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Two “must read” stories from John McCain’s career

You think you know about John McCain.  But there are probably some stories that may not be so fresh in your mind after some years of having read them or heard about them.

Since McCain’s passing, you’ve seen the town hall video.  You’ve seen the stuff about the Keating Five.  And you’ve heard that he was a POW in Hanoi.

McCain’s biography is complex and multi-layered.  There is a lot there to like and to dislike.

All of that said, however, there are two stories that have been in the reporting over the years that are “must read” stories about John McCain.  They are viscerally powerful reminders of the service he provided to the country.

“Reagan, McCain and Sam McGhee”

From a short December, 1999, article in the conservative Weekly Standard with McCain ahead of the 2000 Iowa caucus and NH primary.

But two weekends ago, as he was campaigning across New Hampshire, a team of comics with a camera crew from the cable network Comedy Central clambered aboard his campaign bus to enlist him in their own little game of gotcha.

Who’s your favorite poet? they asked McCain.

According to the cosmology of the sophisticates at Comedy Central, politicians are not supposed to have favorite poets.

McCain hesitated, and then said, “Robert Service, I guess.”

Okay, the comedians pressed as the cameras rolled, then recite some of his poetry.

Gotcha? Here again, the Comedy Central team revealed their own provincialism. They were apparently ignorant of one of the ironclad rules of modern poetry: Anyone who likes Robert Service can recite Robert Service. By the yard.

And that’s what McCain did. After a bumpy push-off, by one witness’s account, he ran through all 14 stanzas of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” Service’s great ballad that deathlessly begins

There are strange things done in the
midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run
cold . . .

On the bus in New Hampshire, the wise-asses from Comedy Central were apparently impressed with McCain’s performance. As they were breaking down their camera equipment, McCain mentioned offhandedly how he had come to memorize “Sam McGee.”

“The guy in the cell next to me,” he said, “it was his favorite poem. He used to tap it to me on the wall, in Morse Code. That’s how I memorized it.”

“The Weasel, the Twelve Monkeys, and the shrub”

This 20,000 word piece in Rolling Stone by David Foster Wallace is amazing for a number of reasons, including the author, the magazine’s history of covering presidential races, and of course, the focus of the story himself.  It is perhaps the most comprehensive account of either of McCain’s two presidential campaigns – or almost any presidential race in the last 20 years.

You probably already know what happened. In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb.

His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons.

McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this.

He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this.

All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened. He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go.

This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused, The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code.

The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.”

Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? It so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.