The Myth That Won't Die

John McCain is no longer a substantively important figure in American politics. As a member of the minority party in the Senate, he chairs no committees. He is not a leader among his peers. Since losing in his second run for president, he continued his decades-long record of not bothering to engage in the legislating part of being a legislator (over a three-decade-long career, McCain has exactly one significant piece of legislation to his name, a law that was overturned by the Supreme Court). Yet he continues to be a politically important figure, appearing on the Sunday shows more often than anyone else and having his ideas and his opinions regularly reported on.

Which is why I simply must speak up now that the biggest myth about John McCain is cropping up again. It's the idea that, noble and modest as he is, McCain has always been terribly reluctant to discuss the fact that he was a POW in Vietnam. This came up over the past couple of days in a House race in Illinois, where classy Congressman Joe Walsh is being challenged by Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, who lost parts of both legs when her helicopter was shot down. Walsh complains that Duckworth talks too much about her military service, which means she's not a "true hero," and justifies his gripe thusly:

"Understand something about John McCain. His political advisors, day after day, had to take him and almost throw him against the wall, and hit him against the head, and say 'Senator, you have to let people know you served. You have to talk about what you did.' He didn’t want to do it, wouldn't do it," Walsh told the crowd at the town hall meeting. "I'm running against a woman who, I mean, my God, that’s all she talks about. Our true heroes, the men and women who served us, it’s the last thing in the world they talk about."

We can debate whether true heroes talk about their service or not, and it's certainly true that being a veteran does not in and of itself qualify you for public office. But saying that John McCain was reluctant to talk about his Vietnam experience is like saying that Mitt Romney is reluctant to talk about the fact that he had a business career, or that Rick Perry was reluctant to talk about the fact that he's from Texas, or that Sarah Palin was reluctant to talk about her affection for America. John McCain built his career on his POW history. It was the centerpiece of every race he ever ran. That this myth persists is simply insane. Allow me to excerpt a column I wrote back in 2008:

The truth is that McCain's Vietnam story is the foundation on which his entire career has been built, starting with his first run for Congress in 1982. Accused by his opponent (completely accurately) of being a carpetbagger, McCain responded that people in the military move around a lot, and "the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi." (Dramatic though the moment was, his claim wasn't true; he had lived longer in Virginia). When he got caught in the Keating Five scandal, he responded to reporters' inquiries with, "Even the Vietnamese didn't question my ethics."

As McCain's career proceeded, every key moment was marked by repetitions of the tale of his trials in Vietnam. He became a national figure when he gave a speech at the 1996 Republican convention, discussing his time as a POW. His 2000 presidential campaign aired ads highlighting his war record, and even sold posters of McCain from his time in Vietnam, pictured in his flight suit. His current campaign has featured television ads and web videos telling the story of his time in the "Hanoi Hilton, not to mention gimmicks like the "Service to America Tour," a series of visits to places that highlighted his military history. McCain brings up Vietnam in contexts both serious and lighthearted (one of his favorite jokes is to say of an unpleasant interview, a lost legislative battle, or a game in which his team comes up short, "I haven't had so much fun since my last interrogation").

He also uses his captivity to deflect difficult questions. When George Stephanopoulos confronted him with an argument made by Elizabeth Edwards—that McCain had benefited from government health insurance nearly his whole life, and perhaps the rest of the public deserves something just as good—McCain pulled out his trump card. "It's a cheap shot, but I did have a period of time where I didn't have very good healthcare, I had it from another government," he said.

And McCain knows how to wield his POW story for its maximum culture war effect. When it was revealed that Hillary Clinton had requested a $1 million earmark for a museum in upstate New York commemorating the Woodstock concert, McCain's response could have been summed up in three words: screw you, hippie! "Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock concert museum," he said during a primary debate. "Now, my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time." Tied up—get it? His campaign liked the line so much they made an ad out of it, interspersing shots of McCain in the POW camp with scenes of Woodstock and psychedelic graphics.

I never argued that McCain didn't have the right to talk about his Vietnam experience as much as he wants to. It was his history, and voters could decide whether it made him qualified to be president (they evidently decided it didn't). But what drove me crazy, and continues to drive me crazy, is the myth of McCain being so desperately reluctant to mention it. He wasn't—not when he first ran for office 30 years ago, not in any of his Senate runs, not in his two presidential runs, not ever.

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