September 29, 1999



The official announcement of Senator John McCain's presidential candidacy was greeted with hosannas by the man's many fans in the American media. He has earned their adulation not only on account of his support for campaign finance "reform," but especially because of his vocal support for the Kosovo war. McCain's vehemence on this subject, his insistence that we send in ground troops, was utilized to counter growing conservative opposition to the war in the Republican-controlled Congress. To the American and British media, who did not so much report the war as cheerlead it, this was his passport to almost unlimited air time. Second only to endless footage of Kosovar refugees in rags and in tears was seemingly endless footage of the eerily intense McCain demanding to know why NATO was making such a big deal about not hitting civilian targets. How many times did we have to hear McCain's vapidly evil slogan repeated in countless television appearances: "If we're in it, we've got to win it" – and who cares how many women and children we kill?


The image of John McCain has been burnished so brightly by the adoring media that its shining light is blinding to the casual observer. McCain is universally depicted as a war hero who endured years of torture at the hands of the Vietnamese Communists, and who bravely refused to be released while others were not. This living saint is often lauded by his media cheerleaders as having "taken the high road," not only for his stance on campaign finance but especially for his denunciation of Pat Buchanan.


McCain has made a point of going after Buchanan in the ugliest and most confrontational way, demanding that Pat hurry up and leave the GOP and sanctimoniously declaring that Pat had "dishonored the memory" of World War II veterans by writing A Republic, Not an Empire, a book that champions a revisionist history of World War II and calls for a noninterventionist foreign policy for the U.S. In his kickoff speech, McCain not only indirectly rebuked George Bush for lack of foreign policy experience, he also directed an insult at Buchanan – and the vehemence and venom in his voice was as unmistakable as his target:


"We Americans are a strong confident people. We know that in open competition our ideals, our ingenuity, and our courage ensure our success. Isolationism and protectionism are a fool's errand. We should build no walls in a futile attempt to keep the world at bay. Walls are for cowards, not for us."


Quite clearly McCain was saying that Buchanan is a coward. Buchanan's foreign policy of America First, a noninterventionist and peaceful foreign policy, in McCain's view amounts to hiding behind "walls" – the stance of a coward. With his allies in the media gang egging him on, just as they no doubt once egged on the class bully, the macho McCain thinks he can easily take out Buchanan, who is already taking heavy incoming fire from all sides. But everyone knows that if you scratch a bully, you are likely to find a real coward – and, as it turns out, McCain is a textbook example of the species.


McCain's usefulness as the liberals' favorite "conservative" makes him popular with the media elite, but it is his story that makes him interesting: from a prison cell in Hanoi to the US Senate. It almost sounds like a made-for-television movie, and one can only wonder when McCain will sell the movie rights to his book – or have they already started to speculate on what Hollywood macho man will get to play McCain? The aura of nobility and military authority that hovers over him like a halo, a veritable aurora borealis of virtue, has so far blocked any inquiries into his "war hero" bona fides. Draping himself in the flag, he wears his status as a War Hero like a protective cloak. But he can't hide his face, and on that subject I can't outdo Camille Paglia, with her ex-ray eyes and razor-sharp tongue, and so I won't even try. In her Salon column, she writes:


"The TV camera does not lie: Just as it showed from the get-go that ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was a nervous shifty, sweaty, petulant mental adolescent, so has it exposed McCain over time as a seething nest of proto-fascist impulses. Despite his recent flurry of radiant, P.R.-coached grins, McCain has the weirdly wary and over-intense eyes of Howard Hughes and the clenched, humorless jaw line of Nurse Diesel (from Mel Brooks' Hitchcock parody, 'High Anxiety'".


Well said, Camille – but there is more to it than that. The wariness and over-intensity mask a seething guilt that threatens to erupt, at any moment, like a stream of hot lava boiling up to the surface. The clenched jaw, and tightened facial muscles, the eyes that look far away into some unimaginable distance: there is something not quite right here, both in the rigid planes of his face – and in the details of his story.


In interviews, he looks away at crucial moments, as if distracted by some random memory – perhaps the memory of his time spent in a Vietnamese prison, where he reportedly endured the most excruciating tortures. In deference to his obvious pain at the memories, and in their eagerness to accept at face value what McCain's publicists are dishing out, reporters have not really delved too deeply into the details of his experience after being shot down over Hanoi. If they had, they would have long ago come to suspect that the shining war hero is holding something back, a shameful secret that reveals and perhaps explains the dark side of John McCain.


