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

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.

The North Carolinian continued to blast McCain in print. In a 1995 article, he dubbed McCain "The Rhinestone Cowboy" and printed his claim that film of McCain's collaborative acts exists in Vietnam. He also quoted an unnamed source who said McCain had a wife and children in Vietnam. He reiterated many of those claims in a 1997 story about McCain.

"Even in this country, as difficult as it is to win a libel suit, we could win one against Sampley," Salter says. "He knows he's making it up and he's doing it with malice."

Accusations like Sampley's have hurt, Salter says.

"I remember the first time I saw the Sampley thing in his paper, the first Manchurian Candidate article, and I showed it to him [McCain]. He was stung. And I was kind of laughing, to make light of it. He said, 'It's not funny.'

"Then after a couple of months, he began to laugh about it, and then refer to himself as the Manchurian Candidate. He got over it. But it stung. And he didn't deserve it. It wasn't right."

McCain says he can't recall exchanging many words with Sampley, although Sampley claims the senator once walked past him and said, "Hello, scumbag."

McCain recalls the event--a congressional fund raiser in North Carolina--differently. He says Sampley stood up and berated him.

"I simply said, 'Sampley, you and I have a disagreement,'" McCain recalls. "I didn't see any reason to call him any names or lower myself down to that level. I have some dignity."

John McCain and his staff take pains to mark a distinction between the Ted Sampleys and the Carol Hrdlickas of the POW/MIA movement.

"You can't get mad at the families, but you get mad at the Ted Sampleys of the world," says Mark Salter.

But many family members maintain they have been abused by McCain. One is Dolores Alfond, who was reduced to tears by McCain during her 1992 testimony before the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs.

Salter denies that his boss has ever mistreated a family member. "I've never seen him lose it with a family member--ever, ever."

Few, if any, of the alleged incidents are recorded, so recollections of participants must be relied upon.

Earl Hopper Sr. says the last time he spoke to McCain was in the early Nineties, in the hallway of the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Hopper was in Washington for a POW/MIA-related hearing.

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