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

She didn't get any answers from the Senate committee, either. After she saw Alfond weep, Hrdlicka was reluctant to testify. She did anyway, and it went fairly smoothly, she recalls, but she was still furious with McCain. She glared at him through the rest of the hearings.

"I figured that anybody who was a former POW should have some compassion for the guys who were left behind," Hrdlicka says, adding, "McCain fascinated me, because he couldn't look me in the eye. And anybody that can't look you in the eye, I feel, is guilty."

McCain raised eyebrows when he embraced Colonel Bui Tin, a former North Vietnamese political emissary who defected to the U.S. Tin claims he interrogated McCain in the Hanoi prison camps. A photo of their embrace was widely published.

Mark Salter, now McCain's chief of staff, was a legislative assistant at the time. He had no experience with the POW/MIA issue--but learned quickly after McCain assigned him to staff the committee. Salter is quick to observe that Tin made the first move.

"All the members went down to shake his hand, as they do with every witness that testified," Salter recalls. "And he reached up and embraced McCain, and that suddenly was splashed everywhere. Everywhere. It wasn't McCain embracing him, he was being embraced and graciously accepted."

In fact, a videotape from the hearing confirms that McCain was responding to the colonel's gesture.

That doesn't matter to Carol Hrdlicka. "Here's a Vietnamese Communist, and he's hugging him," she says. ". . . I can see being civil, but I can't see hugging the former enemy."

As expected, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs concluded that there was no compelling evidence that live prisoners remained in Southeast Asia.

McCain paid--just a little--for his unwavering position. Evan Mecham, impeached as governor of Arizona in 1988, returned to politics to challenge McCain in 1992, primarily because of McCain's position on POW/MIAs. Mecham failed, obviously.

(sung to the tune of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home")

When Johnny goes flying to Hanoi,
He's got some gall!
We know it's just a political ploy.
That's all! That's all!
For he will spend his nights and days
selling out our MIAs.
And we'd sure be glad if he never came home again!

When Johnny goes sailing 'cross the sea,
He's got some guts.
To suck up to the enemy,
and kiss their butts,
He'll have a ball in old Hanoi
sneaking round with his joy-boy.
And we'd sure be glad if he never came home again!
When Johnny hits ground in Vietnam,
Poohbah! Poohbah!
We hope he forgets his way back home.
We'll shout "HURRAH"!
Oh, Hanoi, grant our fondest wish,
and keep that low-life son-of-a-*****!
And we'd sure be glad if he never came home again!
--song by Arizona POW/MIA activists, 1993

John McCain's flagging stock with POW/MIA activists dipped further with the "October Surprise"--a hastily arranged, 24-hour trip to Vietnam orchestrated by the Bush administration in 1992, just before both the president and McCain stood for reelection. Some criticized McCain for grandstanding on his status as a former POW, an issue he once swore he wouldn't exploit. Mark Salter says the McCain campaign was not enthusiastic about the trip--the purpose of which was purportedly to check out photographs of live American POW/MIAs--because it cut into the senator's flesh-pressing at home. "The entire campaign flipped about it," Salter says.

The photographs were fakes. In some, Salter claims, bullet holes were clearly visible in soldiers' foreheads.

McCain refused to mollify the POW/MIA activists. In 1993, he forged a compromise that, in the eyes of the activists, significantly watered down legislation designed to release classified U.S. government documents on POW/MIAs.

In 1994, he supported the Clinton administration's decision to lift the trade embargo on Vietnam.

And then McCain did something to earn the undying enmity of the POW/MIA community: He pushed to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam. In a meeting at the Oval Office on May 23, 1995, McCain told President Clinton, "It doesn't matter to me anymore, Mr. President, who was for the war and who was against the war. I'm tired of looking back in anger. What's important is that we move forward now."

Salter calls McCain the catalyst for normalization. He says McCain told Clinton, "I will stand with you as you do it. I will do whatever you want me to do. . . ."

When Clinton hesitated, Salter says, McCain told him, "'This is really about 100 people,'" referring to the POW/MIA activists. "'That's all it is. Most veterans are going to have no problems with it.'

"But Clinton, for reasons we all understand . . . was incredibly apprehensive about it. We had a hard time. We told him, 'Mr. President, Lafayette Park is not going to fill with fatigue-wearing angry veterans. Nobody's going to protest this. . . . There's some suspicion that you won't do the hard things, Mr. President. And people will look at it and say, "Here's an instance where Clinton took a political risk." And you're going to get praised for this.'

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