Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Real John McCain?

I didn't decide to run for president to start a national crusade for the political forms I believed in or to run a campaign as if it were some grand act of patriotism. In truth, I wanted to be president because it had become my ambition to be president. I was sixty two years old when I made the decision, and I thought it was my one shot at the prize.
--John McCain from Worth the Fighting For

Dennis Miller thinks John McCain is a "great man," and he's voting for him in the upcoming election. Not because of what McCain's done in the House or Senate, but because he's a "war hero" and a principled man who has selflessly loved and served his country his entire adult life.

No doubt Miller speaks for many McCain supporters. But I wonder how many of them have read Tim Dickinson's Rolling Stone article Make-Believe Maverick. If what that article says about McCain is true, is McCain even close to being the selfless hero and man of principle he and his campaign make him out to be? Or has he been a spoiled, undisciplined, impulsive, tantrum-throwing, narcissistic, self-serving, and venal individual from childhood on?

McCain said during his nomination speech that his POW experience radically transformed him into a man who has put country and principle above himself ever since. But Dickinson's article recounts the following, which, if true, casts McCain's alleged "transformation" in a very different light.

t Fort McNair, an army base located along the Potomac River in the nation's capital, a chance reunion takes place one day between two former POWs. It's the spring of 1974, and Navy commander John Sidney McCain III has returned home from the experience in Hanoi that, according to legend, transformed him from a callow and reckless youth into a serious man of patriotism and purpose. Walking along the grounds at Fort McNair, McCain runs into John Dramesi, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who was also imprisoned and tortured in Vietnam.

McCain is studying at the National War College, a prestigious graduate program he had to pull strings with the Secretary of the Navy to get into. Dramesi is enrolled, on his own merit, at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in the building next door.

There's a distance between the two men that belies their shared experience in North Vietnam — call it an honor gap. Like many American POWs, McCain broke down under torture and offered a "confession" to his North Vietnamese captors. Dramesi, in contrast, attempted two daring escapes. For the second he was brutalized for a month with daily torture sessions that nearly killed him. His partner in the escape, Lt. Col. Ed Atterberry, didn't survive the mistreatment. But Dramesi never said a disloyal word, and for his heroism was awarded two Air Force Crosses, one of the service's highest distinctions. McCain would later hail him as "one of the toughest guys I've ever met."

On the grounds between the two brick colleges, the chitchat between the scion of four-star admirals and the son of a prizefighter turns to their academic travels; both colleges sponsor a trip abroad for young officers to network with military and political leaders in a distant corner of the globe.

"I'm going to the Middle East," Dramesi says. "Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon, Iran."

"Why are you going to the Middle East?" McCain asks, dismissively.

"It's a place we're probably going to have some problems," Dramesi says.

"Why? Where are you going to, John?"

"Oh, I'm going to Rio."

"What the hell are you going to Rio for?"

McCain, a married father of three, shrugs.

"I got a better chance of getting laid."

Dramesi, who went on to serve as chief war planner for U.S. Air Forces in Europe and commander of a wing of the Strategic Air Command, was not surprised. "McCain says his life changed while he was in Vietnam, and he is now a different man," Dramesi says today. "But he's still the undisciplined, spoiled brat that he was when he went in."

According to Dramesi, McCain was no more heroic or exceptional as a POW than anyone else. McCain told the North Vietnamese soon after his capture that his father was an Navy admiral so that they would tend to his wounds. He then disclosed to them a variety of other information about his and Navy operations in general, and he turned down a typical offer for early release because, had he accepted it, he would have had to make disloyal statements about America that could have subjected him to condemnation and even court martial when he returned home. As another fellow POW said, "Many of us were given this offer. It meant speaking out against your country and lying about your treatment to the press. You had to 'admit' that the U.S. was criminal and that our treatment was 'lenient and humane.' So I, like numerous others, refused the offer."

The article proceeds to cite many other incidents and details about McCain before and after his POW experience that make him sound to me like one of the last politicians I would want as president. I don't know if all of these things are true, and I suspect that, even if they are, there are also positive things to say about John McCain that Dickinson's article doesn't. But I believe that anyone who supports McCain and, like Dennis Miller, considers him to be a great hero owes it to himself and this nation to read the article and then do some fact-checking before casting his vote for McCain in November.

And if anyone can show me where anything in Make-Believe Maverick is false, I encourage them to do it. So far, I've seen many scathing denunciations of Dickinson's 'contemptible hit-piece,' but I've seen no refutation of what he cites as facts.

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