I first met John McCain in the early 1990s, when he joined with John Kerry and other Vietnam veterans in Congress in a successful effort to extinguish the POW-MIA myth, which was exploiting military families with the false hope that the Vietnamese were secretly holding their loved ones captive in the Southeast Asian jungles.
More than a few greedy bad guys had a financial stake in perpetuating the Rambo myth. And various extremists, of left and right, had cynically fueled the conspiracy tales for their own political purpose.
Kerry and McCain had little to gain by taking on the POW tar baby. They and the rest of that band of brothers—Tom Daschle, Bob Kerrey, Chuck Robb, Chuck Grassley, and others—did so out of a sense of honor and obligation. Most of them saw the POW myth as an obstacle to closure at home and a hurdle to a necessary American rapprochement with Vietnam.
Kerry chaired the committee, but McCain was the essential man. He had suffered at the Hanoi Hilton. The POW story was real to him, not some fantasy for selling black flags. And as a former POW, he had the moral high ground to defy and condemn the exploiters—and to gently say "no" to the families of those who still hoped, in some miracle, that their lost, loved sons or husbands or dads would one day walk out of Laos or Cambodia and into their embrace.
It was then that the first "Manchurian Candidate" stories were spread about McCain. The exploiters fought back by claiming that he had been brainwashed by the Vietnamese or was mentally unstable from the years of torture he endured. They kept at it for years, hounding his 2000 presidential campaign, contributing to his defeat at the hands of George W. Bush.
I cherished the story, never confirmed, that McCain had confronted one of these creeps in a hallway of the Capitol and, crippled arms and all, connected with at least one good punch.
Their POW mission accomplished, the Senate vets took on another essential role in salving the wounds left by Vietnam. McCain and Kerry were the indispensable wingmen for Bill Clinton, who had evaded the draft during the war. So McCain and the others gave Clinton the political cover he needed to extend diplomatic ties to Vietnam.
In the course of my reporting, I came across the tale of McCain and David Ifshin. Those with long memories may recall Ifshin as the "Tokyo Rose" of the Vietnam War—the antiwar activist who traveled to Hanoi and gave the enemy aid and comfort by denouncing the U.S. military from Vietnamese soil. As I remember it, it was Ifshin who set up Jane Fonda's notorious visit to the enemy, where she posed at a North Vietnamese antiaircraft battery—the kind of guns that were shooting down guys like John McCain. For the POWs who endured torture because they would not denounce their country, Ifshin was fit to occupy a special place in hell.
So I was astonished at McCain's capacity for forgiveness when I heard that, after returning home from captivity, he had met with and been reconciled with Ifshin. The magnanimity of that act, and the deep humility it required, on the part of both men, moved me then, and moves me now. You can read about it on McCain's campaign website.
When I covered McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, rode the Straight Talk Express, saw him inspire the crowds in New Hampshire, and wrote about his Vietnam experiences, I forfeited my objectivity, I'm afraid.
Here is an excerpt from my campaign profile:
"The closeness of the relationship that we developed in prison is hard to adequately describe," McCain says. "And the senior officers, especially, recognized that many of us were weak, and sometimes didn't do too well under the pressure of our interrogators, as perhaps we would have liked to. They displayed compassion by encouraging us, even if we had failed, to go back again and do better next time."
It is a lesson he never forgot.
"Oh yeah. Oh yeah," McCain says, sitting in a straight-backed chair, his elbows on his knees, staring at the floor as he answers the question. "Recognition of my own failures had the obvious result of making me a lot more tolerant of the failings of others.
"There are individual Vietnamese who, if I saw them again, I am sure I would attempt to inflict some physical punishment," he says. "But the South Vietnamese were our allies and friends, and they are now part of overall Vietnam.
"And my job . . . was to help the healing and reconciliation process, so we could give help to those Vietnam veterans who had not come all the way home, to continue that journey," McCain says.
This year, I've been searching, vainly, for that John McCain. And I admit to feeling betrayed, or manipulated, when the guy I so admired a decade ago now acts like just another Rovian creation. I hope, since he very well may get elected, that the old McCain is alive in that campaign construct somewhere and that his real, generous self will eventually win out over ambition and the mean necessities of politics.
But things aren't looking good. McCain's allies are spreading their own "Manchurian Candidate" fantasies about Barack Obama and Islamic terrorism. Their latest outrage is a television ad that ties Obama to the 9/11 attacks because of his acquaintance, in Chicago politics, with an old Sixties radical, William Ayers, who joined a violent antiwar group 40 years ago, when Obama was 8 years old.
As my colleague Michael Barone points out in typically top form, the forces that brought the aging Ayers in contact with Obama tell a uniquely Chicago story, a tale of nepotism and ward politics—but one that has nothing to do with terrorism, 9/11, Vietnam, or violence.
Indeed, by the twisted logic of the Ayers ad, the Democrats would be justified in running their own commercial tying McCain to 9/11 via Ifshin and Jane Fonda.
I know how McCain could secure my vote. He could recognize the Ayers calumny for what it is—an exploitative attempt to divide Americans in a time of war and to rip open the wounds of Vietnam, which McCain and the others worked so hard to close.
He could order those ads off the air. But he won't.