Humming along under a gray New Hampshire sky aboard the Straight Talk Express, his campaign bus, hero-for-President Senator John McCain says, “The shadow of Vietnam doesn’t hang over everything I do.
But he’s wrong–it does. Indeed, it defines the man. For decades, McCain has brandished his years as a wounded, roped and beaten American prisoner of war in North Vietnam to build his reputation. He’s used it to boost his political career, first as a member of the House of Representatives, then as a senator, now as a presidential candidate who has emerged from the Republican pack as Texas Governor George W. Bush’s chief competitor. The story of McCain the POW mesmerizes many voters and has charmed the media, who’ve been attracted by McCain’s accessibility and blunt-spoken manner. In a political season when “character” rather than issues seems to be the determining factor for many voters, McCain is counting on his Vietnam experience to trump Bush and, if it comes to that, Vice President Al Gore or former Senator Bill Bradley.
Indeed, for some Americans, his endurance under wartime prison conditions–described in excruciating detail in his bestselling autobiography, Faith of My Fathers–is all that needs to be said about McCain. Measured against the lightweight, almost juvenile Texas Governor, he appears mature and reliable. “McCain’s a man!” says Caroline Wojcicki, 50, of Amherst, New Hampshire, who’s come out to cheer on the Arizonan at a candidates’ debate in Manchester. “George Bush is still a boy–maybe a good boy, but still a boy.” In that, she echoes the sentiments of many New Hampshire Republicans and independents, who’ve elevated McCain to clear front-runner in polls taken in the Granite State.
But there is a dark side to McCain’s posture as a hero. Though he suffered as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he seems blind to the suffering inflicted on that nation by America’s brutal and misguided war. Trained as a naval officer, grandson of a senior World War II admiral and son of another admiral who, McCain says, “had command over the war in Vietnam” as commander in chief, Pacific command, McCain is too willing to call on American military power to enforce US interests overseas. Angry in temperament and pugnacious in style, McCain exhibits a swaggering readiness to avenge America’s defeat in Vietnam. Like the man he succeeded as senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater–whose militaristic style alarmed voters when he ran for President in 1964–there is only one word to describe the prospect of John McCain with his finger on the button: scary.
For McCain, strategic thinking starts and ends with Vietnam, and with the Americans who fought and died there. “The memory of them, of what they bore for honor and country, causes me to look in every prospective conflict for the shadow of Vietnam,” McCain said in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August. Yet in looking for that shadow, McCain draws all the wrong conclusions.
Rather than accepting America’s defeat in Vietnam as a humbling one and a fitting end to an arrogant and vainglorious exercise of military power, McCain considers the war in Vietnam to have been a “noble cause,” whose loss might have been avoided but for the timidity of America’s political leaders. Like many Vietnam-era military men, McCain believes that the war could have been won had America sent ground forces into North Vietnam and launched a strategic bombing campaign using B-52s. “That,” says Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam-era Defense Department official who leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers, “is an incredibly discredited point of view.” McCain appears unworried by concern that such actions would have led to enormous US casualties and perhaps caused either China or the Soviet Union to enter the war.
McCain’s gung-ho attitude toward the Vietnam conflict has its roots in the months he spent in Vietnam’s skies. In Faith of My Fathers he describes how, looking down at Soviet ships unloading arms in Vietnamese ports and at the construction of surface-to-air-missile sites, he chafed at the “frustratingly limited bombing targets” that restricted air raids to military installations, roads, bridges and power plants, calling such constraints “senseless” and “illogical.” “We thought our civilian commanders were complete idiots,” he wrote.
McCain expanded on this theme in a speech to the American Bar Association on the thirtieth anniversary of the 1968 Tet Offensive by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. “Like a lot of Vietnam veterans, I believed and still believe that the war was winnable,” he said. “I do not believe that it was winnable at an acceptable cost in the short or probably even the long term using the strategy of attrition which we employed there to such tragic results. I do believe that had we taken the war to the North and made full, consistent use of air power in the North, we ultimately would have prevailed.”