McCain was shot down on October 26, 1967, over Truc Bach Lake, near Hanoi. As I pointed out in my last column about McCain, he claimed in a US News and World Report article [May 14, 1973] that he languished in a cell for several days, his injuries untreated. Confronted with a North Vietnamese officer who was "a psychotic torturer, one of the worst fiends we had to deal with," as McCain put it, he decided to cooperate. According to his own account, McCain said: "OK, I will give you military information if you will take me to the hospital." While there are some conflicting stories about how long he was actually in that cell, he gave his first interview on October 31, with French television reporter Francois Chalais for Beirut's L'Orient, who wrote:


"This John Sidney McCain is not an ordinary prisoner. His father is none other than Admiral Edmond John McCain, Commander-in-chief of US naval forces in Europe. In a weak voice, he relates his story to me: 'I was carrying out a bombing mission, my twenty-third raid over Hanoi. It was then that I was hit. I wanted to eject but while doing so I broke both arms and my right thigh. Unconscious, I fell in a lake. Some Vietnamese jumped in the water and pulled me out. Later I learned there must have been about 12 of them. They immediately took me to a hospital, in condition two inches away from death. A doctor operated on my thigh. Others at the same time dealt with my arms."


Well, which is it, Senator McCain – did you trade military information for medical treatment, or did they take you to a hospital immediately and operate? Either way, you don't look so good – at least, not like any war hero I ever heard of.


In the course of being interviewed by Monsieur Chalais, McCain is described as smoking a cigarette and sipping a cup of coffee – amenities most American prisoners of war did not enjoy. While he was obviously acting under great duress, in this interview McCain seems just a little too eager to please his captors and the Commie Frog sent to interrogate him. Chalais asks: "How are you treated here?" McCain answers: "Very well. Everybody is very nice to me." "How is the food?" McCain grins "feebly. Obviously, the least reaction hurts him. 'This isn't Paris. But it is alright.'"


The Hanoi correspondent of Cuba's official Prensa Latina news agency cited an article in the Vietnamese Communist Party newspaper, Nhan Dan [November 9, 1967], which has McCain saying: "There is not any doubt for me, things are taking place in a favorable way for North Vietnam. In particular world opinion. At present the United States is standing [virtually] alone." No one can blame McCain for succumbing to torture: but there is some reasonable question as to whether McCain wasn't given preferential treatment from the very beginning, from the moment the Vietnamese fished him out of the lake and discovered his identity. At the very least, the popular image of McCain as the icon of the veterans and the virtual embodiment of the military virtues is challenged by the record.


On the shores of Truc Bach Lake, a monument now stands, inscribed with these words: "Here on 26 October 1967 at Truc Bach Lake in the capital city of Ha Noi, John Sidney McCain was shot out of the sky in his A4 aircraft by local citizens' militia defending Yen Phu. There were 10 other planes shot down on the same day." The monument is in the rough shape of a plane, or the severed head of a crucifix, with the kneeling figure of John McCain at its center. Head bowed in penitence, knees buckling, eyes hooded in shame, he looks like a man quite capable of saying, even some thirty years later, "I am a war criminal; I bombed innocent women and children" – as he did in an interview with Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes in 1997.


Do we want a self-described "war criminal" as the next President of the United States? Well, he wouldn't be the first. But what is so shocking is not the bland alacrity with which he admits to his alleged war crimes, but his expressed eagerness to commit them all over again – this time as the nation's Commander-in-chief. Remember, it was McCain who demanded that Clinton stop shilly-shallying around and start bombing Yugoslavia back to the Stone Age. "We're in it, and we've got to win it!" He always said it with that rictus smile, his eyes glowing with warlike fire, his voice resonant with the moral authority of a certified war hero. But as the truth about the nature and extent of his collaboration with the North Vietnamese comes out, as it inevitably will, he may find that he's in it, alright – and highly unlikely to win it.


The American people have had it up to here with phonies and hollow plaster saints. As the official story of John McCain, the heroic and altruistic War Hero begins to unravel, the American people – and perhaps even some in the American media – will take a closer look not only at the man but also at what he stands for. The dark secret at the core of his psyche, and his politics, is sure to come out – and then, perhaps, John McCain will not be so quick to call other people cowards.

Check out Justin Raimondo's article, “China and the New Cold War”

“Behind the Headlines” appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with special editions as events warrant.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).

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