The cynicism with which most Americans view most politicians, has long made it difficult to believe a claim such as John McCain’s stated goal during the 2000 presidential race — that he wanted ‘to inspire young Americans to devote themselves to causes greater than their own self-interest’ — and yet while travelling with the candidate, David Foster Wallace couldn’t ignore McCain’s moral authority — a very rare commodity on the campaign trail.
In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and ﬂying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi. Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a riﬂe butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this. He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened. He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused, The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? It so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.
But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches in early February you can feel like maybe it isn’t just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it’s maybe the truth. Or maybe both the truth and bullshit: the guy does – did – want your vote, after all.
But that moment in the Hoa Lo office in ’68 – right before he refused, with all his basic normal human self-interest howling at him – that moment is hard to blow off. All week, all through MI and SC and all the tedium and cynicism and paradox of the campaign, that moment seems to underlie McCain’s “greater than self-interest” line, moor it, give it a weird sort of reverb that’s hard to ignore. [Continue reading…]
In Vietnam, Colonel Trần Trọng Duyệt, who ran the Hỏa Lò Prison where McCain was held captive, paid tribute to his former prisoner:
Speaking to Việt Nam News yesterday, he said: “I had a lot of time meeting him when he was kept in the prison.
“At that time I liked him personally for his toughness and strong stance. Later on, when he became a US Senator, he and Senator John Kerry greatly contributed to promote Việt Nam-US relations so I was very fond of him.”
“When I learnt about his death early this morning, I feel very sad. I would like to send condolences to his family. I think it’s the same feeling for all Vietnamese people as he has greatly contributed to the development of Việt Nam – US relations.”
Returning from Việt Nam, McCain joined politics and was one of the first to campaign for normalisation of US – Việt Nam relations through promoting humanitarian issues such as removing unexploded devices left by the war, searching for missing-in-action personnel, supporting people with disabilities caused by the war, and detoxifying areas polluted by dioxin.
In 1994, the US Senate approved a resolution sponsored by McCain and Senator John Kerry, calling to end the economic sanction against Việt Nam, paving the way for the improving of relations between the two countries a year later.
Following the normalisation of bilateral ties, McCain and Kerry visited Việt Nam many times to address the issue of American missing-in-action soldiers (POW/MIA).
Senator McCain also supported the Vietnamese community in the US, serving as a bridge between them and the US authorities as well as the Vietnamese Government. [Continue reading…]
A few weeks ago, in an attempt to see more clearly what McCain’s passing might mean for the country’s politics, I spent an afternoon with Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime speechwriter and image curator. Since McCain’s diagnosis, the press had often written about the senator in elegiac tones. “That last-great-man stuff, he hates all that,” Salter told me. Salter did have a clear idea of what McCain would take with him when he died—in a party that had mostly given up on idealism, he was the last conservative romantic. “When he’s a hundred pounds, and so gaunt that his cellmate says, ‘I think the North Vietnamese threw him in here to die and blame us for it,’ he could somehow see his way through it,” Salter said. McCain experienced his deepest fraternal feeling, Salter thought, with political prisoners, dissidents, soldiers—people who had experienced and survived the very worst that people could do to one another. “It’s, like, ‘We’re the guys who can hold on to hope when hope is impossible,’” Salter said. [Continue reading…]