Whatever John McCain did with his life before or after his time as a POW, his behavior upon capture by the North Vietnamese is a genuine profile in courage.
This passage from David Foster Wallace’s 2000 Rolling Stone piece on McCain has been making the rounds. It underscores the full odiousness of Trump’s attacks on McCain’s status as a war hero.
You probably already know what happened. 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
When it comes to McCain’s political career, I agree with Erik that the Senator from Arizona was basically a deeply conservative Republican who, more often then not, followed where his party led. This proved especially dispiriting during Obama’s two terms, when McCain towed the Republican line out of a combination of ideology (he was a conservative, after all) and fear of the (much more conservative) Republican primary electorate in Arizona. The exceptions in his long career, such as McCain-Feingold, were nonetheless important ones.
McCain also could be impulsive. It was that impulsiveness—combined with his fear of alienating the base and the sense that he needed to shake up the 2008 campaign—that led him to select an inadequately-vetted grifter from Alaska as his running mate. Still, I don’t think this decision materially affected trends in the Republican party. A much more interesting counterfactual concerns talk of a Kerry-McCain unity ticket in 2004. The possibility of such a ticket suggests, at least, a “road not taken” in response to the disaster of the Bush administration.
Nonetheless, I do think we will miss McCain’s appeals to American values, American principles, and duty to the public good. It’s easy to dismiss the rhetoric of politicians. But Trump is teaching us that rhetoric does matter—even if platitudes about American liberal democracy often amount to a form of organized hypocrisy. Trump’s naked demagoguery, authoritarian sentiments, and contempt for the very notion of a public good make clear that we need voices—especially on the other side—that affirm a different, better vision of the common bonds that hold Americans together. McCain could, and did, speak to this better vision.