McCain the POW
Winning the presidency is the most important, life defining accomplishment possible for a politician. It is the crowning achievement imaginable for most people, and represents the most difficult and important challenge that a candidate will ever face. While many have experienced tough challenges and difficult struggles, the presidency is the ultimate test of one’s mettle. This is true for every politician in Washington—except one.
The exception to that rule is John McCain. His presidency (provided he wins) would be a tremendously important one, and he would have to make difficult decisions and fight some tough fights. But it still couldn’t be the hardest battle he has fought. His most difficult struggle came while in captivity in Vietnam.
Everyone knows about McCain’s heroism in Vietnam. He was shot down over Hanoi, was brutally tortured by his Vietnamese captors, and refused an offer of an early release if those captured before him were not released as well. He was a true hero.
One particularly striking example of his heroism is the story reported on by Karl Rove (yes, that Karl Rove) in the Wall Street Journal. One of McCain’s fellow captives had his arm broken and set at an odd angle by the Viet Cong. The intent was to break the man’s spirit by ensuring that he would never fly again. John McCain, risking severe punishment, gathered bamboo sticks and reset the prisoner’s arm. He lived to fly again—thanks to McCain.
McCain was forced to display such courage and leadership while facing considerable torture himself. Both his arms were broken, and he was often forced to lie for hours with his head between his ankles, with his arms tied behind his back. Through all his suffering, he exhibited courage and gave hope to his fellow prisoners. When released, he resolved not to wallow in self-pity, but rather to forge a new career. He did, and now has a reasonable chance at becoming the next President of the United States.
After his Vietnam experience, even the presidency could not possibly become the defining event in McCain’s life. This unusual (perhaps unprecedented) situation would have both benefits and drawbacks in the event of McCain presidency.
An obvious advantage would be that McCain would, in all probability, stick firmly to his principles. His experiences have taught him fortitude and determination. He is old, and has experienced far more than most men ever shall. It seems logical (and his Senate record bears this out) that he would remain unshakable in defending his positions, no matter the political cost.
Another plus is the fact that whatever the situation in the White House, McCain would almost certainly have been through worse. His experiences have prepared him for whatever the job could throw at him. His Vietnam experiences have prepared him for dealing with the painful and the unexpected.
The negatives of his Vietnam experiences? First, and most obvious, his political intractability presents problems for conservatives—as seen on the illegal immigration issue. He sees himself as above the petty politicking so often seen in Washington. Unfortunately, that means that even when wrong, he would rather persist in his error than change his views. In a sense, he is the anti-Kerry—flip-flopping on an issue would be the last thing to cross his mind—even if it were better he did so.
In addition, his age is a legitimate issue—and the years he spent as a POW would tend to age him faster than years spent otherwise. Seventy-two is old to take control of the United States. But seventy-two years old, plus five years in a brutal POW camp—well, it raises questions about McCain’s ability to withstand the pressures of the presidency. McCain’s age is not an automatic disqualifier—but it should be a factor in the mind of every voter.
People can (and will) differ over whether McCain’s POW experiences are a positive or negative. They could be the force that transforms his presidency into one of the most successful ones of the century, or they could ensure that his administration is incompetent and unresponsive. However, it is a certainty that they are almost unprecedented in American history. In the matter, as it so many others, John McCain is unique.