Appearing before a packed audience at a town-hall meeting at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in early December, McCain resoundingly called on his listeners to recall “the lessons of Vietnam,” which–rolled up into an applause-gathering soundbite–means, he said, “never again do we send our men and women to fight and die in foreign conflicts unless our goal is victory!” Practically speaking, McCain considers the lessons of Vietnam to be as follows: America’s armed forces should be utilized when “US vital interests are threatened,” which interests McCain liberally defines as including “ensuring the survival and prosperity of the American people, defending our allies and combating such global threats as terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or narcotics.” Though McCain consistently opposes the use of US forces in nonstrategic or humanitarian missions like Somalia and Haiti, when US interests are at stake, he believes, Washington must make a full-scale commitment to win, even if it means total war–an approach that he applies to crises around the world.
At the height of the crisis in Kosovo, McCain clamored for an invasion, bitterly criticizing the Clinton Administration for its “excessively restricted air campaign” and its decision to “refrain from using ground troops,” adding: “These two mistakes were made in what almost seemed willful ignorance of every lesson we learned in Vietnam.” Similarly, during the flare-up in 1994 over North Korea’s nuclear program, McCain recklessly accused President Clinton of “appeasement” of Pyongyang, warning, “The time for more forceful, coercive action is long overdue.” McCain demanded that the United States increase its alert status; mobilize US troops; deploy aircraft carriers, more fighters and Apache helicopters; pre-position bombers and tankers; and announce the immediate application of economic sanctions–even while recognizing the strong possibility that such actions could lead to war on the Korean peninsula. And on Iraq, he says that “the only way to prevail is to strike disproportionate to the provocation,” criticizing the White House for “the extremely limited scale” of bombing raids there.
In a speech in New York on the anniversary of the December 7 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, McCain singled out maverick nations like North Korea and Iraq for special attention under a policy he calls “rogue-state rollback.” If pressure against these states doesn’t work, he said, “We must be prepared to back up these measures with American military force if the existence of such rogue states threatens America’s interests and values.”
“It seems to me that he finds it uncomfortably normal that we should be blowing somebody up,” says John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. “I think McCain has not been able to come home from the war.”
If today McCain is obtuse about Vietnam, a telling incident from the summer of 1967 indicates that for a fleeting moment, at least, he came face to face with his conscience over Vietnam–and blinked.
Like many potentially life-altering experiences, McCain’s came as the result of a brush with death. On July 29, 1967, while preparing for his sixth bombing run over North Vietnam in his A-4 Skyhawk aboard the deck of the USS Forrestal, an accidentally fired Zuni missile ripped into his plane’s fuel tank. Within moments, a chain reaction swept the deck of the carrier, triggering fires and explosions, setting off 1,000-pound bombs and engulfing planes, killing 134 men. McCain, slightly wounded, saw body parts fly and watched blistered comrades die before his eyes.
A few months later, sipping Scotch in a Saigon villa with Johnny Apple of the New York Times, McCain reflected on the trauma. “It’s a difficult thing to say,” he said, “but now that I’ve seen what the bombs and the napalm did to the people on our ship, I’m not so sure that I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam.” (In 1972, a significant number of B-52 pilots and crew engaged in exactly that kind of heroic insubordination, refusing orders to fly missions in the midst of President Nixon’s carpet-bombing of North Vietnam.)
Certainly McCain could not have been unaware of the havoc unleashed by his bombing missions over Vietnam. Though Pentagon war planners and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara preferred to emphasize the antiseptic nature of aerial bombardment against carefully chosen targets, a highly publicized series of articles in late 1966 by Harrison Salisbury in the New York Times described the widespread devastation of civilian neighborhoods around Hanoi by American bombs. “Bomb damage…extends over an area of probably a mile or so on both sides of the highway” near one target, he wrote, noting that “small villages and hamlets along the route [were] almost obliterated.” Several years ago, a chastened McNamara acknowledged that Operation Rolling Thunder, which unloaded 800 tons of bombs a day over North Vietnam, caused more than a million deaths and injuries in Vietnam each year from 1965 to 1968.
