Fifty-four years ago today, a U.S. Naval Academy grad flying his 23rd combat mission in Vietnam came under heavy anti-aircraft fire over Hanoi. When the flak took one of the wings off his A-4 Skyhawk, the Navy flier hit his eject button. But with the aircraft in distress, the pilot's exit from the cockpit didn't go smoothly; he was slammed into his own plane, breaking a kneecap and both arms before his parachute even opened.
As I noted when writing about this episode previously, the ordeal of Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III was only beginning.
Tangled in his parachute, John McCain risked drowning in Hanoi's White Bamboo Lake when he was fished out of the water by local peasants and soldiers. This wasn't an act of mercy: Once on shore, McCain was beaten savagely. His left shoulder was smashed with a rifle butt, and he was bayonetted in the groin and the ankle, before being thrown into the back of a truck and driven to prison.
Built by the French in 1901, the facility was officially named Hoa Lo Prison. Unofficially, the Americans held there amid squalor, deprivation, and frequent torture sessions called it something else. The name was coined by Robert Shumaker, another U.S. Navy lieutenant commander shot down over North Vietnam. He dubbed it the "Hanoi Hilton." The name stuck.
Much has been written about John McCain's time in captivity there, including riveting accounts in books by two pals of mine, Robert Timberg and Mark Salter. It's a story that cannot be told in its entirety in my brief morning missive. It's a story worth knowing, however, and its relevance didn't dissipate when McCain ended up losing the presidency to Barack Obama. We're in political debate season now, at least in Virginia, which brings to mind John McCain's first campaign, and a candidate debate that set him on an eventual path to becoming a U.S. senator and later the 2008 Republican Party presidential nominee.
The scene was Phoenix, the year 1982. The retirement of Rep. John Rhodes had created an unexpected vacancy in Arizona's 1st Congressional District, which then included much of the state capital where McCain was living with his second wife, Cindy. He was an attractive new face in a district where winning the GOP primary was tantamount to election. More seasoned Republican officeholders had better claims on the seat, however, and they resented the interloper who'd lived in the state only briefly.
McCain was getting hammered on the carpetbagger issue, and responding ineffectively until one candidate forum when he heard the question for what he said seemed like the "thousandth time." Then, as recounted in Timberg's book "The Nightingale's Song," McCain said what was really on his mind:
"Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy," he began. "My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things.
"As a matter of fact, when I think about it now," he continued, "the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."
Timberg related what happened next: "The audience sat for several seconds in shocked silence, then broke into thunderous applause."
That House election was essentially over, and McCain never lost another campaign in Arizona, though he did fall short in the 2000 Republican presidential primary season against George W. Bush – and fell short again in 2008 in the general election against Barack Obama. Even so, McCain managed to get in the last word. He did so, in classic John McCain fashion. In 2018, while fighting the cancer that would prove fatal, McCain surprised both Bush and Obama by asking them to speak at his funeral.
"Now, when John called me with that request earlier this year, I'll admit sadness and also a certain surprise," Obama said during his eulogy. "After our conversation ended, I realized how well it captured some of John's essential qualities.
"To start with, John liked being unpredictable, even a little contrarian," Obama continued. "He had no interest in conforming to some prepackaged version of what a senator should be and he didn't want a memorial that was going to be prepackaged either. It also showed John's disdain for self-pity. He had been to hell and back and yet somehow never lost his energy or his optimism or his zest for life. So cancer did not scare him."
"And he would maintain that buoyant spirit to the very end, too stubborn to sit still, as ever, fiercely devoted to his friends and most of all to his family," Obama said. "It showed his irreverence, his sense of humor, a little bit of a mischievous streak. What better way to get a last laugh than make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience? And most of all, it showed a largeness of spirit. An ability to see past differences in search of common ground."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.