In 1980, I was a political reporter in Alabama, covering the U.S. Senate race. The candidates were Jim Folsom Jr., son of a former governor, and Jeremiah Denton, who had spent seven years, seven months as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam.
Alabama hadn’t sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since George Spencer, husband of famous Latina actress “May” Nunez. After Spencer left office in 1879, no Republican had ever won a statewide office in Alabama (not counting a Senate seat in 1962 that a Republican won but the Democrats managed to steal).
As the election neared, Democrats became frantic that Denton might break the Democrats’ century-old monopoly on the state’s major offices. So the state Democratic Party chairman, George Lewis Bailes, went after Denton’s war record. Denton, Bailes said, was “dumb” to get himself shot down.
Right up ’til the election, the campaign was dominated with talk about what Bailes had said.
Denton won with 50.15 percent of the vote. Bailes resigned as Democratic chairman.
There’s something about POW heroes that unhinges some people.
Yes, it seems strange that, when we think of American heroes from the Vietnam War era, so many of the heroes we think about are men who were captured by the enemy. The war itself was a noble cause, to protect an ally from invasion and occupation by mass murderers from the Communist Party, but, managed by [insert sarcasm] experts like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson and Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security advisor, Vietnam was a quagmire and, ultimately, America’s greatest defeat prior to the Obama administration.
I think that it became so painful to think of the war, and anti-American liars like Jane Fonda and John Kerry had so poisoned our image of servicemembers and veterans, that Americans of that era focused on the nobility of many of the POWs—men whose suffering for our country and for the cause of freedom was almost Christlike.
In 1981, I became press secretary for Senator Denton. (See my tribute at http://capitalresearch.org/2014/04/jeremiah-denton-defiant/ .) Denton, eight years and more after his return, still showed signs of having been tortured. He had numbness in his fingers, and he tended to close his eyes when talking to you, which the nastier leftwing journalists took as a sign that something was wrong with him.
I met a number of these men, former POWs, including Everett Alvarez, who later served as a top official at the Peace Corps and the Veterans Administration, and Orson Swindle, who later served on the Federal Trade Commission, and Jim Stockdale, who was Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992. (Stockdale was one of the most brilliant men ever to run for high office in the U.S., but his reputation was tarnished by a poor performance in the vice presidential debate, to which he had been invited only a few days earlier. There’s a good piece here about the attitude that got him through his travails in Vietnam: http://www.ndoherty.com/stockdale-paradox/ )
And, of course, there was John McCain. (See http://www.newsweek.com/sorry-trump-story-john-mccain-war-hero-355617 , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McCain , and http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2008/09/staying_at_the_hanoi_hilton.html .)
Did I say that people get unhinged about POWs?
Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation, wrote a column in 2000 suggesting slyly that McCain was a Communist spy, perhaps a “Manchurian Candidate” in the manner of the brainwashed POW of the original movie. “The Cambodian Khmer Rouge has claimed that ‘McCain is a Vietnamese agent,’ for what it’s worth,” he wrote.
(The best explanation for Weyrich’s bizarre comment? At the time, a number of conservative leaders like Weyrich had talked themselves into believing that George W. Bush would govern as a conservative, and McCain was the main obstacle to Bush’s nomination for president. The great irony is that McCain was the only Reagan supporter ever nominated by a major party for president of the United States, not counting Reagan himself. Of course, by the time he was nominated, McCain had completed his transition from the pro-Reagan to anti-Reagan wing of the GOP.)
More examples of being unhinged?
Al Franken (D-Minnesota), who would be elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008, said something in 2000 that was very close to Trump’s comment about McCain, arguably, at the end, much worse: “I have tremendous respect for McCain but I don’t buy the war hero thing. Anybody can be captured. I thought the idea was to capture them. As far as I’m concerned he sat out the war.”
Then there’s Chris Rock in 2008, speaking of McCain: “He a war hero. He a war hero. He a war hero that got captured. There’s a lot of guys in jail that got captured. I don’t want to vote for nobody that got captured. I want to vote for the motherf***** that got away.”
During the 2008 campaign, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) ridiculed McCain as “a fighter pilot, who dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet. He was long gone when they hit. What happened when they [the missiles] get to the ground? He doesn’t know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into those issues.”
