It's been seven years since retired Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale served -- like a fish out of water -- as Ross Perot's running mate in the 1992 presidential race.
During a visit this week to his alma mater, the Naval Academy, the former test pilot and prisoner of war was more in his element, talking enthusiastically and poetically about how pain shaped his life.
Stockdale spent three days lecturing to and having lunch with midshipmen who weren't even born when he was released from a North Vietnamese prison in 1973, after 7 1/2 years of torture. He spoke to the school's ethics professors and dined with the superintendent. He and his wife signed hundreds of books, including their 1984 co-written best seller, "In Love and War."
In three weeks, Stockdale will turn 76. And, despite his peculiar and brief moment on the political stage seven years ago, he is in demand. People beg him to speak to their groups, to tell how he -- and his wife, Sybil -- have survived. He told his story at West Point earlier this year and is headed to the Air Force Academy in a few months. His books continue to sell.
And lately, people have been calling his home outside San Diego to ask about another former POW, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.
Stockdale had been in prison two years when McCain was shot down and captured. When questions recently arose about McCain's stability for the job of president, Stockdale came to his defense, calling such questions "blasphemy." In a column for the New York Times last week, Stockdale called McCain "solid as a rock" and a more stable man as a result of his imprisonment.
"He's quick and he's smart and he's direct and he's a lot of fun and he's honest and he's tough," Stockdale said yesterday during an after-lunch interview. "He's a fighter."
Stockdale, wearing his Medal of Honor on a blue ribbon, said prison makes a man stronger, not weaker. He should know.
James Bond Stockdale grew up in Abingdon, Ill. His father was a Navy veteran who helped run a pottery plant. His mother was a schoolteacher. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1947 with classmate, later president, Jimmy Carter, then went on to fly experimental jets at Patuxent River Naval Air Station with test pilots named John Glenn and Alan Shepard, both to become astronauts.
He was flying his 200th mission over Vietnam on Sept. 9, 1965, when his A-4 was shot from the sky and he landed amid 350 villagers who stripped and pummeled him. He was 41. He became the 26th American captive in North Vietnam and, as the highest-ranking Navy officer confined at the infamous Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, was a target for torture.
More than half of Stockdale's 7 1/2 years were spent in solitary confinement, two of them in leg irons, and still he struggled daily to communicate with his fellow prisoners via a secret wall-tapping code. Once, to prevent his captors from filming him for a propaganda piece, he sliced off chunks of his hair and beat his own face with a stool. Other POWs said Stockdale's charisma and leadership by example gave them the incentive to survive.
Stockdale was freed Feb. 12, 1973. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and 26 combat medals. After retiring from the Navy in 1979, he became president of The Citadel, then an all-male military academy. His efforts to curtail hazing met alumni resistance, and he resigned in protest after a year, turning to teaching and writing books. His first, "Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot," was followed by "In Love and War," later made into a television movie.
When Perot said in March 1992 that it was time to "clean out the barn" in Washington, Stockdale and his wife sent Perot a note: "We bought our new shovels, and we're ready to go to Washington anytime." Ten days later, Perot called to ask if Stockdale would be his vice presidential candidate. Stockdale was led to believe he was filling in until Perot found a permanent running mate.
"It's only a month," he told People magazine at the time. "And I spent more than a month one time blindfolded, naked on a cement floor with a broken leg. So I can get through this fine."
But there would be no replacement, and an ill-prepared remark during a nationally televised vice presidential debate became Stockdale's political legacy.
"Who am I?" he asked. "Why am I here?"
Since then, he has kept a low profile in politics. He talks about things he knows about, gives lectures with titles like "moral courage" and "heroes and heroism." And, as a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, he writes articles about his war experience and about the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, whose theories on Stoicism kept Stockdale company in prison.
`War in a different place'
"I didn't abhor prison, I ate it up," he said. "I considered it a war in a different place."
"If you didn't want to become an animal, you had to organize your life," he said.