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

"People who weren't there have no grounds whatsoever to criticize any one of us for yielding under that kind of pressure and pain. They weren't there. And I don't know what their standard is, where they get their calling from, when we who were there, having gone through it, never judge harshly those who went through the ordeal. 'Cause we know. They don't know.

"John McCain is an authentic hero of this country. He is a helluva patriot. And he's quite a bright guy and he'll make a helluva president."

New Times: "One more question for you, Senator. Do you consider yourself a hero?"

John McCain: "Of course not. Of course not. I have never, ever--I've stoutly maintained that I was privileged to serve in the company of heroes, but never, never have I described myself as having done anything heroic."

John McCain's humility won't stop his presidential campaign from painting a heroic portrait. His staff members have happily pushed their boss's war record for years, with great success. A news database search revealed that in the past year alone, the words "McCain" and "hero" appear in the same story or broadcast 631 times. The words "McCain" and "traitor," only 22 times.

"You know, it's part of his bio," says his chief of staff, Mark Salter. "I'm not going to pretend it hasn't been an enormous advantage to a politician to have a bio like that. And you never have to reference it. It's just there. It's just there. You go to an audience and they know it and it's there. And you know what? So what? . . . He earned the distinction. And if there's an advantage to it, well, what's wrong with it? There should be an advantage to it. Some people have done that for the country. Other people haven't."

To that end, McCain's own memoir of the war is due out in September. Salter, who worked on it himself, says half will be devoted to the military careers of McCain's father and grandfather; the other half to McCain's own war experience.

Salter promises the book will showcase a humble McCain.

"When I worked on this book with him, he just kept saying, 'Other guys had it a lot worse. I think they took it easier on me because of who my dad was. . . . When they tied me in ropes, they'd roll my sleeve up to give it a little padding between the rope and my bicep, you know, little things I noticed. The only really hard time I had was when I didn't go home, and then it only lasted a week, and sometimes I felt braver, I felt I could get away with more.'"

The presidential campaign will certainly have to endure the continued jabs from the likes of Ted Sampley.

How is the McCain campaign handling it?

"Ignoring it," Salter says. "Occasionally, we get calls from reporters who've . . . talked to somebody at the [Ted Sampley's tee shirt] booth and, you know, McCain's the Manchurian Candidate. But we've always been able to make our case and nobody's ever done anything with it."

Mark Saltveit, editor of The Skeleton Closet, a self-described Web scandal sheet that catalogues reported misdeeds of presidential candidates, says he didn't know quite what to do when the POW/MIA activists started sending him anti-McCain e-mails.

Saltveit, a 37-year-old San Franciscan, admits his own non-veteran status made him hesitant to give the claims much credence, but he put up a couple links to the POW/MIA sites, to cover his bases.

The Skeleton Closet references rumors of George W. Bush's drug dalliances and Al Gore's hypocrisy on the tobacco issue, but Saltveit isn't sure he has the stomach for claims John McCain wasn't tortured in Vietnam.

"How more viciously could you attack someone who's been through what he's been through?" he asks.

McCain's POW status has become so ingrained in his political identity that the senator has taken to lampooning it. A featured speaker at the Gridiron Club's annual dinner on March 20 (a night where newsmakers poke fun at themselves), McCain went to the podium with the lapels of his tuxedo covered with medals and introduced himself as an "incredibly self-effacing guy" and a "genuine war hero."

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets