July 12, 1995 in Nation/World

Senator Puts Vietnam Behind Him Clinton Finds Perfect Ally In Former Pow, John Mccain

Steven Thomma Knight-Ridder

Barry Goldwater, as always, was blunt when he first met an aspiring young politician named John McCain, who hoped someday to replace the conservative icon in the Senate.

“You know, John, if I had won the presidential election in ‘64, you wouldn’t have spent all those years in a Vietnam prison,” said the man many believed would have been an even more aggressive commander in chief than President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“No, Barry, it would have been a Chinese prison,” responded the brash McCain.

Goldwater was not amused at the implication he would have broadened the war. But he learned what others along McCain’s travels also have learned: Despite a life amid the discipline of the military, he thrives on defying authority and spitting in the eye of conventional wisdom.

So, it was perfectly natural for Sen. McCain - third-generation Navy, Vietnam War hero, conservative chairman of a Republican presidential campaign - to stand Tuesday and endorse the normalization of relations with Vietnam by President Clinton - avoider of the draft, war protester, Democrat.

Clinton made his announcement directly in front of McCain, who was placed prominently so he would appear in television shots of the ceremony. His presence gave Clinton political cover for a controversial decision, as if to say, “If a war hero like McCain is for it, it must be OK.”

Some have called McCain a “Manchurian candidate,” after the fictional character in a Cold War-era movie who is brainwashed by communists. Some have questioned his patriotism.

“There have been some really scurrilous attacks,” McCain said. “It always hurts when your patriotism is attacked, … but you try to get over it.”

While McCain said he neither likes nor trusts the Vietnamese, he believes the Hanoi government is cooperating in determining the fate of Americans still missing from the war. The Arizona Republican believes full diplomatic relations will help, not hinder, that process.

And it should help heal the national wound of Vietnam.

“This normalization will help heal the wounds of what is still a very emotional issue with the American people,” he said.

“Mine ended a long time ago,” he said. “I was one of the fortunate ones. I never had a nightmare or flashback. It’s just a memory.”

But a vivid memory, nonetheless.

He was 27, a hotshot Navy fighter pilot, flying over Hanoi when his jet was hit on Oct. 26, 1967. He broke both arms and his right knee when he ejected, and an angry mob beat him and stabbed him.

He might have died in prison, but the North Vietnamese soon learned they had a prize catch: a “crown prince” whose father was an admiral who would soon command U.S. forces in the Pacific. His grandfather also had been an admiral.

They gave him medical care. And, the next year, they gave him the opportunity to leave. That would have made them look magnanimous. That would also have violated the American code of conduct for prisoners, that no man should accept favor, that no one should leave before someone who had been a captive longer.

John McCain told them where to go.

They beat him for his insolence. Still, he stayed. They put him in solitary. He stayed. He stayed for five and a half years, until March 1973, and when his cellmates came home, so did he.

Tuesday, as he prepared to leave his Senate office for the White House, McCain remembered that his refusal to knuckle under helped him keep his wits and his resolve.

“It was very important for me in prison to have that defiance … and a sense of humor … to make fun of them so they weren’t larger than life.”

It came naturally.

Reared in a Navy family, expected to measure up to the admiral father, pre-ordained to a Navy career, young McCain acquiesced to the title, but perhaps not the role.

If some expected him to be a by the-book cadet, others might have expected him to be a by-the-book politician after his election to the U.S. House in 1982 and the U.S. Senate in 1986. They, too, would be disappointed.

Consider his response when savings-and-loan wheeler-dealer Charles Keating asked McCain to intercede on his behalf with federal regulators. Other senators who had taken money from Keating did his bidding, and ended up severely reprimanded in a subsequent ethics investigation. McCain, who had accepted $112,000 from Keating and his associates, flatly refused.

Or, consider McCain’s role as national chairman of the presidential campaign of Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.

Gramm is highly critical of restoring relations with Vietnam, and some might expect his campaign chairman to toe the line.

“Senator Gramm did not serve” in Vietnam, McCain said bluntly.

At least his in-your-face approach is not limited to the candidate he supports. Gramm’s rival, Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., also opposes normal relations with Vietnam.

“Senator Dole served in another war which has ended,” McCain told NBC News, “and I would like for Senator Dole to let us end this one.”

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