They are old men now, some with thinning hair and paunches, more mellow, even serene—a far cry from the vigorous, cocky young officers who were ready to take on the world, and the enemy, a generation ago. They are still proud of their military service and love telling war stories, even if a few of the details have gotten a bit fuzzy. But one thing stands out—their admiration for John McCain, with whom they served and suffered as prisoners of war in North Vietnam.
McCain's "POW buddies" have spoken up for him at political events, but it is clear that, for them, the tales of his toughness and defiance through 5½ years in captivity are more than just campaign spin. They are real-life examples of heroism, described with a catch in their voices or tears in their eyes.
Orson Swindle, 71, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who shared a cement pad with McCain at the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison, says McCain turned down a chance to go home because he believed that those captured before him should be freed first (consistent with the U.S. military's Code of Conduct's prohibition on accepting favors from the enemy). "He chose probably to die," says Swindle, who now lives in Alexandria, Va. "That, my friend, is character beyond what most of us can understand." George "Bud" Day, 83, recalls meeting McCain in 1967 when the future presidential candidate was in desperate shape, with two fractured arms and a broken knee, "filthy, sweating, feverish." "But John refused to die," adds Day, now a lawyer in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
Relevance. What does any of this have to do with being president? "Character—that's what John brings to the job," says Day. "You don't become a leader by osmosis." Ex-POW John Borling, 68, says military service taught McCain the importance of candor—in contrast, Borling argues, to Democratic nominee Barack Obama. "Obama has mastered the art of telling people what they want to hear," contends Borling, a former Air Force major general who is now an energy company executive in Rockford, Ill. "John McCain has mastered the art of telling people what they need to hear."
Frank Gamboa, 75, who was McCain's classmate and friend at the Naval Academy, offers another view of McCain's past. He recalls how McCain tried to deter upperclassmen from abusing others, including younger cadets and stewards in the mess hall, even when it meant drawing more abuse to himself. Adds Gamboa, a retired Navy captain who lives in Fairfax, Va.: "He became our moral compass."
The question is how much McCain's wartime service and his POW experience will matter to voters now. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, has said that being a POW is not a qualification for being president. Senior advisers to Obama say that McCain's time as a POW and his military experience should be "honored" but not confused with the judgment and understanding of the modern world that are needed in the White House today.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says McCain's POW experience seems disconnected from his political career and strikes many voters as an artifact from another era. In fact, Garin adds, McCain, 72, appears part of the World War II generation "lost in time," so his military background seems less relevant to current problems. Other McCain critics wondered if his military experiences made him too bellicose and macho in dealing with other nations.
But Americans have been drawn to military leaders throughout history, starting with former Gen. George Washington. There are two categories of warrior president. On the one hand, there are men who have led the troops from the top, such as Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Dwight Eisenhower. On the other hand, there are those who have actually done the fighting and emerged as war heroes, such as Theodore Roosevelt, John. F. Kennedy, and George H. W. Bush.
One could make a case that in the White House, the track record of the fighting men has been more consistently successful than that of the former generals and other senior officers. Perhaps that's because the fighting men learned how things really worked from the bottom up and saw firsthand the realities of human nature.
In the end, McCain's POW buddies present a strong case. Their praise for McCain is not the only factor that voters may have in mind, given today's economic distress and other pressing domestic problems. But their main point is a simple one, that character counts.