Is John McCain a War Hero?

The senator's five years as a prisoner of war have been widely viewed as heroic. But as he prepares a White House bid, a small group of detractors is determined to expose him as a wartime traitor

Sampley says McCain got up in the middle of the discussion and walked out of his office. Sampley followed McCain into the hallway.

"Finally, as we got outside, he just walked off and left me. . . . Out of his office, out of his building, down the street and he walked faster than me, and I got the hint he didn't want to talk to me anymore.

"At that point, I didn't make a big deal out of it, other than thinking, 'This guy's a loony tune.'"

He says he started looking more closely at McCain during the Senate hearings in 1991-92.

Sampley dug up McCain's 1973 U.S. News & World Report article, as well as the interview with the Spanish psychiatrist and the piece by the French journalist.

"Through that, through his own words . . . and my training as an interrogator, I locked onto him. I locked onto what he was saying. And the key thing was when he said, 'I told them that if you'll take me to a doctor I'll give you military information.'

"That went BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! Bad. Wrong, wrong. That violated everything--the whole Code of Conduct was violated there. And I saw that he was trying to cover himself, there must be more to it."

Sampley's reporting spun out of control. He dubbed the senator the "Manchurian Candidate," suggesting that McCain was a pawn of the Vietnamese because he was afraid they would reveal the true extent of his "collaboration" during the war.

"I'll say it now, that eventually--it may not be any time soon--it will come out. This stuff will come out. The exact amount of his collaboration will come out. He was a serious collaborator."

Sampley offers no credible proof of these allegations, other than quotes from unnamed former POWs and suggestions that the Vietnamese still have film of McCain's activities in the prison camps. The Manchurian Candidate theory, Sampley maintains, is the only plausible explanation for McCain's behavior on the POW/MIA issue.

"Explain to me why John McCain would turn on us, the families," he asks. "Why would he hug Colonel Bui Tin? . . . Bui Tin, whether he defected or not, was one of the Communists responsible for the policy that killed American prisoners of war and kept McCain and others in prison.

"It's not that McCain loves the Vietnamese, he loves himself. He doesn't want them dropping the dime on him, so to speak, making the phone call on him, making available to the American public the extent to which he collaborated in order to save his own skin."

In December 1992, as the Senate hearings were winding down, Sampley was making the rounds in the halls of Congress, handing out copies of his latest periodical, which featured McCain and the Queen of Diamonds on the cover with the headline: "Sen. John McCain: 'The Manchurian Candidate.'"

The story condemned McCain for his lack of support on the live POW/MIA issue, and cited the U.S. News article and others as evidence that McCain had collaborated with the enemy and was protecting the Vietnamese for fear of being exposed. The article summarized the senator's political career, relying on reports from daily newspapers and wire services. It touched on McCain's role in the Keating Five and his friendship with former Arizona Republic publisher Duke Tully, who had fabricated a military career for himself, only to be exposed in the mid-Eighties.

Sampley claims he never intended to go into McCain's office, but when he realized that's where he was, he tossed a copy to the receptionist, requesting that it be delivered to the senator's veterans affairs assistant.

Mark Salter happened to be standing by the front desk. Sampley's version of what ensued goes like this:

"He [Salter] said to me, 'You son of a bitch.' Those were his words. He said, 'You low-life bastard.' . . . The dumbass followed me, yakking at me all the way down the hall. I'm thinking, 'Why doesn't this guy go away? I'm leaving.' I turn to go into the stairway, he followed me in there and for some reason he felt frisky and he punched me in the back of the shoulder--not hard--and that was it. I turned around and I fried him."

Salter claims he just tapped Sampley on the shoulder to get his attention. Security guards intervened. Sampley eventually was found guilty of assault and sentenced to two days in jail and 180 days of probation. He also was ordered to stay away from McCain and his staff.

Of Sampley, Salter says, "Mr. Sampley is about as disreputable a person as I've ever met in some 20 years of public service. . . . He's just a con artist. Nothing more, nothing less."

Salter is referring to Sampley's business of selling POW/MIA souvenirs at the Vietnam War Memorial. Sampley formed a nonprofit corporation that sold memorabilia, including tee shirts that were manufactured by his own for-profit company, Red Hawk.

Sampley was sued for copyright infringement by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and a sculptor, for using the likeness of a statue called The Three Servicemen on his tee shirts. A judge ordered Sampley to pay more than $350,000 in royalties. Sampley, who claims the legal bills broke him, hasn't paid.

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