'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, 2004The 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
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
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
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
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
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