Write a critical book about John McCain, and you will soon become a repository of many colorful rumors. These come in three general flavors: 1) Did you hear about his terrible temper? (The subject did come up, yes.) 2) Did you know he likes the ladies? (Fred Thompson invoked “Marie, the Flame of Florida” at the Republican National Convention, so, yes.) And, most popularly, 3) He wasn’t really a hero in Vietnam at all; also, I think they did something funny to his brain there.
The answer to that last rumor, as far as I have been able to ascertain, is that that dog won’t hunt.
Rolling Stone magazine this month came up with one of the best-sourced versions of the he’s-no-hero argument, and by best-sourced I mean the article quoted one fellow ex-POW on the record as saying that “he wasn’t exceptional one way or another.” From there, the author went on to conclude that, for McCain in Hanoi, the military Code of Conduct, by which prisoners of war were supposed to abide, “went out the window.”
These charges are scurrilous. According to John G. Hubbell’s book, “P.O.W.,” “No American reached Hoa Lo in worse physical condition than McCain.” That alone qualifies him as exceptional, no? And although a broken and disease-ridden McCain did violate the letter of the Code of Conduct when he offered more information than just name, rank and serial number in an attempt to receive medical attention for his life-threatening injuries, such minor capitulations were typical. Indeed, they were part of the reason that President Carter amended the code in 1977 to append the phrase “to the utmost of my ability.”
The harsh truth is that the overwhelming majority of POWs, including McCain, “broke” under torture at some point. As would I, and certainly any writer for Rolling Stone, in about five seconds.
Although McCain has received praise for refusing early release, some critics rightly point out that he was just one of hundreds to do so. Still, this glosses over the most pertinent part of McCain’s heroism: By all accounts, his noisy resistance to everyday humiliations, and his profane outburst at a made-for-propaganda Christmas service in 1968, gave great strength to his fellow POWs. McCain was an inveterate communicator in Hanoi, tapping code like mad to keep his comrades’ spirits up and even acting as chaplain when conditions in the prisons started to improve.
As for the suggestion in Rolling Stone that Vietnam may have turned him into some kind of erratic and unpredictable rage-aholic, just know that little Johnny McCain was known for his outlandish temper at age 2 -- his mom used to dunk him in a bathtub full of ice just to calm him down.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize McCain. But unless you think that inspiring your fellow prisoners to resist and cope with unbelievable acts of torture isn’t heroic, then “hero,” at least, is one description McCain deserves.
Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine and author of “McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.” firstname.lastname@example.org