OK so now yes more press attention for John S. McCain III, USN, POW, USC, GOP, 2000.com. The Rocky of Politics. The McCain Mutiny. The Real McCain. The Straight Talk Express. Internet fundraiser. Media darling. Navy flier. Middle name Sidney. Son and grandson of admirals. And a serious hard-ass—a way-Right Republican senator from one of the most politically troglodytic states in the nation. A man who opposes Roe v. Wade, gun-control, and funding for PBS; who supports the death penalty and defense buildups and constitutional amendments outlawing flag-burning and making school prayer OK. Who voted to convict at Clinton’s impeachment trial, twice. And who, starting sometime last fall, has become the great populist hope of American politics. Who wants your vote but won’t whore himself to get it, and wants you to vote for him because he won’t whore. An anticandidate. Who cares.
Facts. The 1996 presidential election had the lowest Young Voter turnout in U.S. history. The 2000 GOP primary in New Hampshire had the highest. And the experts agree that McCain drew most of them. He drew first-time and never-before voters; he drew Democrats and Independents, Libertarians and soft socialists and college kids and soccer moms and weird furtive guys whose affiliations sounded more like terrorist cells than parties, and won by 18 points, and nearly wiped the smirk off Bush2’s face. McCain has spurned soft money and bundled money and still raised millions, much of it on the Internet and a lot from people who’ve never given to a campaign before. On 7 Feb. ’00 he’s on the cover of all three major newsweeklies at once, and the Shrub is on the run. The next big vote is South Carolina, heart of the true knuckle-dragging Christian Right, where Dixie’s flag flutters proud over the Statehouse and the favorite sport is video poker and the state GOP is getting sued over its habit of not even opening polls in black areas on primary day; and when McCain’s chartered plane lands here at 0300h. on the night of his New Hampshire win, a good 500 South Carolina college students are waiting to greet him, cheering and waving signs and dancing and holding a weird kind of GOP Rave. Think about this: 500 kids at 3 A.M. out of their minds with enthusiasm for . . . a politician. “It was as if,” Time said, “[McCain] were on the cover of Rolling Stone ,” giving the Rave all kinds of attention.
And of course attention breeds attention, as any marketer can tell you. And so now more attention, from the aforementioned Ur-liberal Rolling Stone itself, whose editors send the least professional pencil they can find to spend a week on the campaign with McCain and Time and the Times and CNN and MSNBC and MTV and all the rest of this country’s great digital engine of public fuss. Does John McCain deserve all this? Is the attention real attention, or just hype? Is there a difference? Can it help him get elected? Should it?
A better question: Do you even give a shit whether McCain can or ought to win. Since you’re digitally cutting-edge enough to buy something you can read only on your PC or Rocket-e or PDA or whatever, the chances are good that you are an American between say 18 and 40, which demographically would make you a Young Voter. And no generation of Young Voters has ever cared less about politics and politicians than yours. There’s hard demographic and voter-pattern data backing this up . . . assuming you give a shit about data. In fact, even if you’ve already paid your $4.95 Download Fee or whatever, the chances are probably only about fifty-fifty that you’ll read this whole document once you’ve seen what it’s really about—such is the enormous shuddering yawn that the Political Process tends to evoke in us, especially now, in this post-Watergate-post-Iran-Contra-post-Whitewater-post-Lewinsky era, an era when politicians’ statements of principle or vision are understood as self-serving ad copy and judged not for their truth or ability to inspire but for their tactical shrewdness, their marketability. And no generation has been marketed and Spun and pitched to as ingeniously and relentlessly as today’s demographic Young. So when Senator John McCain says, in Michigan or SC, “I run for president not to Be Somebody, but to Do Something,” it’s hard to hear it as anything more than a marketing angle, especially when he says it as he’s going around surrounded by cameras and reporters and cheering crowds . . . in other words, Being Somebody.
And when Senator John McCain also says—constantly, thumping it hard at the start and end of every speech and THM—that his goal as president will be “to inspire young Americans to devote themselves to causes greater than their own self-interest,” it’s hard not to hear it as just one more piece of the carefully scripted bullshit that presidential candidates hand us as they go about the self-interested business of trying to become the most powerful, important, and talked-about human being on earth, which is of course their real “cause,” a cause to which they appear to be so deeply devoted that they can swallow and spew whole mountains of noble-sounding bullshit and convince even themselves they mean it. Cynical as that may sound, polls show it’s how most of us feel. And it’s beyond not believing the bullshit; mostly we don’t even hear it, dismiss it at the same deep level, below attention, where we also block out billboards and Muzak.