In 2008, McCain was mocked for not using a computer (see http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/obama_mocks_mccains_computer_skills/ ), even though his political organization was one of the first to take advantage of early 21st Century Information Technology. Of course, McCain can’t us a computer because, as the Boston Globe noted in 2000, “McCain’s severe war injuries prevent him from combing his hair, typing on a keyboard, or tying his shoes.” (In contrast: Hillary Clinton’s recent comments about e-mail showed she doesn’t understand how it works, yet she isn’t widely ridiculed for her ignorance. As I reported in 1999, Al Gore at that time didn’t know how URLs—Internet addresses—work, and his kids were frustrated by his refusal to use e-mail, yet he was characterized as Mr. Internet. And, back in 1996, liberals like Cokie Roberts actually made fun of Bob Dole for mentioning his website during a presidential debate.)
And here’s a comment about McCain that I suppose is within the bounds of fair political criticism, but, in retrospect, seems bizarre: Retired General Wesley Clark, who ran for president himself in 2004, said in 2008 that McCain was “untested” and “untried,” in contrast to Barack Obama, who, Clark said, was running on “the strength of his character,” his “communications skills,” and his “judgment.”
Here’s what Donald Trump said at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa:
Trump: Let’s take John McCain. I’m in Phoenix, we have a meeting that is going to have 500 people at the Biltmore Hotel. We get a call from the hotel, it is turmoil, thousands and thousands of people are showing up, four days before they’re pitching tents. The hotel says we can’t handle this it is going to destroy the hotel, we move it to the convention center, we have 15,000 people. The biggest one ever. Bigger than anybody Bernie Sanders, bigger than anybody and everyone knows it… Wonderful, great Americans… John McCain goes, “oh boy, Trump makes my life difficult, he had fifteen thousand crazies show up, he called them all crazy. I said, they weren’t crazy, they were great Americans… I know what a crazy is, I know all about crazy, These weren’t crazy. So he insulted me, and he insulted everyone in that room. So I said, somebody should run against John McCain — and I supported him for president, I raised a million dollars for the guy, that’s a lot of money. I supported him, he lost, he let us down. He lost, so I never liked him as much after that. I don’t like losers.
Frank Luntz, interviewer: But he is a war hero, five and a half years as a prisoner of war.
Trump: He is not a ‘war hero.’ He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured, let me tell you. He’s a war hero. Because he was captured, and I believe perhaps he is a war hero, but right now he’s said a lot of very bad things about a lot of people. So what I said, is: John McCain, I disagree with him, these people aren’t crazy, and, very importantly, I speak the truth, he graduated last in his class at Annapolis [the Naval Academy], nobody knows that. I said he graduated last or second to last, he graduated last at Annapolis. And he was upset, for what? For telling the truth. You’re not supposed to say that somebody graduated last or second to last, because you’re supposed to be very nice.
No, it’s no excuse that Trump said McCain “I believe perhaps he is a war hero” right after he ridiculed him as someone who was a war hero because he was captured, as if being captured on your 23rd mission were evidence of a character flaw. Saying something offensive, then saying something that contradicts that, is called the Obama Maneuver. It allows you to say what you really think and then take it back. If your opponents point out the first remark, the leftwing news media can point to the second remark and attack you for taking the first comment out of context.
Barack Obama said “You didn’t build that” and clearly meant it, with all its scary implications. But he caught himself and added, “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” Then he went on to reiterate the first point, confident that, if he was called out, his flacks could point to the on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand part.
Likewise, Michelle Obama said in a campaign speech that, due to her husband’s nomination for president, “For the first time in my adult lifetime I am proud of my country.” In a later speech she said that, “For the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country,” suggesting that she was kinda proud of her country earlier but now ever more so. Of course, most of the major media showed the second clip of Michelle, ignoring the earlier comment, in order to make it appear that her critics were exaggerating when they talked about the first clip.
Nor does it justify Trump’s comments to point to McCain’s behavior, that he unfairly tosses terms like “wacko birds” and “crazies” at people with whom he disagrees. You don’t justify bad behavior by pointing to someone else’s bad behavior.
Nor does it matter that McCain, nowadays, is a pretty bad Senator.
Nor does it matter if Trump apologizes after he realizes that he has to, for political reasons.
Trump’s sarcasm about McCain’s status as a war hero was directed at every POW—you know, at all those who were so stupid as to get themselves caught, ’cause any fool can get himself caught, especially if he’s such a boob that he believes in this country and such a loser that he is willing to risk death and torture to fight for this country. That’s the sort of loser that Donald Trump most definitely is not.