When John Kerry ran for President in 2004, and touted his stellar military service as a swift boat commander during the Vietnam War, the Republicans were falling over themselves, trying to diminish it. By the time the “Swift Boat Veterans” were through, Kerry had shot himself to get a Purple Heart, and in fact got into the “shit” only because he was planning on running for President 40 years later.
There was doubt cast on whether he was there at all! So this Democratic war hero was reduced to an elite, “French looking”, flip flopping poseur. He still won the election, of course, but for the theft of Ohio, but still, his military honor was dishonored, and it is questionable how much the military (and subsequent war protest) aspect of his resume helped him anyway.
The reason the Republicans (and that jackass T. Boone Pickens, financial backer of the “Swift Boaters”) went so hard after Kerry was because he was a Democrat who actually had a stellar military record, giving him bona fides with “swing voters” who care about such stuff. Plus Kerry was one of those veterans who protested the war, and that pissed off Nixon, giving him bona fides with anti-war folks. And another reason – it brought attention to his contemporary (and opponent) President George Bush’s decidedly undistinguished, and murky, efforts during the Vietnam era (see Fahrenheit 9/11 for details).
The irony of all this is the Vietnam War was horrible on its face – bad policy, and an increasingly catastrophic execution under LBJ and Nixon. Add to that the draft, and body bags, and Nixon and Kissinger dragging the war on for an extra four years, and you have something we’d all just as soon forget.
But not the right wing politicians; in their retro-history, we waved the white flag of surrender.
And certainly not John McCain.
Foremost on his personal and political resume is something like “resident, Hanoi Hilton, 5 1/2 years, and don’t you forget it.”
My feeling is, not only does this horrible endurance not make anybody Presidential timber, but is also not particularly “heroic.” After all, he was shot down and caught! (There, I said it). He didn’t drag a guy to safety in the midst of machine gun fire, or jump on a grenade. Indications are that he was not following precise orders as he flew his jet over North Vietnam, and may have been shot down because of it. He also coughed up wartime “propaganda” footage, for which he apologized.
I will give him his due, of course. He suffered severe physical injuries that are evident to this day (enduring mental ones are in question). He did his duty as required, and 5 1/2 years in a dingy North Vietnam prison is something not to be wished on anybody. And it probably wouldn’t have taken much waterboarding for me to star in a propaganda film.
But unfortunately, McCain, who seemed at one time unassuming about his travails in that misguided conflict, now touts the experience at almost every opportunity. The “dots” connecting that experience to being a world leader are his “character” – he refused to be released until others who came before him were released.
Since his release, McCain made up for lost time, to get back into the sixties and exchange his wartime experiences and pedigree for some political capital.
First things first, he dumped his first wife. After all, she had been in a debilitating auto accident while waiting for him to return and was now not so cute. Who was cute was beer heiress Cindy Hensley of Phoenix. Thanks to Cindy’s wealthy dad, John got a political toehold in Arizona, and was soon elected to Congress, and subsequently, the U.S. Senate. With Cindy’s wealth, the couple accumulated the famous brace of house, condos, and a ranch they own all over the country.
And John got involved with Charles Keating (as did Cindy, investing over a quarter of a million dollars in venture). The Keating savings and loan scandal exploded, and John got a little dirty from that. We’re going to hear a lot more about that now, considering the implosion of the economy because of de-regulated banking which McCain touted almost all his career.
But dare we challenge McCain too much on all his personal problems, and scandals? After all, sure, now he has 12 kitchen tables (at least) but as he put it, for a period of time he was in a 5 x 5 cell with NO kitchen table. So back off!
He also learned to put “country first” and presumably cured his selfish “bad boy” ways because of his POW experience (well except for the wife-dumping and all that). So back off!
And boy is he religious now – because at a moment of great discouragement at the “Hanoi Hilton”, some prisoner drew a cross in the sand to help him put things in perspective.
But of course, this embellishment of his story is just that, an embellishment. Another word might be a “lie” (I know I know, ex-POW, back off!). He never mentioned that in any writings on his experiences, but such a saga was mentioned in “gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzehenitsyn. Rather than dare question the ex-POW, one might figure, well, this happens a lot in POW camps. But turns out McCain – in his writings and elsewhere – is a huge admirer of Solzhenitsyn, and presumably and avidly read all his books.
