Character formed in crucible of war, political scandal

McCain defines self by personal trials

March 03, 2000|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON — With 16 presidential contests, including Maryland's, set for Tuesday, The Sun takes a closer look at the leading Republican candidates. Yesterday, George W. Bush. Today, John McCain.

WASHINGTON -- Lt. Cmdr. John McCain -- broken bones unmended, his body studded with boils, so severely afflicted with dysentery that his weight had dropped to little more than 100 pounds -- sat in an unusually commodious room at the North Vietnamese prison compound known as the Hanoi Hilton.

Something was up. Normally, his interrogations were conducted in grim, bare prison cells.

"Do you want to be released?" asked an official whom the American POWs had nicknamed the Cat. Taken aback, McCain tried to buy time. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know."

He wanted to go home, but a lot more was at stake. Two weeks of soul-searching ensued. Then he gave the Cat his answer:

"No."

That was in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. More than two decades later, in January 1991, McCain -- by then a U.S. senator -- found himself in another interrogation room, this one on Capitol Hill, defending himself against charges that he had sought special treatment for a major campaign contributor.

It was an agonizing time for McCain, threatening his ability to adhere to the high standards of honor he thought of as the legacy of his father and grandfather, both distinguished naval officers.

A month later, the investigators issued their verdict. They said he had exercised "poor judgment" but had not acted improperly.

Those two episodes -- his 5 1/2 years as a POW and the two years he spent roaming the political wilderness because of his involvement in what became known as the Keating Five scandal -- have been transforming experiences for McCain, personal trials that nearly destroyed him.

In the end, though, they help explain the complex, multifaceted man now battling for the Republican presidential nomination.

In the aftermath of each experience, after a period of healing, he flourished. As he has amply demonstrated during the campaign, McCain is a man of enormous resilience, a classic survivor.

For McCain, as for his comrades, surviving prison required sustained courage and physical endurance under brutal conditions for an extended period that, for him, included more than two years in solitary confinement.

Still bears the scars

During his imprisonment, he was beaten and tortured so badly that to this day he bears the scars of that period, walks with an uneven gait and has difficulty raising his arms above his shoulders.

McCain's character faced its greatest test in the summer of 1968, about eight months after his plane was shot down over Hanoi. Fellow POWs recall him then as an ungainly scarecrow suspended from crutches, loudly taunting his jailers as he hobbled past on his way to interrogation sessions.

McCain's interrogations, up until then, had fallen into a predictable pattern. He refused to cooperate, and the North Vietnamese told him he would be tried for war crimes and would never go home.

A new approach

One night, the pattern changed. His interrogator, the Cat, mentioned that three prisoners who had been released months earlier had been welcomed home as heroes even though they had defied the POW code that called for the release of prisoners in the order of their capture.

McCain doubted there had been a heroes' welcome; the POWs thought of the three who left as charter members of what they called the Fink Release Program. He couldn't figure out what the Cat wanted from him.

He soon found out, when the Cat rattled him by asking if he wanted to be released.

McCain faced a dilemma. His condition had so deteriorated that he doubted he could survive much longer without the medical care available in the United States.

And despite the first-in, first-out rule, the only prisoner with whom he was in contact made a strong case for McCain accepting the offer, arguing that there should be an exception for those as seriously injured as he was.

Seeking propaganda coup

That made sense to McCain. But he suspected that the North Vietnamese were looking for a propaganda coup. They wanted to send him home, he reasoned, in hopes of humiliating his father, one of the most senior admirals in the Navy.

What he didn't know then was that his father was about to become the commander in chief of all U.S. forces in the Pacific theater, including Vietnam, CINCPAC for short, an assignment that would have made him even more vulnerable to embarrassment.

McCain also believed that if he accepted the Cat's offer, his release would damage the morale of other American fighting men -- both fellow prisoners and others still engaged in combat. He would be portrayed as a symbol of America's "class-conscious" society, the son of a top admiral accepting special favors from the enemy.

On July 4, 1968, McCain was summoned by the Cat, who asked for his final answer.

"It's no," McCain said. "I cannot accept this offer."

That same day, in Hawaii, his father assumed his duties as CINCPAC.

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