Standing stiffly in the sun outside a New Hampshire high school after a campaign appearance, McCain curtly rejects the idea that he had any second thoughts about his role in Rolling Thunder. He denies the accuracy of the quotation from 1967, stumbling briefly over his words before barking, “That wasn’t the exact statement.” Instead, he says, he was simply referring to the “terrible power we had” and reacting to the horror of war. And perhaps it is too much to expect McCain, born on a naval air station in the Panama Canal Zone and programmed virtually since birth for his part in the war, to have let his conscience get the better of him. In any case, within weeks of the ’67 incident, McCain made the fateful decision to plunge back into combat, getting himself assigned to the carrier Oriskany, where he joined an A-4 squadron called “the Saints.” On October 26, 1967, on his twenty-third bombing mission, this one against a thermal power plant in what McCain described in his book as “a heavily populated part of Hanoi,” he was shot down, plunging into a lake just blocks away from Ho Chi Minh’s presidential palace, and taken to prison.
“Nobody made me fly over Vietnam,” McCain says now, as quoted in John McCain: An American Odyssey, the biography by Robert Timberg. “That’s what I was trained to do and that’s what I wanted to do.
Outside the GOP candidates’ debate in Manchester, a contingent of McCain-supporting Vietnam veterans taunts a group of Bush backers with the chant: “How much coke did George do?” The Bush people respond with a question of their own: “Why is the media supporting McCain? Is he a liberal?”
He’s not, of course. But the media’s love affair with McCain makes it a question worth asking. Aboard the Straight Talk Express, where McCain, his staff and a gaggle of reporters are packed in cheek by jowl, there is an eerie and unsettling camaraderie. Mixed in amid laughter, banter and jokes about football and the upcoming Army-Navy game are a string of easy political questions. (Q: Do you enjoy campaigning? A: “I love it. This is what I really enjoy.”) Reporters are enthralled by McCain, and it shows in the friendly, even gushing, coverage he gets. Even a grizzled veteran like CBS’s Mike Wallace–who said, half seriously, that he was considering quitting his job to work for McCain–has fallen in love, while liberal pundit David Nyhan of the Boston Globe praises McCain so effusively that copies of his recent columns (calling McCain “brave,” “gutsy” and “a straight-shooting, high-flying, damn-the-torpedoes military hero”) litter literature tables in McCain’s New Hampshire campaign headquarters. A profile in Esquire is called “John McCain Walks on Water.” Ted Koppel, host of ABC’s Nightline, wondered aloud whether McCain “is just so popular with us in the media that we are artificially breathing life into his campaign.”
One certain factor in the media’s adulation is that McCain’s status as a tortured POW, which gives him a certain cachet with voters, also seems to have caused the media to deal gingerly with him. “It’s as if the POW issue is something isolated from the war,” says Howard Zinn, the historian and author of A People’s History of the United States. “To me, that’s just part of the general inclination of the culture, and the media, not to bring up the war. Whenever the issue of POWs comes up, they are seen as victims, and never as victimizers.”
Perhaps the most striking example of the media’s unwillingness to challenge McCain’s air of moral authority is when he shocks listeners by casually calling the Vietnamese “gooks.” The racist and disparaging term, popularized by GIs during the war, occurs repeatedly in a 1973 U.S. News & World Report account penned by McCain after his release from prison. “The ‘gooks’ were bombarding us with antiwar quotes from people in high places back in Washington,” he wrote, referring to the propaganda that his captors gave him. A quarter of a century later, while speaking with reporters aboard the Straight Talk Express in October, McCain was still calling Vietnamese “gooks”–and according to a reporter who was there, no one called him on it. It’s enough to make you wonder whether the reporters were thinking: Well, this guy spent five years in a prison camp, so he can say anything he wants. Roger Simon, writing in U.S. News, cited the incident and added: “John McCain says ‘gooks,’ and who’s going to tell him not to?”
Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History, thinks the media ignore Vietnam in part because the war is ancient history for a younger generation of reporters. “The animosities of the war, the days when people were screaming at each other over dinner tables, that’s all gone now,” he says. “Probably not many people under the age of 50 even remember the war.” And, for reporters over 50 who opposed the war, perhaps McCain’s candidacy allows them to expunge a bit of lingering guilt over the way Vietnam veterans were excoriated.
