McCain’s New Willingness to Talk Up His Vietnam-era Heroism

By Natalie Gewargis

Jul 8, 2008 10:58am

To many observers of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., it has seemed like a sea change.

Running for president in 2000, McCain often seemed so uncomfortable discussing his 5 1/2 years as a P.O.W. while campaigning, on one occasion he even told a story about himself in the third person.

"Many years ago, a scared American prisoner of war in Vietnam was tied in torture robes by his tormenters and left alone in an empty room to suffer through the night," McCain told a crowd in Virginia Beach on February 28, 2000. "Later in the evening, a guard he had never spoken to entered the room and silently loosened the ropes to relieve his suffering. Just before morning, that same guard came back and re-tightened the ropes before his less humanitarian comrades returned. He never said a word to the grateful prisoner, but some months later on a Christmas morning as the prisoner stood alone in the prison courtyard, the same Good Samaritan walked up to him and stood next to him for a few moments. Then with his sandal, the guard drew a cross in the dirt. Both prisoner and guard stood wordlessly there for a minute or two venerating the cross until the guard rubbed it out and walked away."

Concluded McCain: "This is my faith, the faith that unites and never divides, the faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity."

That "scared American prisoner of war in Vietnam" to whom McCain referred eight years ago was himself.

Certainly McCain’s biography was a major part of his pitch to voters then as now. His best-selling "Faith of My Fathers"  had been released in 1999 and he discussed his experiences during his book tour. Additionally, a TV ad from that time described him as having "refused early release from prison, where he suffered repeated beatings and was held for 5 1/2 years."

But for many reporters and even some McCain staffers back then, there was no mistaking the Arizona senator’s personal distaste for what he seemed to have viewed as touting his own heroic behavior, for beating his own drum.

Let me make clear that in my view, Sen. McCain has earned the right to tell the story of his uncommon valor however often he wants, in whatever venue he wants. But something changed, and he is currently more willing to talk about his heroism as a P.O.W. than he once was.

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For instance, contrast the Virginia Beach story with December 2007 when McCain’s campaign was on the ropes.

At that point, McCain’s senior campaign officials convinced him not only to tell that Christmas story in the first person, but to do so in a TV ad.

"One night, after being mistreated as a POW, a guard loosened the ropes binding me, easing my pain," McCain says in the ad. "On Christmas, that same guard approached me, and without saying a word, he drew a cross in the sand. We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas."

Quite a difference from that third-person story in Virginia Beach.

Today McCain launches a new TV ad heralding his heroism, telling his tale. "John McCain: Shot down. Bayoneted. Tortured," the narrator says. "Offered early release, he said, ‘No.’ He’d sworn an oath."

And before the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) later today — as he did in June before another Latino group — McCain will tell his personal story of refusing early release.

"When I was in prison in Vietnam, I like other of my fellow POWs, was offered early release by my captors," McCain will say, according to prepared remarks released by his campaign. "Most of us refused because we were bound to our code of conduct, which said those who had been captured the earliest had to be released the soonest. My friend, Everett Alvarez, a brave American of Mexican descent, had been shot down years before I was, and had suffered for his country much more and much longer than I had. To leave him behind would have shamed us."

Let me say again, in my view, Sen. McCain has earned the right to tell the story of his uncommon valor however often he wants, in whatever venue he wants.

It’s just interesting to see him discussing his ordeal publicly, considering how reluctant he once seemed to do so.

He seems to have been convinced that — as senior staffers for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, say — surprisingly few Americans actually know the details of his story. And that the only way to really get it out there is to, well, get it out there.

- jpt

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