Fifty-four years ago today, a US Naval Academy graduate on his 23rd combat mission in Vietnam came under heavy anti-aircraft fire over Hanoi. When the flak removed one of the wings from his A-4 Skyhawk, the Navy aviator pressed his eject button. But with the aircraft in distress, the pilot’s exit from the cockpit did not go well; he was struck in his own plane, breaking a kneecap and both arms before his parachute even opened.
As I noted in writing about this episode previously, the ordeal of Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III was just beginning.
Entangled in his parachute, John McCain risked drowning in Hanoi’s White Bamboo Lake when he was pulled out of the water by local peasants and soldiers. It was not an act of mercy: once on the ground, McCain was brutally beaten. His left shoulder was smashed with a rifle butt, and he received a bayonet in his groin and ankle, before being thrown into the back of a truck and taken to jail.
Built by the French in 1901, the facility was officially named Hoa Lo Prison. Unofficially, the Americans detained there amidst misery, deprivation and frequent torture sessions called it something else. The name was coined by Robert Shumaker, another United States Navy lieutenant commander shot dead in northern Vietnam. He nicknamed it the “Hanoi Hilton”. The name stuck.
Much has been written about John McCain’s time in captivity there, including fascinating accounts in books by two of my friends, Robert timberg and Mark Salter. It is a story that cannot be fully told in my brief morning letter. It’s a story to know, however, and its relevance did not dissipate when McCain ended up losing the presidency to Barack Obama. We are now in the season of political debates, at least in Virginia, reminiscent of John McCain’s first campaign, and a candidate debate that set him on the path to becoming a United States Senator and later Presidential candidate. of the Republican Party in 2008.
The scene was Phoenix, the year 1982. The retirement of Representative John Rhodes had created an unexpected vacancy in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, which then included much of the state capital where McCain lived with his. second wife, Cindy. He was an attractive new face in a district where winning the GOP primary was tantamount to an election. However, the more experienced Republican officials had better demands on the seat, and they resented the intruder who had lived only briefly in the state.
McCain was getting hammered on the carpet issue and responding ineffectively until a candidate forum heard the question because what he said seemed like the “thousandth time.” Then, as Timberg’s book says “The song of the nightingale, “McCain said what he really had in mind:
“Listen, mate. I spent 22 years in the Navy,” he began. “My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military tend to move around a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, in all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, to grow up standing and alive and spending my whole life in a nice place like Arizona’s First District, but I was doing something else.
“In fact, when I think about it now,” he continued, “the place where I lived the longest in my life was Hanoi”.
Timberg recounted what happened next: “The audience sat for several seconds in shocked silence, then erupted into thunderous applause.”
That House election was essentially over, and McCain never lost another campaign in Arizona, although he failed in the 2000 Republican presidential primary season against George W. Bush – and failed again in 2008. in the general election against Barack Obama. Despite this, McCain managed to have the final say. He did it, the classic John McCain way. In 2018, while battling a cancer that would prove fatal to him, McCain surprised Bush and Obama by asking them to speak at his funeral.
“Now when John called me with this request earlier this year, I will admit some sadness and also some surprise,” Obama said. during his eulogy. “After our conversation ended, I realized how she captured some of John’s essential qualities.
“To begin with, John liked to be unpredictable, even a bit against the grain,” Obama continued. “He had no interest in conforming to a prepackaged version of what a senator should be, and he also didn’t want a memorial that was going to be prepackaged. It also showed John’s disdain for self-pity. himself. He had been to hell and returned from it. and yet somehow he never lost his energy, his optimism or his zest for life. So cancer only got him. not scared.
“And he would maintain that vibrant spirit until the very end, too stubborn to stand still, as always, fiercely devoted to his friends and especially his family,” said Obama. “It showed his irreverence, his sense of humor, a little mischievous side. What better way to laugh one last time than to get George and I to say nice things about him to a national audience? And most of all, it showed a broad-mindedness. An ability to see the differences of the past in search of common ground. ”
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Join him on Twitter @CarlCannon.