When Vietnam does come up in profiles of McCain, reporters usually focus on the role that he played, along with Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and fellow Vietnam veteran, in vigorously supporting US recognition of Vietnam in 1994 and in the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two former enemies. In his campaign appearances, McCain frequently reminds his audience about that, telling perhaps 2,000 people packed into a New Hampshire high school in early December that he believes in “reconciliation and healing” in regard to Vietnam and pointing proudly to the fact that thousands of US veterans have gone back to Vietnam since 1994, often taking their families, to seek closure. David Halberstam, one of the Vietnam era’s leading journalists and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Best and the Brightest, has been convinced. “I think he’s wonderful,” says Halberstam. “On an issue that has been grievously divisive, I think he has been better than anyone at creating a healing process.”
Reporters also praise McCain for his plain-spoken openness. Unlike Bush, for instance, who is jealously protected from unsanitary encounters with the press by his campaign, McCain is constantly surrounded by reporters and never speaks “off the record.” His penchant for off-color humor, rather than tarnishing him, appears to put reporters in awe of his candor. Even cruel jokes, such as the one that McCain told about Chelsea Clinton being ugly because Janet Reno is her father, slide off McCain’s back. And the media have another interest as well: Were his candidacy to unravel, the race for the GOP nomination would be all but over, making the campaign much less interesting to report on. Above all, McCain is a good story.
In countless upbeat profiles, a great deal of attention is spent examining the areas in which McCain parts company with Republican orthodoxy, such as campaign finance reform and tobacco. Ask him about a variety of issues–healthcare, telecommunications, taxes–and McCain fires back with a comment on the “evil and pernicious influence” of wealthy campaign donors. “I’m determined to give government back to you by ridding the government of the big money from special interests,” McCain tells a packed town meeting in New Hampshire, and his passion seems genuine.
His stand has earned him the ire of senior Republicans like Senate majority leader Trent Lott and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, a staunch opponent of campaign finance reform. (In a lighthearted interview on the bus with Comedy Central, McCain can’t resist getting in a dig at McConnell. Asked to name the funniest politician, McCain deadpans: “Probably Senator Mitch McConnell. He makes me laugh all the time.” The reporters on the bus howl.)
Yet McCain stands far to the right on many issues. He supports the Star Wars missile defense boondoggle and never tires of accusing President Clinton of underfunding the Pentagon, while surrounding himself with hawkish foreign policy gurus, including Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger. He supports school vouchers, privatization of Social Security and a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget. He backs the flat tax, the death penalty and a lock-’em-up approach to crime. He opposes gun control, abortion and increasing the minimum wage. He opposes government regulation as a matter of principle. He voted to impeach President Clinton, and he supported every item in Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America. He’s voted for an amendment to outlaw flag-burning. He backs tort reform and free trade, including NAFTA and normalizing trade relations with China. He voted against protecting homosexuals from job discrimination, and (though he’s changed his mind since) he voted against making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday.
In the end, it’s hard to see how McCain can win the GOP nomination. Without a doubt, he has a good chance of winning New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary on February 1. According to Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, his strategy there is to combine old-fashioned retail politics–he’s organized more than sixty town meetings and plans many more–with an effort to target the state’s 100,000-plus veterans and the 300,000-plus independent voters, who can choose to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary. In 1996, says Davis, turnout in the Republican primary was 180,000.
Still, should McCain win New Hampshire, he’ll then face Bush in an escalating race in big, expensive states where Bush’s gigantic fundraising advantage and high name recognition, not to mention the support of most of the Republican Party establishment, will severely test McCain’s ability to compete.
Nevertheless, McCain’s emergence as a serious contender is a sign that he represents something that a significant part of America is searching for in 2000. Is it that Americans want a hero? A tough guy? A straight shooter? Is it that McCain’s prison experience imbues him with “character”? As the Straight Talk Express sways, McCain muses on the topic. “We don’t know exactly what the American people are looking for,” he says. “In ’76 they were looking for someone who wasn’t Nixon. In ’80 they were looking for a strong leader. In ’88 they wanted someone to continue with the Reagan legacy. This year, I think they just want someone who tells it exactly as he sees it.”
But in the end, is it enough to be plain-spoken if one is also so wrong? “The fact that he says what he thinks is in his favor,” says Ellsberg. “But what he thinks is cockeyed.