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

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.

"I came in and was headed to the hearing room, and John and a couple of his aides were standing off to the side. And as I went by, I said, 'Hello John.'

"He didn't acknowledge that at all. He says, 'I don't like what you said about my wife.'

"I stopped. I'd never said anything about Cindy, I didn't know Cindy. I said, 'What do you mean? I never said anything about your wife.'

"'Well, I'm not going to get into it here.'

"I said, 'No, you brought it up, now let's finish it. I want to know what it is I was supposed to have said, because I've heard so many lies being told about me.'

"He says, 'Well, I'm just not going to talk about it.'

"I said, 'John, you're a goddamn liar, then. If you make a statement like that and you can't back it up, I want to tell you now, you're a liar.'

"Well, he turns red and he takes off. And his aide goes with him. And I guess that's the last time I've ever personally spoken with him."

McCain says the exchange took place not in Washington but at the Phoenix VA hospital, when both men were attending a POW/MIA-related event.

"We exchanged some words about something, I can't even remember what it was about now," McCain says. "I think that he had said something about a friend of mine or something like that, I don't remember. And I said, 'Look, I don't agree with your comments about that,' and that's the last time that I have seen or talked to Colonel Hopper, as I remember."

The most infamous McCain/family encounter took place in 1996 in the hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building, outside McCain's office.

Carol Hrdlicka was in Washington for a POW/MIA event. She and a group of other family members were gathering to try to meet with McCain. As Hrdlicka recalls it, she and two others were early. They bumped into McCain in the hallway as he walked down the hall to another office.

"Down the hall he comes, and I said, 'Senator McCain, are you coming back?'" Hrdlicka recalls. She hadn't seen him in years, since the Senate Select Committee hearings, and he obviously didn't recognize her.

"'Oh, yeah,' he says, 'I'll be back in a minute.'"

In the meantime, the group of more than a dozen family members gathered, including one woman who was wheelchair-bound--right outside the office McCain had stepped into. He emerged into the crowd.

"What's really funny is, when he thinks you're just a regular civilian, he's got all these smiles on his face," Hrdlicka says.

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