One of the things that makes John McCain’s “causes greater than self-interest” line harder to dismiss, though, is that this guy also sometimes says things that are manifestly true but which no other mainstream candidate will say. Such as that special-interest money, billions of it, controls Washington and that all this “reforming politics” and “cleaning up Washington” stuff that every candidate talks about will remain impossible until certain well-known campaign-finance scams like soft money and bundles are outlawed. All Congress’s talk about health-care reform and a Patients’ Bill of Rights, for example, McCain has said publicly is total bullshit because the GOP is in the pocket of HMO lobbies and the Democrats are funded and controlled by trial lawyers’ lobbies, and it is in these backers’ self-interest to see that the current insane U.S. health-care system stays just the way it is.
But health-care reform is politics, and so’s marginal tax rates, and defense procurement, and Social Security, and politics is boring—complex, abstract, dry, the province of policy wonks and Rush Limbaugh and nerdy little guys on PBS, and basically who cares.
But there’s something underneath politics here, something riveting and unSpinnable and true. It has to do with McCain’s military background and Vietnam combat and the five-plus years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison, mostly in solitary, in a box-sized cell, getting tortured and starved. And with the unbelievable honor and balls he showed there. It’s very easy to gloss over the POW thing, partly because we’ve all heard so much about it and partly because it’s so off-the-charts dramatic, like something in a movie instead of a man’s real life. But it’s worth considering for a minute, carefully, because it’s what makes McCain’s “causes greater than self-interest” thing easier to hear.
Here’s what happened. In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and was flying his 26Vietnam 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 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. (There is still an N.V. statue of McCain by this lake today, showing him on his knees with his hands up and eyes scared and on the pediment the inscription “McCan—famous air pirate” [sic].) Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the lifevest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of North 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 90º to the side with the bone sticking out. This is all public record. Try to imagine it. He finally got tossed on a Jeep and taken only like 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. The media profiles all 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 a general would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened. He was mostly delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then, after he’d hung on like like that for several months and his bones had mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up, they brought him to the prison commandant’s office and closed the door and out of nowhere offered to let him go. They said he could just . . . leave. It turned out that U.S. Admiral John S. McCain II had just been made head of all naval forces in the Pacific, meaning also Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. And John S. McCain III, 100 lbs and barely able to stand, refused the offer. 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 way longer time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The prison commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break McCain’s ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. Forget how many movies stuff like this happens in and try to imagine it as real. Refusing release. He spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a special closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different profiles of McCain this year. It’s overexposed, true. Still though, take a second or two to do some creative visualization and imagine the moment between McCain getting offered early release and his 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: What difference would one less POW make? Plus maybe it’d give the other POWs hope and keep them going, and I mean 100 pounds and expected to die and surely the Code of Conduct doesn’t apply to you if you need a real doctor or else you’re going to die, plus if you could stay alive by getting out you could make a promise to God to do nothing but Total Good from now on and make the world better and so your accepting would be better for the world than your refusing, and maybe if Dad wasn’t worried about the Vietnamese retaliating against you here in prison he could prosecute the war more aggressively and end it sooner and actually save lives so you could actually save lives if you took the offer and got out versus what real purpose gets served by you staying here in a box and getting beaten to death, and by the way oh Jesus imagine it a real doctor and real surgery and painkillers and clean sheets and a chance to heal and not be in agony and to see your kids again, your wife, to smell your wife’s hair . . . can you hear it? What would be happening in your head? Would you have refused the offer? Could you have? You can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the levels of pain and fear and want in that moment, much less to know how you’d react. None of us can know.
But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, mostly in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know , for a proven fact , that he is capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches now you can feel like maybe it’s not just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it’s maybe the truth. Or maybe both the truth and bullshit: McCain does want your vote, after all.
But that moment in the Hoa Lo office in ’68—right before he refused, with all his basic normal human self-interest howling at him—that moment is hard to blow off. All week, all through MI and SC and all the tedium and cynicism and paradox of the campaign (see sub ), that moment seems to underlie McCain’s “greater than self-interest” line, moor it, give it a weird sort of reverb it’s hard to ignore. The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered—voluntarily, for a Code. This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of Spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them. And yes, literally: “moral authority,” that old cliché, much like so many other clichés—“service,” “honor,” “duty,” “patriotism”—that have become just mostly words now, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us. The John McCain of recent seasons, though—arguing for his doomed campaign-finance bill on the Senate floor in ’98, calling his colleagues crooks to their faces on C-SPAN, talking openly about a bought-and-paid-for government on Charlie Rose in July ’99, unpretentious and bright as hell in the Iowa debates and New Hampshire THMs—something about him made a lot of us feel the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or dollars, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a smell from childhood or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us hear clichés as more than just clichés and start trying to think about what terms like “service” and “sacrifice” and “honor” might really refer to, like whether they actually stood for something, maybe. To think about whether anything past well-Spun self-interest might be real, was ever real, and if so then what happened? These, for the most part, are not lines of thinking that the culture we’ve grown up in has encouraged Young Voters to pursue. Why do you suppose that is?