Matt Welch Fisks Rolling Stone

It hardly needs stating at this late hour that John McCain’s fortitude as a tortured POW does not in itself qualify him for the office of the presidency. What it does do, however, is give an indication of his character … Read More

By / October 20, 2008

It hardly needs stating at this late hour that John McCain’s fortitude as a tortured POW does not in itself qualify him for the office of the presidency. What it does do, however, is give an indication of his character and — to coin a term that has fallen out of fashion except at cotillion dances and in classics departments — his virtue. Self-sacrifice to the point of self-abnegation on behalf of one’s comrades in arms is noble. In our morally honest moments, we’re forced to admit as much of our enemies, as we did of brave German soldiers in World War II.

Now, you may think that McCain’s activities on the stump–his lies about his rival, his selection of an unqualified running-mate, his manic-depressive campaign tactics–have eroded his integrity. But does opposing his candidacy entail opposing the man in full, past and present? Rolling Stone, a magazine that really does seem to believe Barack Obama was born of virgin womb, is too willing to declare that McCain’s much-chronicled war heroism is a sham. Under the byline of Tim Dickinson, it’s published a revisionist attack on the senator’s years of captivity in Vietnam, a period that was thought (for good reason) to be unassailable.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with investigating the possibly inflated stature of a public figure. Except that in this case, Dickinson dangles a gotcha in front of his readers’ eyes, only to then remove it with as little fanfare or commentary as possible, leaving the impression that it still counts as substantial criticism. He leads by insinuation to the conclusion that McCain was a coward who violated the military’s Code of Conduct by offering the Vietcong classified military information in exchange for medical treatment, right after his plane was shot down. (Technically, McCain later violated the COC by denouncing his own country; but this was after he had been tortured to a point that few human beings could withstand without submitting. His stoicism prior to reaching that threshold helped convince the Carter administration of the need to revise the COC.)

Here is how Dickinson describes this series of events, as told to him by John Dramesi, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, who was imprisoned alongside McCain in the "Hanoi Hilton" and thinks his now-famous co-captive was anything but extraordinary in his conduct:

McCain now insists the offer was a bluff, designed to fool the enemy into giving him medical treatment. In fact, his wounds were attended to only after the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was a Navy admiral. What has never been disclosed is the manner in which they found out: McCain told them. According to Dramesi, one of the few POWs who remained silent under years of torture, McCain tried to justify his behavior while they were still prisoners. "I had to tell them," he insisted to Dramesi, "or I would have died in bed."

Dramesi says he has no desire to dishonor McCain’s service, but he believes that celebrating the downed pilot’s behavior as heroic — "he wasn’t exceptional one way or the other" — has a corrosive effect on military discipline. "This business of my country before my life?" Dramesi says. "Well, he had that opportunity and failed miserably. If it really were country first, John McCain would probably be walking around without one or two arms or legs — or he’d be dead."

So deceiving your captors is disreputable. McCain divulged no military information, and if his initial offer was sincere, why were no follow-ups made as he languished with multiple untreated injuries and in presumably even greater pain? And why wasn’t the first offer accepted, even if only for Communist propaganda purposes? Dickinson doesn’t say. I also fail to see how using one’s biography in order to save one’s own life — particularly when it endangers no one else’s — is somehow less heroic than dying an agonizing death, or suffering dismemberment. No mention here, to keep things in perspective, that McCain’s naval pedigree did not in fact grant him an early release from prison because he expressly refused to parlay it into one.

Reason editor Matt Welch, author of The Myth of the Maverick, and no fan of McCain the politician, honorably comes to his subject’s defense on this and other crucial points distorted and disfigured in the RS piece:

These charges are scurrilous. According to John G. Hubbell’s book, "P.O.W.," "No American reached Hoa Lo in worse physical condition than McCain." That alone qualifies him as exceptional, no? And although a broken and disease-ridden McCain did violate the letter of the Code of Conduct when he offered more information than just name, rank and serial number in an attempt to receive medical attention for his life-threatening injuries, such minor capitulations were typical. Indeed, they were part of the reason that President Carter amended the code in 1977 to append the phrase "to the utmost of my ability." The harsh truth is that the overwhelming majority of POWs, including McCain, "broke" under torture at some point. As would I, and certainly any writer for Rolling Stone, in about five seconds.

The Onion a while back joked that included in Jann Wenner’s hyped re-design of Rolling Stone was a plan to make the magazine 10 years behind the times instead of 20. I’m not so sure he succeeded. Acting as if you wished to fulfill every conservative stereotype about a hopelessly tendentious "liberal media" seems very early 90’s to me…

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