The official explanation is that McCain's heroic record makes him more prepared to conduct foreign policy than other candidates. As his spokesperson recently put it, "John McCain's record of service and sacrifice makes him uniquely qualified--more than anyone else running on either side--to lead as commander-in-chief from day one."
But the official explanation is obvious bunk. McCain's years in the Senate might qualify him as commander-in-chief. His prisoner of war experience is, at best, a marginal consideration. James Stockdale--another Vietnam POW hero and Ross Perot's hapless 1992 running mate--was not more qualified to serve as commander-in-chief than non-veteran Joe Biden. Most Republicans would prefer a conservative non-veteran like Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney over liberal general Wesley Clark.
McCain, no doubt, isn't really trying to persuade voters that his years as a prisoner in Hanoi have rendered him more qualified to grapple with the foreign policy landscape of 2009. The real point of constantly invoking his service is to substitute the gratitude and admiration we (rightly) feel about McCain's war service for our judgment of him as a political figure.
Of course, McCain is hardly the only person in American politics who has tried to turn public admiration for the sacrifices of the military into political gain. The entire reason figures like David Petraeus and Cindy Sheehan have taken on an outsized role in the war debate is that they're convenient symbols. To attack their position is to attack the brave soldiers or grieving war mothers.
It can only work, though, if it doesn't look like a conscious act of manipulation. The administration took great pains to present Petraeus as an independent military figure, rather than a leader hand-picked to carry out the strategy in which he had become deeply invested. Likewise, McCain never describes himself as a hero, but audience members at his campaign appearances routinely call him one while he modestly demurs. If being called a hero really bothers him, I'd suggest that he consider cutting back on the public tributes to his heroism, at least while he's on stage.
Few people want to point out the sham because nobody wants to appear churlish about McCain's genuinely awe-inspiring history. You might think I'm brave to do it, but don't call me a hero. Well, OK, go ahead.