Stockdale enters politics fearless as a tested stoic

October 13, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- More than three decades before he'd ever consider running for vice president, Jim Stockdale wrestled with "The Problems of Good and Evil" for his master's degree at Stanford University and began acquiring the wisdom that would one day save his life.

He found it in a gift from his instructor, a manual entitled "The Enchiridion," by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. "This is the philosophy for the man who sees the world before him as a buzz saw," Professor Philip Rhinelander said in 1961.

By the summer of 1965, that obscure book had become a bedside companion to then-Navy Commander Stockdale, a carrier pilot who memorized much of it during combat tours. He credits it with enabling him to survive both torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and his death-defying gambit in 1969, when he slit his wrists to avoid betraying his comrades and country.

"I knew that life is not fair," he wrote after eight years in captivity. "I knew that for centuries there had existed a working philosophy based on the assumption that the world is a buzz saw and that this philosophy was specifically geared to deal with a man's inherent inhumanity to man."

Tonight, James Bond Stockdale confronts the buzz saw of politics.

Tapped by Ross Perot to join his quixotic campaign for the White House, retired Vice Admiral Stockdale, winner of the Medal of Honor for his bravery in captivity, will appear before a curious national television audience as a candidate for vice president. The political neophyte may find himself drawn into a war of words with Vice President Dan Quayle and Sen. Al Gore.

Although he has been in demand as a public speaker for years, the erudite Admiral Stockdale, 68, often reminds audiences he is neither a preacher nor a political orator. He has spent more than a week cramming for the debate, focusing on economics and other issues, his wife, Sybil, said last week.

Friends describe him as an outsider who doesn't follow every issue or intrigue that commands attention inside the Washington Beltway. He has railed against the "whiz kids and their mentors who played games with the great good will of middle America" during the Vietnam War, and remains wary of bureaucracies.

Admiral Stockdale prefers instead to tackle such enormous issues as fear, guilt, conscience and virtue.

When he formally entered the vice-presidential race Oct. 1, Admiral Stockdale, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institute, described himself as having "a personal reputation for being independent in outlook and manner."

That may have been a reference to his stormy one-year tenure as president of the Citadel, the South Carolina military school where he tried to stop a tradition of hazing.

Or it may have been a reference to his part in several Vietnam War-related controversies.

In early 1982, Admiral Stockdale and his wife joined their longtime friend, Mr. Perot, in opposing the organizers of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and their selection of the stark design that became known as "The Wall."

When Admiral Stockdale and his wife wrote their memoir, "In Love and War," in 1984, he gave accounts of various codes he and other prisoners used to communicate among themselves and with military intelligence officials back in the United States. The disclosure angered many ex-POWs, who considered it an unforgivable breach of security.

As a squadron commander aboard the USS Ticonderoga in August 1964, then-Commander Stockdale saw incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin that sparked the first bombing raid on North Vietnam. He disputed "official" accounts of the action, reporting that North Vietnamese boats had not attacked two U.S. destroyers in the gulf.

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