For those of us who were invested in the war in Vietnam, the death of Senator John McCain brings a special sadness. It’s hard to think of another figure whose rise in politics was so associated with his service in our expedition against the communist conquest of Indochina. That’s what we will be thinking about when the senator lies in state in the Congress that betrayed the war in which he rose to glory.
It was in 1970 at Saigon that we first glimpsed what it meant to be a McCain. We were covering a conference whose attendees were dressed in either Army green or dark suits. From the steps of the hall, we were overlooking a crowd when a motorcade hauled up and out stepped a military figure dressed in almost blindingly brilliant white. The crowd parted as if for a demigod, who turned out to be the commander-in-chief of the Pacific, Admiral John S. McCain Jr.
The admiral’s son and future senator was at the time being held in a dungeon in Hanoi. The admiral, we later heard, had gone to the Demilitarized Zone that separated communist and free Vietnam. He’d ordered his security detail to hang back, while he stood alone, staring north toward where his son was being held. The admiral would later relay President Nixon’s orders to bomb the city where his son was imprisoned.
Such was the courage that set the example that Senator McCain, by his own account, tried — and, we would add, managed — to live up to. The future senator was among the American POWs who were in a secret prayer meeting that was broken up by a North Vietnamese guard. The enemy pointed his rifle at the forehead of the prayer-group’s ringleader, Colonel George “Bud” Day, who reacted by singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” All prisoners present joined in.
It is a remarkable feature of McCain’s life that he emerged from the war with a capacity for working with his political foes. It was an instinct that led to some of his most humiliating defeats. His most famous legislation, the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act,” passed in 2002, was crafted with a left-of-center Democrat, Russell Feingold, only to be largely struck down by the Supreme Court, which found it to be riddled with violations of the Constitution.
His bipartisan instinct had its limits, as when, in 2004, the Democrats nominated Senator Kerry for president. Mr. Kerry had served in Vietnam but joined the anti-war movement even while McCain was being held in communist prison camps. Desperate to obscure that history, Mr. Kerry had asked McCain, a Republican, to consider being his vice-presidential running mate. McCain, in his most admirable political decision, refused.
Lucky for him. Not only did Mr. Kerry lose, and largely over his record during Vietnam, but he also abandoned the war he’d voted for in Iraq. McCain stuck with it (as he’d stuck with Vietnam). He was among the senators who backed the Iraq troop surge, which was called for by President Bush and helped win the military fight in Iraq, and he opposed any abandonment of the Iraq war. Had America taken his advice, we’d be better off today.
Why Americans forsook McCain for president will be an enduring question. Some will blame his running mate, Governor Palin (though she would have campaigned in Michigan, a state that another failed nominee, Hillary Clinton, famously forsook). Some will say he was bested by President Obama’s superior performance on the stump. Others will fault McCain himself for running away from President Bush (as Vice President Gore ran away from President Clinton).
It’s often said that the Vietnam War in which McCain fought was the first that America lost, even if it was our Congress that voted to abandon the fight. That would make McCain’s heroism in Vietnam a reminder that it is better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all. Vietnam, moreover, was part of, in the Cold War, a larger struggle that America won. For his role in Vietnam and in supporting President Reagan’s hard line against the Soviet Union, John McCain will forever be owed a portion of the glory of America’s victory.