Now look, this is not a call to “swift boat” or “Hanoi Hilton” (as a verb) John McCain. His experiences were real (well, maybe other than the cross in the sand thing), obviously horrific, and certainly long. But as Chris Rock recently observed, “he was caught! Don’t we want to elect the guy who wasn’t caught?” now that may be crass, but I laugh.
The trouble with McCain’s saga is that he unabashedly exploits it as the answer to almost all controversial questions, and as a sort of “innoculation” against questionable ethics and character issues. As Fred Thompson related the story in disgusting detail at the Republican National Convention recently, it seemed as if, as a prosecutor plays on the sympathy of the jury, this experience is all one has to endure to be qualified for the Presidency. Indeed, when Wesley Clarke deigned to suggest that getting shot down and captured was not a qualification for President, he – once our NATO commander in Europe, the hero of the Bosnian conflict – was vilified as unpatriotic, and bashing McCain’s war record. After all, it is sacred.
McCain has more than cashed in on his experience – whether it be the nubile wife, the homes, the Senate seat, and his ‘gravitas,’ and probably even his nomination.
Now enduring that experience, and a record as a pure “maverick” might be an unbeatable combination. But something happened to McCain in his years of freedom. He coughed up all his maverick credentials. He became a waterbearer for Bush – who dogged him horribly in the 2000 primaries – was against the 2001 tax cuts until he was for it, was against Jerry Falwell til he was for him, was for immigration til he was against it, and on and on, desperate to make the right wing like him. What he clings to almost as much as the POW thing is that damn “surge” in Iraq that you’d think he’d personally led, Teddy Roosevelt style. Now he wants a surge in Afghanistan, and wants to bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran before calling for a surge there. I think he should exclusively wear blue serge suits, in honor of his favorite tactic/strategy.
So McCain obviously loves things military, which seems a little incongruous considering his painful time in the POW camp. One would think that would leave a lasting distaste not just for all things Vietnamese but for war as well. But as Oliver Stone pointed out, he (Stone) was a grunt on the ground and was eyewitness to the destruction wreaked by the Navy bombers – thousands of feet above.
And of course in a political campaign, advocacy for tough military action makes the candidate seem tough. And when you sing about it, as McCain did, even better. And all the more disturbing, in that he sees that as a first solution to many foreign policy issues – again, Bush-like. Oh but wait, since he was a POW, that means he’s a military expert, and sympathetic to soldiers (never mind he voted against the new GI bill. Oops).
So as the campaign had ground on, McCain’s POW red badge of honor is now getting to be old, and worn out – like the man himself. He cashed it in for all it was worth, and then unfortunately cashed in his principles as well. He was against negative campaigning till he was for it, and he was certainly in favor of experienced candidates, tell he picked Sara Palin – not a good demonstration of principles either. Of course she does draw the crowds, which is why elderly song and dance men in vaudeville would surround themselves with scantily clad babes. The Palin pick gets worse for McCain – apparently Rove disciple Steve Schmidt pushed McCain to pick her.
As I write this, on the threshold of Debate II, McCain promised to “take off the gloves”. Presumably that means he will be all Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, and “Barack Hussein Obama,” tossing in the Madrassa schooling, the community organizing and his neighbors the Rezkos.
Whatever sense of honor and decency McCain learned and inculcated during his 5 and half year POW reformation seems to have evaporated.
So is the ex-POW now once again a prisoner, this time to right wing zealots? Or to his own ambition? Or to his own misjudgments? In any case, neither is as finite as his 5 x 5 cell at the Hanoi Hilton, nor is there a clear path to escape, or liberation. McCain has “Swift Boated” himself by shamelessly hocking his experience, and not a penny had to be spent on 527’s.
by Robert Illes
Robert Illes is an Emmy winning television writer and producer, currently developing series for Nickelodeon and TV Land. He is an LA native, and a graduate of USC, who lived in Sherman Oaks for 23 years before escaping to Santa Monica (but visits a lot). A member of Valley Democrats United, Bob is also an AirAmericaRadio freak, active in the Writers Guild mentor program, as well as the Democratic party, and is constantly Bush bashing, fighting for verifiable voting procedures, and fighting against Jerry’s Deli showing Fox News on their overhead TVs. What’s the matter with those people!?
Internet radio show “Funny is Money” starring Bob Illes is now on nightly at 7 PM Pacific time www.shokusradio.com CHECK IT OUT!
Reprinted with permission from the Valley Democrats United newsletter, Margie Murray, Editor, where the article first appeared.
Articles by Robert